Monday, September 5, 2011

Magic and religion in Ireland and Japan

Walk the paths in the woods near Unzen town, high on a mountainside in southern Japan, and you may find yourself on one shady track with Buddhist statues on either side. Some draped with cobwebs, others bearded with moss, these eighty-eight stone figures sit in serene meditation under the trees. The path terminates at a temple, with wooden sliding doors.

Slip inside this and a massive golden Buddha figure towers above you. Like a European church, here too the air is still and silent. Before the statue are two collections of candles, one group blank and the other with Japanese writing scrawled on them. The latter are essentially prayers, requests to the heavens for help: some ask for health, some ask for money, some ask for safety.

To the right there is a worktop with a number of small Buddhist charms for sale. There may be nobody there to give money to, so you can just drop the coins down an offertory slot if you choose to buy some. One is a small mobile phone decoration, said to bring good luck. Another is shaped like a sort of cloth purse, bright red and gold, and is supposed to protect pregnant women.

One tiny charm is shaped like a frog, in Japanese: kaeru. The word is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for 'return', and this little green fellow placed into one's wallet or purse is supposed to ensure money spent will return again. There are charms to help the elderly from losing their memory and charms (shaped like tiny schoolbags) to protect children.

So here is Buddhism being interpreted by hopeful followers as a good way to achieve worldly benefits, be they long life, health, wealth or success. Yet the original Buddha Shakyamuni's idea was that one must reject worldly desires in order to become enlightened. So his rejection of worldly desires turned into a means to achieve them.

To the west Christ was also unconcerned with wealth and health in this life, but that never deterred Christians from praying to the saints for material intercession. Patrick Kavanagh put it in his Lough Derg:

Solicitors praying for cushy jobs
To be County Registrar or Coroner,
Shopkeepers threatened with sharper rivals
Than any hook-nosed foreigner.
Mothers whose daughters are Final Medicals,
Too heavy-hipped for thinking,
Wives whose husbands have angina pectoris,
Wives whose husbands have taken to drinking.

That Buddhism in Japan took this worldly bent is unsurprising considering its official entry to the country via Korea. At the time, around 538 A.D, Korea was torn apart by internal war. One of the kingdoms, the Paekche, desperately wanted Japanese assistance in defeating their rivals and so in that year their king presented the Japanese imperial court with an image of Buddha, some scriptures, and ceremonial ornaments. He urged the Japanese to adopt Buddhism on the grounds that it would bring blessings, but the noble families of Japan were divided. Some feared the Shinto gods they already worshipped would be offended by the newcomer, but eventually one family was allowed to worship the Buddha image as an 'experiment'.

The experiment was deemed a failure when a pestilence broke out - a sign of anger among the Shinto deities - so the image was thrown in a canal. Already they were looking at it in terms of what it would do for them in their ordinary lives, and since it seemed to annoy their native gods, they dropped it.

Soon, though, a pro-Buddhist emperor took the Japanese throne and started to promote the religion widely. Far from its origin in India, the Japanese clergy repeated Buddhist scriptures written in Chinese by rote, often without understanding what they actually meant. Leaders encouraged this, hoping that the actual act of repeating and copying the scriptures would have positive magical effects in their realm. Professor Joseph Kitagawa writes in On Understanding Japanese Religion:

A large number of Buddhist scriptures were introduced, and the government established bureaus for copying those scriptures. The court asked the clergy to recite appropriate scriptures for practical, mundane benefits… to bring rain, relief from pestilence, safe child-birth, recovery from illness, and good fortune… To most people in Japan, copying the scriptures was in itself a meritorious act, and reciting them effectuated their magical potency.

Back in Europe at the time only a few centuries had passed since the Roman Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity. Was it because he was struck by Christ's message of compassion, peace and charity? No, according to the legend he had a vision in which he was told he would win an approaching battle if he fought under the sign of the cross. Constantine too was concerned with worldly affairs, in this case the vulgar one of destroying a rival claimant to the Roman throne.

So with Jesus and Shakyamuni we had two founders of great religions, one which started in Israel and spread west into Europe, the other which started in India and spread east into eastern Asia. Both rejected worldly desires as primary goals for life. Both eventually had huge numbers of followers who, while venerating these men, nonetheless ended up praying to them to satisfy the very worldly desires they had dismissed.

Today, though, both movements are struggling in richer countries. The decline of Christianity in Europe is stark. Buddhism in Japan too faces challenges. I wonder if one reason may be that ordinary Christians and Buddhists no longer see their religions as useful ways to achieve worldy satisfaction.

How does the promise of a land of milk and honey excite in a land where milk and honey are both cheap in the local grocers? Modern technologies mean we already live in a kind of heaven on earth in the world's wealthy countries, rich with surplus food and labour-saving devices. The things people want in ordinary life – health, wealth, love and family – are best secured by participating in modern civilisation. If you want health, see a doctor. If you want wealth, work hard and seek promotion. If you want love – well that one is still a bit tricky.

Oddly enough this might be good for religions, shifting them away from magical rituals in pursuit of worldly benefits to their original otherworldly goals. That would mean a loss of much public interest, a declining status for clerics and, I imagine, less risk of corruption.

I was reminded of these thoughts today when I visited the ruins of the 13th century Rosserk Friary, and spotted nearby a holy well called Tobar Mhuire. Built over this well in 1798 was an unusual small stone chapel:
On a small window in the chapel, pilgrims have left a cluster of coins, prayers and rosary beads:

I smiled to myself because this pick 'n mix offering reminded me of similar scenes many thousands of miles east in Japan, like the bottles of green tea donated to the supernatural inhabitants of this Shinto shrine in Unzen:

Or this, in the village of Tomitsu, not far from my old home:

Separated by two continents, Irish and Japanese pilgrims of different faiths ended up making independent little offerings at their sacred places. That kind of materialistic religiosity, trying to make magical deals with deities, may be disappearing, though.


  1. I love it when you notice things like this - it's proof of the fact that religions are not so different from each other and that no human being is above worldy desires and needs.

  2. Cheers Sujj, glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. I really enjoyed this one. Great going!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.