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The Sacred River of Ise

The Sacred River of Ise

One of the most defining events in the life of a Christian is baptism. Historically, this event (sacrament) involved dressing in a white robe and being immersed completely in cold water. In modern times, baptism has taken on many forms. Some Christian denominations just sprinkle a little water on a newborn’s head. Other denominations maintain full body immersion. On the island where I grew up, many Christian churches have new Christians immerse themselves fully in ocean.

From what I understand this sacrament of baptism comes from a Jewish custom of water immersion to cleanse impurities of the body and soul. Originally, it could be done anytime necessary, but in Christianity it came to be something that is never again necessary after being done once.

In Shinto too, misogi is considered an important tradition. In misogi, the person immerses himself in a river or waterfall, or pours cold water over himself several times. In the abbreviated form, called chouzu, only the hands and mouth are cleansed with water. The same as in baptism, this custom cleanses away impurities from the body and soul. However, different from Christian baptism, it is considered good (but not necessary) to do misogi frequently. Some people do it every day. By the way, the practice of misogi is also used in Buddhism and by martial art groups in Japan.

In this way, misogi and baptism both serve to mystically cleanse away impurities (sin). In Christianity this is done only once. After that, sins are cleansed through the sacrament of confession. Shinto does not have a tradition similar to confession, but instead misogi can be perform frequently.

Postscript: I recently went to a lecture about the Kojiki and the scholar actually said that misogi and baptism were basically the same thing. However, I think it is important to note that baptism is not only a mystical cleansing like misogi, but also serves as a sort of initiation rite into the church.

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