21 December 2007

Affectionate appreciation of a gentle Japanese religion

An encounter with Oomoto "The great origin": A faith rooted in the ancient mysticism and the traditional arts of Japan Frederick Franck
Cross Currents, 1975

Artist/author Frederick Franck's short work on the new Japanese religion of Oomoto (or Omoto-kyo) displays his obvious affection and appreciation for the elegant aesthetic of this faith, an affection that is infectious. By the time I finished reading the book, I wanted to know much more about this new faith that seems to combine elements of Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, and Japanese folk religion with the experiences of everyday peasant life.

Franck begins by describing his initial encounter with this tradition by way of a ceramics exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As an artist, Franck was astonished by the unabashed (and uncharacteristic) use of bright colors for the ceramic tea bowls, and he was surprised to discover that the artist, Onisaburo Deguchi, was also the co-founder of the Oomoto faith and a prophetic figure who had spent a good amount of time in Japanese prison for his unpopular religious and political stances.

Oomoto was founded by an illiterate peasant woman, Nao Deguchi, who at the age of 56 and after a life of profound suffering was possessed by the kami (spirit) Ushitora no Konjin and compelled to write the Oomoto scriptures. The prophetic message she revealed was rooted in the everyday suffering of the Japanese peasants and predicted many of the calamities that would befall the Japanese in the 20th century. It's message of a universal family of humankind (interestingly a feature common to many 19th century religious movements) also challenged the dominant State Shinto religion with its emperor worship and cult of the sun goddess, Amaterasu OmiKami. Her son-in-law and co-founder expanded upon these teachings and saw the arts as primary spiritual practices necessary for redemption of the individual and society. For his outspoken criticisms of the Japanese status quo, he was imprisoned and the Oomoto properties were demolished. Yet, as he and Nao Deguchi prophesied, Oomoto has survived to the present day whereas the cult of the emperor and the rest of State Shinto were disestablished following WWII.

For the reader hoping to discover a gentle, aesthetic spirituality, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Oomoto, at least as described by Franck, incorporates the Shinto appreciation for nature and beauty, a Buddhist eschatology of enlightenment for all sentient beings, a Christian call to universal fellowship and realization of the Reign of God, the political sensibilities of an oppressed peasantry, and a premium placed on aesthetic expression. In short, it is a fascinating religion that merits greater exposure and this book is a great place to begin learning about Oomoto.

(This review was originally written on May 1, 2007.)

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