Central to the Shinto tradition is the concept of purity. Further, the primary means of purification is said to be ritual practice. These two features of Shinto--purity and its ritual production--invite the questions: can rituals purify, and if so, how? Our limited aim in this essay is to offer an interpretation of the Shinto ritual tradition that explains how and in what sense ritual practices can mirror, or provide images of, the Shinto ideal of purity.

The answer lies, we believe, in the aesthetic dimension of Shinto rites and festivals. Our first task will be to sketch the Shinto tradition's world-view and clarify its concept of purity. Then a brief discussion of Shinto ritual will be illustrated by segments from a video documenting a daily purification ceremony at a Shinto shrine. Lastly, we will turn to an analysis of the role of artful performance in Shinto ceremonies.

Part I is largely descriptive. Parts II and III are interpretive and more analytical in nature. For further detail and documentation, see our article "Artful Means: An Aesthetic View of Shinto Purification Rituals," Journal of Ritual Studies, Volume 13, Number 1, Summer 1999, pp. 37-52.

A. Shinto World-View

The scholar, Tsunetsugu Muraoka, states that, in general,

"... the ancient outlook on life and the world was essentially one of unsophisticated optimism. Nature, as a manifestation of life-giving-power, was undisguisedly good. There could be no better world than this world. There were powers that obstructed and destroyed life-giving power, but in the end they would be overcome--"straightening" (naobi) action would be directed against these misfortunes ...As a result of such "straightening" action, life-giving power was perpetually winning. This was because good fortune was dominant. Possibly creativity (musubi), because of this, was a fundamental world principle."[Studies in Shinto Thought. Trans. by D.M. Brown and J.T. Araki. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988. pp.11, 29.]

Three essential Shinto insights are contained in this statement. First, in the human encounter with the world, nature is understood as creative and life-giving (musubi), a "generative...vital force" that connotes the sense of harmoniously creating and connecting. This vital power is directly associated with kami, the Japanese term given to those "unusual" and "superior" aspects of both nature and humanity that are experienced as possessing an awesome presence and potency, such as natural objects in heaven and earth (heavenly bodies, mountains, rivers, fields, seas, rain, and wind), and great persons, heroes, or leaders. This "myriad of kami" are not metaphysically different in kind from either nature or humanity, but rather are "superior" and "unusual" manifestations of that potency inherent in all life.

The second Shinto insight indicates that although we are grounded in the vital process of musubi and kami, we can also be disrupted and disjoined from it. In the tradition the more prevalent expression of this sense of obstruction is the term "pollution." "Purity," in turn, characterizes the state of creativity.

The third insight concerns the "straightening" action taken by humans to overcome those powers that obstruct or pollute the life-giving power of musubi and kami. There are a variety of means for achieving this, but it is principally through ritual actions ranging from formal liturgies conducted by priests in shrine precincts, to ascetic practices (misogi) and major public festivals. All these varied activities are conceived of in terms of ridding people and things of "pollution" (tsumi) in order to reinstate "purity."

There is an immediate and concrete nature to the Shinto sense of pollution. Tsumi is a dirty something that can be washed away by ablution and lustration (misogi harai) [cf. Muraoka 1988:59]. Wiping clean--lustration--restores the natural process, which is bright (akashi) and clean and beautiful. This also applies to the interior realities of human thought and intention: "the bad heart is a "dirty heart" which is malicious, and the pure heart is one which is not dirty--a bright heart that hides nothing. So the way of "straightening" or purification (harai) is basically the action of lustration, physically and mentally, which results in a condition of purity and beauty--wiping away the dust from the mirror. This aesthetic condition of beauty, in other words, is inseparable from a restored condition of purity. As Kishimoto Hideo states: "...religious values and aesthetic values are not two different things. Ultimately, they are one for the Japanese." ["Some Japanese Cultural Traits and Religions." Philosophy and Culture East and West, ed. Charles A. Moore. 1962: p. 251.] "The goal of life and art are one." [Uyeda, Isao. "Rites of Passage and Purification in Japanese Society," unpublished dissertation, 1991, p. 134.]

An aesthetically "pure and cheerful heart" (akaki kiyoki kokoro) is, consequently, the basis of communion with the kami, i.e., with the particular and "unusual potencies" of the creative process itself (musubi). In this state of purity, one is connected to the order and harmony of Great Nature, the "sacrality of the total cosmos." These, in brief, are some of the key insights that comprise the Shinto world-view and their idea of purity.

B. Shinto Ritual Practice

Because Shinto shrines are considered places of superior potency (kami) of the forces of life (musubi), it is in these locations that worship services are most regularly held. Our primary example here is the daily morning service (the Choo Hai) conducted at Tsubaki Grand Shrine located in Mie Prefecture at the base of one of seven mountains of Suzuka. The entire shrine complex is situated within a forest of 500 year old cypress trees. A large torii gate and an ablution pavilion mark the beginning of a path through the forest to the main shrine.

The basic structure of this service is:

(a) cleansing, preparations: from sweeping to washing,
(b) invocation of the kami through beautiful, sonorous words and sincere communication,
(c) offerings, and
(d) ritual purification.

From beginning to end, the priests endeavor to courteously call upon and take leave of the kami through proper demeanor and formal bows and claps.

A. A Basic Feature of Ritual Art: From Formality to Formalism

It is evident that Shinto liturgical rituals are formalized, elegant performances exhibiting aesthetically honed, repetitive patterns. A case in point is the basic action of bowing and clapping--a series of invariant, solemn gestures occurring several times in each ceremony. A more complex example is the appearance of the shrine's hall of offerings (heiden). It presents itself as an aesthetic object in several ways. It is a static, visual composition dominated by horizontals, sharply delineated designs of costumes and curtains, and the intersecting diagonals of bowed bodies. At the same time, it is the area in which offerings are precisely displayed, and the stage on which the priests move, chant, and drum with stylized deliberation. All this evinces order, rule, and structure.

One way to approach the family of aesthetic characteristics that we wish to highlight, is to imagine scoring such ritual performances, as anthropologists sometimes do. Here we intend a broad sense of score: any abstract notational system for displaying, in skeletal ideal form, the underlying structure of an object or event, usually an artwork or ritual. One could score a daily purification ritual, for example, using dance and acoustic or musical notations indicating the location of the priest and audience, his posture, movements, costume, and "stage setting;" and acoustically, the pitch, duration, and rhythm of the clapping, chanting and drumming. Even the visual composition of the priests, seated among the offerings on the raised platform, could be "scored" in geometric terms--horizontals, diagonals, and areas of contrasting color. To speak of scoring is to emphasize that rituals are repeated, highly structured, and more or less fixed sequences of events evincing many of the features of the visual and the performing arts.

The score, of course, does not match every aspect of the performance. For example, the clapping of the participants, led by the chief priest is often uneven, but the score would clearly indicate a certain number of equally spaced, synchronized claps.

That is, scores not only display the structure of a performance, but they rely on a distinction between an idealized pattern and a concrete instance of the pattern. This has an experiential correlate: we are sometimes aware, as ritual participants, of trying to conform to an ideal pattern or sequence. Scoring such events invites distinctions akin to those between performance and script, or painting and geometric form. In the theory of fine arts, such distinctions come under the heading of formalism.

Formalism is an aesthetic theory peculiar to twentieth century Western art; but it is claimed by its adherents to reveal a universal, timeless, and culture-independent dimension of the arts. Whether or not those ambitious claims are true, we believe that art's formal dimension goes some way in explicating the connection between art and Shinto practices of purification. According to formalist doctrine, to perceive an artwork aesthetically is to attend to its formal qualities. These, in turn, are such features (speaking of the visual arts) as color, composition, texture, form and line. Formalism takes our attention away from the representational or narrative content of the work, its emotional effects, and its instrumental uses. It directs our attention to the way in which the artist has brought together formal elements.

Six Persimmons, by Mu Ch'i.
Permission requested from Ryoko-In, Daitokuji, Kyoto, Japan.

On this view, the well-known brush painting by Mu-chi'i of six persimmons (casually arranged within an otherwise empty space) is justly famous because of the texture and line of the six images and their composition, not because persimmons are an inherently compelling subject. Even minor changes in the point of view or the spaces between the fruits will result in very different and generally inferior effects.

In addition, formalism not only directs our attention to such aesthetic dimensions as composition and color, but it further directs our attention to underlying structural relations such as geometric form or complementary relations among colors. With respect to music, it emphasizes intervals and harmonic structures, not just the melodic line.

Formalism says, in effect, that what is most important about art is not its content but its grammar. In the evaluation of artworks, it is form that counts.

These structural features may not immediately be apparent to the casual viewer, but they are operative nevertheless as the source of the artwork's power to affect us aesthetically. Thus, formalism adds an important consideration to the above discussion of scoring. Not only can we distinguish in artworks and rituals between the particular instance and the underlying form; it is the latter that is claimed to account for their power. Formalism makes apparent that the priest's ability to successfully manipulate formal elements contributes to ritual efficacy.

Those who talk about art in formalist terms are often tempted to use the word "pure." There are works that exhibit pure form, and the contemplation of artworks involves a pure aesthetic gaze--a way of looking that involves setting aside the usual utilitarian concerns and striving to attend exclusively to the aesthetic qualities of the artwork. It follows that formalism is fiercely anti-instrumental. That an artwork expresses a political message, for example, is irrelevant to its aesthetic evaluation. Art is sometimes characterized, therefore, as divinely "useless," inhabiting a pure realm unsullied by utilitarian concerns. When we learn to perceive artworks, we learn to attend to their formal qualities and to suspend attention to other features such as representative content or didactic force. Trained musicians perceive the abstract pattern informing the sensuous sound of the performance. In fact, no adequate account of the powers of music can ignore the distinction between underlying structure, encoded in the score, and the physical event of the performance.

Score of drumming pattern.

The importance of this distinction, for our purposes, is that the pattern enjoys a certain "perfection" and operates at something of a "distance" compared to the actual sounds. For example, the performance can be flawed while the pattern necessarily remains unblemished. So, due to the interplay of form with content, artworks are particularly efficacious means for evoking in us a sense of a pure structure separate from surface sensuous contents. These aesthetic distinctions are directly applicable to Shinto ritual, because as noted, these ceremonies display a rigorous formality. Hence, no matter what instrumental view one may bring to the ritual--e.g., that the offering are gifts to the kami to insure their blessings--it will be irrelevant to the formal power of the ritual performance itself.

Our point is that the deliberate, stylized quality of Shinto ritual brings to mind the distinction between pure form and particular shrine performances and that distinction can be further clarified by formalist aesthetic theory which reveals an essential and important power of art and of the ritual arts.

B. A Second Feature of Ritual Art: Liminal Efficacy

Another feature of Shinto rites is liminality. Like formality, it is one of the powers of the ritual arts which connects ritual to purification.

Some anthropologists, notably Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, claim to have uncovered a universal structure common to a certain class of transformative rituals such as rites of passage. Such rituals aim at changing the participants, either psychically or in terms of social status. For example, via rituals, adolescents become adults, and princes become kings. This view rests on a particular analysis of change. In order to become something new, one must first abandon the old, moving through a phase which is neither new nor old; only then can one achieve, accept, or construct the new. That middle phase of transformative rituals is called the liminal phase. It is characterized as "neither here nor there," or "betwixt and between," since it occurs between a phase of ritual separation from one's previous self or status and a phase of re-aggregation during which a new persona or status is produced and legitimized by the community. At its most general, liminality is thus a fluid phase promoting change. The ritual participant is like the checker piece, temporarily lifted off the board in a different (vertical) dimension, while being moved from one square to another. Our ability to create liminal situations by means of ritual is an important cultural discovery. It allows both the control and promotion of changes deemed worthwhile by the community.

For Turner, liminality involves temporarily setting aside or stripping away some or many of the features of societal interaction which govern daily life. This may be accomplished subtly, artfully and symbolically, or, in some ritual traditions, by means of suffering, cruelty, and violence (e.g., fasting, vision quests, or physical threat). Typically, the ritual participants are homogenized by finding themselves in a ritual space that de-emphasizes differences in social status, erases utilitarian concerns, and amends the sense of time. Turner explains this situation by appealing to Hume's notion of the sentiment of humanity--a basic and universal feature of human nature inclining us to community, but prior to all particular social structures. During the liminal phase, the participants are united by this sentiment, depending on a deeper sense of community temporarily unblemished by the usual, compromised and somewhat external social constraints. Turner labels this relationship "communitas."

Applying these notions to the Shinto tradition, it is those festivals that involve extreme physical effort or touch upon the sublime--e.g. Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festivals)--that first come to mind. The participants in such festivals may be temporarily transported to another realm of experience, often quite ambiguous and demanding. During these interludes, the usual conventions, demands, and distinctions of daily life recede into the background. One may emerge refreshed or otherwise transformed, and an experience of "communitas" may in fact occur among those actively engaged in the festival.

In a less dramatic way, the daily purification ritual in a shrine may also involve transformative moments. These more subtle and subdued liminal experiences can best be illuminated by the notion of a transforming journey and its associated images--death/rebirth, the womb, darkness or fog, bisexuality, eclipse, wilderness and emptiness. In myth, folktale, and literature, liminality is expressed by going under (e.g., Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland) or venturing forth into strange realms (Dorothy in the Land of Oz or Xuanzang's pilgrimage in his Journey to the West). In these realms, societal, physical, and even logical laws may be suspended. Such tales always show the protagonist before the journey into the liminal realm and, at the end, indicate her/his return--transformed--to ordinary life.

Similarly, each ritual encounter is something of a journey, beginning with entrance through the torii, ablutions at the temizuya, a walk to the shrine (which may involve a journey into the forest as well), entrance into the outer hall to experience various phases of the ceremony, and so on. This "journey" may enhance the experience of distancing oneself from the dominant concerns of daily life.

Currently, liminality is claimed to be not only an important concept in ritual studies but also a widespread feature of the arts. In general, artworks can represent liminal experience or express its feeling tones, or produce something like liminal experience. The production of liminal experience can be illustrated by any powerful experience at the theater, for example, after which one has the impression of having been in a special realm (during the performance) and feels somehow changed.

A recent installation piece at a local fine arts museum provides a more detailed example. By means of a darkened hall, the viewers enter a room that seems completely without light. Gradually, however, a rectangular area on the opposite wall, the size and location of a large painting, becomes barely visible. It is apparently a uniformly black canvas, except that it seems in some way anomalous. As one approaches it, the space seems to be of indefinite but considerable depth and slightly undulating. Any viewer who ignores museum decorum and tries to touch the painting finds only space! This otherworldly "painting" is actually a rectangular hole cut in the far wall and opening onto another dark and empty room. The only light in either room is a black light on the floor of the second room and hidden from direct observation. The rectangular space, which is "neither here nor there," is a vivid representation and expression of liminality. It is also for some viewers productive of a liminal experience. Here we are taking liminal experience to be one kind of aesthetic experience--one that involves disorientation, ambiguity, and a sense of otherness.

A related example is the inner sanctuary (gohonden) of a shrine, an "empty" box in the innermost worship hall that enshrines or invites the kami and at the same time exemplifies the enigmatic ontological status of kami which exceeds all attempts at definition. In its ability to represent and express an ambiguous and otherwordly state or process, the empty box functions much like the dark empty room described above. But, of course, there is an important difference: since the emptiness at the heart of the shrine is generally hidden from view, this "liminality" functions as an image of the imagination rather than a visual image.

Note that though liminality may depend for its efficacy upon the formal features of rituals-as-artworks, it is not to be confused with those features. Liminality is not a grammatical feature of artworks, but a phase in certain kinds of ritual, and an experience induced by some artworks--a phase or experience best described phenomenologically in terms of its experiential and social effects. However, since liminality is a distinct and widespread power of ritual and art, and since it creates an extra-mundane effect, it shares with formal features qualities relevant to the relationship between ritual art and purification--a point we are now in a position to discuss.

To review, Shinto rituals, viewed as structured, artful performances, exemplify the tension between ideal pattern and concrete instance and are sometimes transformative by means of liminal phases. Further, our understanding of these formal and liminal features can be aided by consulting the related aesthetic theories that explore them as they operate in the fine arts. It remains to make good on our original claim that the formalist and liminal features of art are related to ritual's role in purification.

Here is our argument: art, by its very nature, has ample resources for mirroring or imaging purity as it is envisioned in the Shinto tradition. This is because there is a surprisingly exact correspondence of structure between the Shinto concept of purity and the formal features of art (in this case, Shinto ritual art). The concept of purity in Shinto has three logical features. First, it establishes the distinction between the pure and the impure. Second, in the context of the tradition there is a difference in value between the two: purity is better than impurity. Third, the two contrasting states are related in a specific way. Compared to the pure, the impure has accretions or blemishes that are in principle removable; this is the relationship alluded to by the metaphor of the dust-covered mirror. In bare logical terms, there are two opposite, contrary notions or states, one of which is in context to be preferred to the other; and lastly, the lesser state can be viewed as blemished or as containing superfluous elements compared to the former.

That the formal features of art share this same structure can be seen from what has already been said. Formalism describes a family of distinctions-- form vs. content, pattern vs. instance, or underlying structure vs. surface expression. Further, the above examples emphasize the unequal relation between the paired elements. We contrasted the perfect musical form (score) with the possibly flawed performance, and the divine "uselessness" of art with the utilitarian concerns of mundane living, and the formal ritual sequences with their actual instantiation. Over and over, the pattern/instance structure of the formal ritual art of Shinto repeats and reinforces differences between the ideal or pure and that which is irrelevant, deformed, inessential, i.e., impure.

Also, since liminality is a distinct and widespread power of ritual art, and since it creates an extra-mundane effect, it shares with formal features a similar relation to the idea of purity. Liminal phases of ritual are experienced as compelling and out-of-the-ordinary, with their own sense of time and space. The participants return from them as from a journey. More importantly, because liminal experience involves temporarily stripping away some of the normal social ties and conventions, it is a fitting representation of purification-as-recoverable. Though one does not live permanently in a liminal state, it can afford a glimpse of a more fundamental level of community not encumbered by convention, hypocrisy, or undue self-interest. All this is reinforced by the clearly delineated visual appearance of the ritual setting and the uncomplicated order of service.

Our claim is not that a ritual can merely exhort us to purity, or allude to pure actions, though it may well do these things. Rather, something more fundamental about artistic expression--having to do with its essential nature and powers--allows Shinto ritual art to image the traditional idea of purity.

We have used the word "image" in the phrase "Art images purity" to indicate a complex, multi-layered situation. To begin with, we are all familiar with what ritual "images" can do; they are, for example, the fitting gestures of the dancer, the priest's hypnotic intonations, and the visual expressions of settings and costumes. In the present case, such images can not only refer to purity, they can be compelling to both heart and mind, and they can also reveal something of the nature of purity by displaying its constituents and their relationships. This latter point can be illustrated by a cinematic example: there is a moving scene in Wim Wenders' film Paris Texas, during which a woman welcomes her brother-in-law into her home after his unexplained absence of many years. The camera looks down on them from the landing above as she tentatively and silently puts her arm on his shoulder. It is a unique and powerful gesture, evoking the universality of welcoming a lost family member, but expressing as well the uncertainty and reserve she feels toward him. That is, it not only moves us but also reveals the structure of her conflicting emotions.

But this does not yet reach the point we are making in the present essay, for we are not talking about the ritual image per se and what it can do, but about certain universal or widespread features of the arts that underlie and condition such images and account in part for their power. These underlying conditions make art possible. If our argument about the formalist and liminal features of Shinto ritual is correct, some of these conditions--e.g., the distinctions between pattern and performance, or between liminal and ordinary--share a common form with the purity/ impurity distinction and thus also provide a compelling expression and structural description of the Shinto ideal. The arts of ritual are well placed, therefore, to mirror or provide images of purity, and this not by accident, but because of some of their most fundamental and unique features.

About the Authors

James W. Boyd, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado State University, received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in history of religions. Among his publications are Ritual Art and Knowledge (1993, with Ron Williams) and two books co-authored with Dastur Firoze M. Kotwal: A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion (1982) and A Persian Offering: The Yasna, A Zoroastrian High Liturgy (1991). James Boyd can be reached at (970) 491-6351 or

Ron G. Williams, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado State University, received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. His publications include Ritual Art and Knowledge (1993, with James Boyd), Philosophical Analysis (1965 with S. Gorovitz, et. al.), and several exhibition catalog essays about contemporary American artists. Ron Williams can be reached at (970) 491-6887 or

Also available is a 34 minute documentary video, "New Year's Rituals at Tsubaki Grand Shrine," photographed and written by the authors. This videotape, a presentation of the Cho Hai together with several other ceremonies, is available from the Office of Instructional Services, A71 Clark Bldg., Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, 80523; phone: (970) 491-1325.