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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Kami is a Shinto word that is difficult to define without an understanding of the Eastern concept of the divine. It depicts, first of all, the invisible, sacred quality that causes human beings to respond with awe and wonder—the mysterious, the spiritual. It is what we feel but cannot express when, just for a moment, we see behind the curtain that separates spiritual from material. It is intuition—knowing without being able to say why we know.

But it is more than that. Kami also refers to the invisible essence called spirit, or more properly, spirits, that are born of this essence and inhabit another dimension of the world in which we live. In the West we are apt to call such a notion animism (see Animism), the belief that invisible spirits dwell within people or objects. Perhaps we might even go so far as to call it polytheism, belief in many gods. But neither really captures the idea.

In Western terms we are probably forced to define the word using theological constructs. Kami is the Shinto way of saying the divine is both immanent and transcendent, here and yet beyond. It is both singular and plural and can perhaps best be described as a quality rather than an essence. Japanese mythology describes it this way:

In primeval ages, before the earth was formed, amorphous matter floated freely about like oil upon water. In time there arose in its midst a thing like a sprouting reedshoot, and from this a deity came forth of its own.

In time, this "deity" gave birth to the Kami, or spirits. Two of them, the Amatsu Kami, stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and stirred the oceans with a bejeweled spear. Over time the "cosmic soup" cooled into eight islands, forming mountains, rivers, plants, and trees. The Kami of the Sun, Amaterasu, came forth to rule this kingdom. Eventually the people of Japan came to be born in this land, never forgetting that they and all creation are from one source and share a common spirit.

Aside from the fact that, de-mythologized, this is a pretty good description of how modern science claims the world came to be, it means that in Shinto religious tradition it is hard to distinguish where nature ends and religion begins.

Kami is the force that keeps everything together. It is also the matter that is held together by the force. It is the mountain and the essence of the mountain that produces such awe in us. It is the tree and the feelings the tree invokes as we sit in its shade. It is the flower and that which we call the flower's beauty. It is the salmon swimming upstream and the mystery of why the salmon is there, swimming upstream. It is as abstract as creativity and as specific as a lightning bolt.

Kami are worshiped in shrines but experienced everywhere. They induce love and dread, peace and fear. They are the spiritual glue binding everything together in harmony—in a word, wholeness.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.