Material-Spiritual Continuum in Animism

Animism (from the Latin word anima meaning soul or breath) is the pre-modern belief that the world is animated by spirits or a spirit.8 In Asia, people still breathe in an “enchanted” or more accurately spirit-filled world.9 Examining more closely this local living resource can provide us with insights on how some East Asian societies have conceived the relation between the human and things, spirit and matter that may enrich our own rereading of the Christian tradition. We shall focus in particular on animism in the Philippines and Japan. Both countries are interesting in their own ways. The Philippines is a developing country that has maximized the potentials of cheap mobile phones and the internet for social interaction. It was the texting capital (2008-2010) as well as the social networking (facebook) capital of the world.10 Japan, on its part, is highly advanced technologically but continues to hold animistic beliefs.

Traditional Animism in East Asia

Pre-colonial inhabitants of the Philippines lived in a world animated by ancestral and environmental spirits with whom they try to co-exist harmoniously. These spirits dwell in the rocks, trees, rivers, mountains side by side with the humans. In some indigenous groups, nature itself is regarded as alive and not just the abode of the spirits. The stone, mountain, tree or river can each possess an ab-abiik (spiritual self).11 The Filipino primal religion perceives all material things as possessing life and all spiritual beings as possessing materiality. Discourses on spirits show that they are not regarded as disembodied beings. When a child throws a stone, s/he can hurt a spirit. When one urinates in the forest, a spirit can be wetted. Food is offered to ancestral spirits implying that they get hungry.

From the animist standpoint, there is no nature that is divorced from the social realm. The human is in a network of relations and interdependence, so that a person walking in the forest, apologizes to the insects that are disturbed, the shrubs that are wetted, and the tree, river and soil that provide food are revered.12

In line with the more fluid human-non-human boundary, the social, cultural and technological relations are likewise not distinctly separate categories. The Bagobos, an indigenous ethnic group in

Mindanao, and the Sama of Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, believe that both animate and inanimate objects (including human made ones) possess a soul.

This is the reason why warriors, for example, show a reverential attitude toward their weapons; it is not simply the physical object of a metal weapon but a blade that possesses the soul of a blade. The soul of that object is what makes it hard and strong, and whose strength would be revealed during battle. Warriors give names to their personal weapons not as ownership of the object but in recognition of its animism. Forging the weapon then becomes not an ordinary, but a sacred activity in order that the soul of the blade may not depart from it.13

Technology, in the animist worldview, is thus powerfully linked to religion or spirituality.14 In Japan, the belief in the existence of spirit (tama) or god (mi) in nature (sun, moon, mountains, and trees) is part of Shintoism. These spirits control natural and human phenomena. Later, the belief has been broadened to include artificial objects. Spirits can also dwell in utensils or tools for everyday uses. Many tools in ancient Japan had the name of the owner and the date it was first used, symbolizing the time when the tool acquired a spirit that can be identified with its owner. This seems to be quite different from the Philippine indigenous perspective of the tool as possessing a spirit autonomous from the owner. The spirits of implements in Japan are believed to live harmoniously with humans.15 In Senso-ji, a funeral service has been conducted for needles since the Edo period (1603-1867), manifesting humans’ deep connection with the needles.16

 
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