The most prominent object on a Shinto altar is the kagami—the large, round mirror resting in a yellow cedar stand carved with ocean waves. There are many layers of meaning to this beautiful symbol.
The Rising Sun
Looking upon the kagami set in the carved waves, we visualize the sun disc rising from the ocean. Our morning view of the rising sun, as we see from Shin Mei Spiritual Centre, affirms the daily renewal of life, the ceaseless nature of the universe.
The Mitama of Amaterasu O Mi Kami
Amaterasu O Mi Kami, head of all heavenly kami, sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to descend from heaven to rule over the earthly domain. Among the treasures she commands Ninigi to take with him is the sacred kagami. “This mirror—have [it with you] as my mitama (soul/spirit), and revere it as you would revere my very presence.”
The word 御霊 “mitama” does not translate directly into English. 御“Mi” is an honorific prefix. 霊 “Tama” is soul. Significantly, the mitama can be divided without lessening the spiritual power or intensity of either portion. Just as we can divide fire and maintain the intensity of flame in multiple sites, so can mitama be divided and multiplied. Thus, the mitama of Amaterasu has been divided so that the kagami itself, carried to earth by Ninigi no Mikoto, contains the very mitama, or essense, of Amaterasu no Ō Kami, the kami of the sun.
Thus, when we look upon the kagami in a shrine, we are looking upon the soul of Amaterasu, head of all Heavenly Kami.
Reflection of Self
The significance of the mirror, however, goes even further than this.
When we look into a mirror, of course we see a reflection of ourselves. Is this a reflection of our outer self, or a reflection of our inner spirit?
Our inner spirit is descended from the kami; we are all “children of the kami.” As a result, our true nature is unquestionably divine.
As we proceed through our daily lives, we acquire various forms of impurities (“tsumi” and “kegare”) as a result of negative situations or interactions with other people or locations, or perhaps negativity from ourselves. These impurities cloud our true divinity. Through Shinto, we practice various approaches to purification—to remove these impurities and reveal our intrinsic divinity and bright nature.
If we think of the kagami as our own reflection, the more completely we can remove impure obstacles, the more pure the reflection will be. The more our impurities are removed, the closer our reflection will be to the reflection of the kami, of Amaterasu no Ō Kami.
The power of Shinto, then, is centred in the kagami—we must learn to strip away all the external obscurities and impurities until we reach truth, sincerity, and heart. Then we will clearly see our inner nature, our very divinity. This will reveal and polish our vertical connection to the kami.
As you sit in prayer and meditation in the honden (main shrine room), feel the presence of Amaterasu no O kami in the kagami, and consider the archetypal connection between your soul and that of the primordial kami.