Jan. 10th, 2016

We've just spent the afternoon with, Mariko, a friend of Junko, which included a visit to a shrine in Osaka for the Ebisu Festival (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebisu_%28mythology%29). The size of the crowd was impressive and it took a small army of police to marshall us into the shrine. As we entered the shrine building itself we were funnelled past Shinto priests shaking what looked like white paper streamers on the ends of sticks. Apparently, this was to cleanse our spirits. We then made our way to the steps of the shrine where, among a huge crowd, we tossed a coin into the trough and said a short prayer to ask what we wished for in the coming year. (Mine was not to be struck on the back of the head by a flying coin.)

Along the route to the shrine and inside the grounds were stalls selling snacks of all kinds and entertainment stalls you might see in a British fairground. On our way out we bought a small pottery fish containing a scroll. This told you your fortune for the coming year. When Junko translated it for me all I could think of was 'Love Hearts' and astrology pages. An awful lot of thought had gone into these things and I couldn’t help but wonder just how sincere the people who composed them were. Which gets me thinking rather heretical thoughts.

At New Year, today, but also other times of the year, Japanese people go to the shrine to pray; for departed loved ones, good fortune for the coming year, success in forthcoming exams etc. While many of the rituals can look wholly alien to Europeans, they are also familiar. There are priests presiding, you pray, there is a collection, there is reverence. The question that always comes into my mind is how deeply held are people's beliefs? After all, you will find Hindus and Buddhists in India all following their beliefs as sincerely as Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Given that Shinto believes in multiple spirits, how does that sit with monotheistic religions? If the Japanese believe a prayer to a Shinto God can be effective, does that mean the Shinto God is the true God? But, Muslims will claim that of Allah, Jews of Yahweh and Christians of God. Though I grant that all the latter are supposed to be one and the same. Can they all be True? If one is True then it surely follows that the followers of every other religion are all deluding themselves. Or is everybody delusional? Is the purpose of religion then simply to create inner peace by whatever means? And if someone wants to believe in an omnipotent deity, as long as it achieves inner peace for them, then all is well. But it does beg the question whether all religion is simply human made to fulfil a human need.

In which case, wouldn't it be nice if the followers of all religions simply approached their own beliefs in this regard? It would mean they'd be able to respect the religions of others as being an equally valid, if alternative, path to spiritual fulfilment and calm.

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