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Pagan, Spiritual & Magical Book Reviews February 2016

Feb16

This month I’ve read…

  • Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21st Century, ed. Nimue Brown
  • Practical Candle Burning: Spells and Rituals for Every Purpose, Raymond Buckland
  • Pagan Portals – Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well, Morgan Daimler
  • Tales of Unease, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (compiled by David Stuart Davies)
  • The Face of Jizo: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, Hank Glassman
  • Whispers from the Earth: Teaching stories from the ancestors, beautifully woven for today’s spiritual seekers, Taz Thornton

Click here to read the reviews!

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Happy 2016: The Year of the Monkey

sanzaru

The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) at a Shinto shrine. By そらみみ (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

 

2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!

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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Open Day at Three Wheels Temple & Zen Garden

Three Wheels

Today my husband and I attended an Open Day at Three Wheels Temple – a Buddhist temple in Acton, London. It’s a very interesting and unique place – while the temple itself is Shin Buddhist and run by (mainly Japanese) devotees of Shin Buddhism, it houses a Zen Buddhist garden that was commissioned by a non-Buddhist Englishman, Professor John White.

After taking part in a tea ceremony and hearing some of the temple’s history, we sat before the garden and held Professor White tell its story. Professor White takes pride in the fact that his garden does not conform exactly to Zen standards. Although he commissioned top professionals from Japan to build the garden, he made sure that he made some adjustments to fit his preferences. For one thing, the majority of the materials, from the wattle-and-daub viewing hut to the stones themselves, are all from the UK. In fact, the stones are all from a different UK country – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This, too, is not in line with traditional Zen garden principles, as the stones should all be the same type and colour. However, the stones in this garden are all different types, colours and textures. This reflects the principle of Three Wheels, which is “Diversity in Harmony.” I also think it is a wonderful reflection of the diversity of the UK, especially London.

Three Wheels is indeed a very meditative and welcoming place, and I do recommend those in the UK with an interest in Buddhism paying it a visit.

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Tokonoma – Japan’s “secular altars”

SONY DSC

“Kannonin Tottori16s4470” by 663highland – 663highland. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg#/media/File:Kannonin_Tottori16s4470.jpg

There are generally considered to be two main types of household altar in Japan. One is the kamidana, a Shinto altar that enables communion with kami. The other is the butsudan, a Buddhist altar that is used to honour the Buddha as well as deceased relatives. Out of the two, the butsudan would seem to be the most common in Japanese homes.

There is a third type of feature that can be found in Japanese homes, tea houses, traditional inns and restaurants that could also be considered a kind of altar. [Read more]

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Neopaganism v. Shinto: Attitudes towards Death and Darkness

altar-skull

The use of skulls and other symbols of death and darkness is not uncommon in Neopagan altars. By Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pinkpasty) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Continuing with my exploration of some of the key differences between Western Neopaganism and Shinto in Japan, I thought I’d look at the attitudes towards the “darker” aspects of existence, especially death, in both religions. [Read more]

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Grieving for objects in Japan

aibo3

Funeral at Kofuku-ji for AIBOs (Courtesy Independent)

Various news sources have been reporting on the funerals being held for AIBO robot dogs in Japan. Since Sony stopped repairing and making spare parts for AIBOs, the dogs have been slowly “dying out.” In response to this, Buddhist priests have been holding funeral services for them. [Read more]

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Nature Gods verses Human Gods

"Fujinraijin-tawaraya" by 俵屋宗達 (Tawaraya Sotatsu, ? - ?) - Brother Sun , Sister Moon. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fuujin and Raijin, the fearsome and inhuman Shinto gods of wind and thunder. “Fujinraijin-tawaraya” by 俵屋宗達 (Tawaraya Sotatsu, ? – ?) – Brother Sun , Sister Moon. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In all the Pagan religions I can think of, practically all the deities have some kind of darker, fearsome aspect to them. And there is a very good reason for this – they represent the forces of nature. [Read more]

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A talk on Japanese Tree-Burials

treeburial

Family paying respects at a Tree Burial “grave.” From Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death, by Sébastien Penmellen Boret (You can purchase this here: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415517065/)

This evening I attended a talk at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on Japanese Tree-Burials. This is new form of burial in Japan, and one that differs quite considerably from the traditional death rituals there. In a typical Buddhist death rites in Japan, the ashes of the dead are stored in a large family grave made from stone and stand among thousands of other such graves in a designated cemetery . But in the new rite of Tree-Burial, which was created by a Zen Buddhist monk, forests serve as cemeteries with each burial spot marked by a tree for each person’s ashes. The talk was given by Dr Sébastien Penmellen Boret, an anthropologist who has worked with communities involved in Tree-Burial, to launch his new book on the subject, Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship and the Culture of Death which can be purchased from Routledge here.

Dr Boret explained that part of the appeal of Tree-Burial is that it is eco-friendly. In purchasing a tree and space in the forest, families are supporting the maintenance of Japan’s woodlands and re-introducing species that have may have died out in the area. Another reason that Japanese may choose Tree-Burial over the traditional family grave is that, in having their ashes buried at the roots of a tree, it provides a sense of reincarnation and re-birth as the tree grows and continues to live. What’s very interesting is that at the Tree-Burial ground where Dr Boret was based, a communal memorial service would be held for all the departed resting there at O-bon (the Japanese festival of the dead) at which priests of Buddhism, Christianity and Shinto would all be present.

Picture 129

The forest-cemetery of Oku-no-in, Mt Koya

Although Tree-Burial is of Buddhist origins (like most of Japan’s funeral culture), one cannot deny that there is a very Shinto aspect to having one’s remains buried by a tree so one’s essence is somehow preserved in the tree, let alone the respect for nature that is embodied in the practice. But I actually think that this link between Buddhism and the nature-worshipping aspects of Shinto is not a new thing at all when it comes to funeral rites. One of my favourite places in Japan is Oku-no-in at Mt Koya, a mountain complex of temples of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Oku-no-in is a very sacred temple as it is the resting place of Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and it’s set in an immense forest filled with over 200,000 graves. It should be noted that Shingon is perhaps the Buddhist sect with the most links to Shinto – this excellent article on Green Shinto explains more.

The idea of using graves to conserve forests reminded me of another form preservation in Japan – that of kofun tombs. Kofun are megalithic, keyhole-shaped burial mounds that are scattered all over the country. They are of great historical and cultural significance, but they are threatened by the same thing that threatens the forests – development of the land and urbanisation.

To help protect the kofun tombs, one proposal has been to use them as modern cemeteries for the Japanese of today – in effect, putting them to the same use that they served hundreds of years ago. Not even the most ruthless development company really wants to incur the wrath of locals by desecrating their family graves, so putting graves on kofun helps to protect them from being demolished.

I find it very affirming indeed that the culture of death can be used to preserve our most precious treasures in life. As so many Pagans believe, it reinforces the idea of the cyclical nature of life and death, and shows us that even in grief, we can construct something positive for ourselves, society and nature.

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The many parallels between Christmas and Japanese New Year

Kumamoto new year shrine

Huge crowds of people outside a shrine on New Year’s Day in Japan

Although Christmas is celebrated in Japan, it’s not such an important date in the Japanese calendar, and is more of an event for young people (it’s especially associated with dating). The real equivalent of Christmas/Yule in Japan is New Year (O-shogatsu), which these days is celebrated on the same date as the Gregorian New Year, January 1st. Just as Christmas in Britain combines elements from Christianity and the old Pagan symbols of yule, O-shogatsu has both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It’s chiefly a time to say thank you to the kami (deities) for all they have provided in the year, and to pray for their continued blessings.

I’ve always thought there’s an awful lot of similarities between the two festivals so I thought I’d explore them here, as the parallels suggest that certain motifs are particular important in all religious winter festivals across all cultures and many of them are deeply rooted in Paganism.

Kagamimochi Red/white/gold colour scheme
(Left: Kagami-mochi (an ornamental display of mochi rice cakes for New Year) By Shin-改 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)  At O-shogatsu, the colours red and white are the most prevalent, followed by gold and green – very much like Yule. The white/red colour scheme is probably partly to do with these colours being those of Japan (think of the flag), but it may also carry the same symbolism of these colours in Yule – white symbolising snow, while red, gold and green are colours of vitality and displaying them is a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the same vitality to return to the bare trees and fields.

kadomatsuDisplaying greenery
(Left: Kadomatsu displays. By Nesnad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The Christmas Tree is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas and Yule, and again its display is probably rooted in a form of sympathetic magic to promote long life (the traditional pine is evergreen), while decorating it encourages the bare tree to be fruitful again. For O-shogatsu, the Japanese display pine as well, combined with bamboo and peach blossom, outside their homes, in a decoration known as a kadomatsu. The pine represents long life, the bamboo growth, and the blossom good health.

mochiMaking Sweets
(Left: Homemade mochi) It’s popular in many households to make and eat sweets on the run-up towards Christmas/Yule, including cookies, gingerbread men, candy canes, mince pies and of course Christmas Pudding. Making sweets for New Year is popular in Japan too, the most prominent being mochi rice cakes. One difference is that the mochi is usually put out as an offering to the spirits before it is eaten, while this is rarely done in non-Pagan households in the UK – except, interestingly, by children leaving out mince pies for Father Christmas!

amazakeSweet alcohol
(Left: Sweet amazake rice wine. By emily_harbour_in_july (Flickr)via Wkimedia Commons) 
We associate both Christmas and Yule with drinking alcohol in the UK, and  the drinks associated with Christmas tend to be sweet – sherry, mulled wine, brandy, wassail etc. New Year is a time for drinking alcohol in Japan as well, but usually in the form of the mild, sweet form of rice wine called amazake. As discussed previously, alcohol is considered sacred in many traditions, and anything flavoured with sugar or spices was also often considered a suitable offering for deities in days of old due to the comparative scarcity of these ingredients. In both festivals, I think the drinking of sweet alcohol is a way of saluting the gods.

nengajoSending cards
(Left: Nengajo postcards. By Halowand (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons) Much like the Christmas tradition of sending greetings cards, the Japanese will send postcards called nengajo to all their friends and family. Very often the Japanese will paint a design on the nengajo themselves, often incorporating the animal of the Chinese zodiac ruling that year. The tradition of sending nengajo is taken very seriously – it’s very bad form to send them late, and if you don’t send them at all people may think that you or someone in you family has died.

otoshidamaGiving gifts
(Left: Envelopes for o-toshi dama. By ©Jnn (Jnn’s file) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The giving of objects for special occasions is an important tradition in Western cultures, and Christmas is the biggest festival of all for gift giving. The Japanese give objects as gifts as well at New Year, but this is relatively downplayed – what’s far more significant, at least for children, is the giving of o-toshi dama, or money presented in a special little envelope. Money has always been the primary form of gift in Japan so this isn’t much of a surprise (in comparison, giving money as a gift in Britain can be taboo in certain cases and has to be done with care). But two other things surprised me about o-toshi dama when I first learned about it. One is the amount given – usually it’s quite considerable, and children may receive the equivalent of hundreds of pounds over New Year. The other is that I’m half-Welsh, and in Wales there is a very similar tradition of giving money on New Year’s Day, called calennig (it’s usually nowhere near as much as Japanese o-toshi dama though…)

enkaiOffice parties
(Left: Typical office party in Japan. By Josh Berglund from Richardson, United States (Kampai!) via Wikimedia Commons) The “staff Christmas party” is now an important part of Christmas in Britain. But Japan takes office parties far more seriously – they are far more numerous, expensive and wild. I can assure you from first-hand experience that Japanese work socials can go insane. One of the most important work socials of the year is the bonenkai, which is held before New Year. There’s no “secret Santa” but you can expect there to be games, good food and lots and lots of drinking.

Picture 022Bells
(Left: Monk ringing a temple bell) Bells are an enduring Christmas symbol, both in the form of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, and as the “sleigh bells” on Santa Claus’ sled. The functions of church bells are both numerous and fairly vague (the main purpose being to call people to mass but also having the function of signifying a celebration as well as the more Pagan concept of warding off evil), but in Buddhist temples in Japan, the great bells are rung with a very specific purpose in mind on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, the priests will ring the great temple bell 108 times in order to rid people’s hearts of the 108 desires according to Buddhism.

osechi Luxury family meal
(Left: O-sechi ryori) The Christmas dinner is typically the largest and most expensive home meal that British households will eat during the year. This is also true of the meal eaten by the Japanese on New Year’s Day, which is known as o-sechi ryori. O-sechi ryori will contain rare delicacies such as red sea bream, black beans covered in gold leaf and lobster. Each of the ingredients has a special meaning, which usually derives from its appearance or a play on words. For example, prawns are eaten because their curved bodies and antennae are suggestive of an old man with a beard, so they symbolise long life, while the word for sea bream in Japanese, tai, sounds like the ending of the word for “rejoice,” medetai. One important difference is that increasing numbers of Japanese get their osechi-ryori delivered rather than preparing it themselves, while it would be fairly unthinkable to get take-away Christmas dinner in your average British household. But in both cases, the banquets eaten at the British Christmas and Japanese New Year serve both to help the family bond, to wish for good health and long life, and (probably) to honour the gods of old.

EmperorSpeeches from royalty
(Left: The Emperor of Japan) Just as the Queen makes a televised speech on Christmas Day in Britain, the Emperor addresses the Japanese nation on New Year’s Day. Although the speech is generally about current affairs and society, the public appearance of the monarchy on the most important religious festival in both countries reminds me of the close link between religion and royalty. The Queen holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” while the Imperial Family was historically considered to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. The Golden Bough goes into a lot of detail into the relationship between royalty and Pagan religions –  I definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject!

karutaParlour games
(Left: The popular Japanese game karuta. By Ceridwen, via Wikimedia Commons)  In Britain, it’s common for the family to play games after Christmas dinner, the most popular being Charades. Japanese families play simple games on New Year’s Day too, including karuta (a rapid matching card game) and fuku-warai (similar to “pin the tail on the donkey” in which a blindfolded person has to make a face with cut-out facial features). Both British and Japanese parlour games of this sort, which have simple rules so even young children can join in, help families to bond and to pass the time indoors during the cold weather of the season.

darumaWish-granting figure
(Left: A traditional daruma doll.By Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons) In Western countries, one of the most prominent Christmas figures is Santa Claus, traditionally identified as Father Christmas in Britain. He is portrayed as a plump, bearded old man clad in red white and gold, and he grants children their wishes by giving them the presents they ask for if they’ve been good. As discussed here, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different figures, most of which are Pagan in origin, but is often most frequently associated with the Christian St Nicholas.

Japan has a strikingly similar figure associated with New Year who is also based on a saint – a Buddhist one. Daruma is the Japanese name for the Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, and he is most familiar in Japan in the form of the daruma “wishing doll.”

Like Santa Claus, the daruma doll is plump, bearded, employs a red, white and gold colour scheme, and the Japanese ask him to grant wishes or to help with achieving goals by colouring in one eye. When the wish is granted, they colour in the other eye. The daruma is then taken to a temple on New Year’s Day to be ritually cremated, and a new daruma is purchased.

It’s very interesting that there should be so many similar physical characteristics between Santa Claus and Daruma. I think this relates to the things that people generally wish for in winter – life and brightness (the red, white and gold), long life (old bearded man), and health and abundance (the plump figure). In both the West and Japan, these “spirits of winter” symbolise hope and determination.

CIMG0058Visiting the local place of worship
(Left: Daruma dolls being cremated at a temple on New Year’s Day) Even the least devout people in both Britain and Japan may find themselves going to their local church or shrine/temple on the biggest festival of the year. Much of this is done simply for the fun of the occasion – churches hold carol services which are fun to go to even for non-Christians, while Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often sell food and mementos as well as providing o-mikuji – a sort of fortune-telling raffle.  Public services for Christmas in Britain and New Year in Japan also serve to strengthen the community spirit.

At both the Christmas church service and the Shinto New Year festivities, blessings are an important part of the occasions, as is gratitude. In both cases, people express their thanks for life, love and light. And this is also true of the Pagan festival of Yule, when Pagans give thanks to nature for everything she has provided.

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