Saturday, 31 May 2008

Tamamo No Mae

In my last post, I already talked briefly about this Japanese legend. But I found a really cool Blog with very good English translations of Japanese fairy tales and legends called Crackle Mountain

Crackle Mountain has also a version of the tale of Tamamo No Mae, which with the owners permission, I want to share with you today:

Tamamo No Mae

"I've been waiting for you for over a hundred years," sighed the young girl by the side of the road. A passing peddler paused to scratch his head, eyed the pretty girl, then laughed at the cryptic remark.

"Why don't you come to Kyoto with me then, if that's the case," he called. "I'll be selling my wares at the Emperor's Court, perhaps we might find something for you there."

So on they traveled together for many days along the Tokaido roadway to Kyoto. Traveling day and night, he marveled that she was never tired or afraid.
In Kyoto, the peddler sold his fine wares to the ladies of the court. Amidst their merriment one lady remarked on the graceful appearance of the young girl and asked her to entertain them with some dancing. The young girl obliged them with the most elegant performance they had ever seen. So delighted were the ladies that the Emperor himself called for a special performance of the dance. And so she danced again and to His Augustness it seemed as if she was the foam upon the waves.

"Tell me", asked the Emperor,"what favour can I grant you in return for this beautiful gift?"
The girl was silent with eyes averted as if she were overwhelmed.
"Do not be afraid, ask of me anything at all."
"Anything?" ventured the girl in a small voice.
"Of course, please just ask."
"Then...if it pleases you... let me stay here in the residence of Your Radiance."
And so it was that the girl was accepted into the Emperor's household.

Within a few years the girl grew into the most refined of ladies, accomplished in every lovely art; at the koto there was none to match her sensitive touch, the tracings of her brush were cherished and kept in sandalwood boxes, her knowledge of the Classics was enviable. There was not one art that escaped her perfection. She became known as the Jewel without Flaw - and the Emperor's favourite.

As the years past the Emperors temper became increasingly strange, listless at times more querulous at others till the state of the court was nervous and brittle. But still he would favour Tamamo and became bright and gay while she was with him. So careless did he become that for the occasion of her thirty-seventh year he commanded a great banquet to be held in the Summer Palace in her honour. His wise councilors advised him of the dangers of such an inauspicious occasion, but the Emperor heeded them not sending them violently away.

Gathered together the whole court proceeded to dine and feast, wine cup after wine cup. Giddy with pleasure the Emperor openly declared, "Tamamo, there's not a woman in the world who is fit to touch your sleeve!" At that very moment there was a clap of horrendous thunder so loud that it pierced the ear - the Emperor collapsed as one struck by lightening! Black boiling clouds rose up out of nowhere and the day became as night. The Court was panic stricken, ladies screamed and men ran pell mell over tipping the feast and up turning furniture. The red and gold clad Tamamo was as an unearthly statue and from her body their came a ghostly fire.

The Emperor remained as one asleep from that time and the wise men of the Court were very worried. They decided that they should call on the assistance of Abe Yasu, the Diviner.

"Please help us!" they supplicated. "You who have knowledge of the secret ways must help us find the cause and cure of this strange stupor." And so he did, Abe Yasu performed the rites of divination. Returning to them the Diviner said:

" Merry wine sinks with a leaden head.
Bright fruit, bitter taste.
The Peony disguises the Death Lily,
confusion in its scent.
Vices are illusions web; deception wears desire's mask."

"What can that mean?" the wise men questioned Abe Yasu. "Please explain the meaning of what you say for we are in sorry need of aid."
"I will help you but first I must fast for three days, return to me then and we will save His Augustness."
When the wise men returned they found Abe waiting for them. The Diviner took the Sacred Gohei from its place in the Shrine - blessing each of them with a touch of the Gohei.

Abe Yasu and the wise men proceeded to the Palace and asked for an audience with Tamamo. Tamamo was in her bower with her maidens.
"What could they want with me?" she asked the attendant who delivered the message.
"They wish you to here a poem, My Lady."
"It is a strange time for poetry, tell them to go away."

But the wise men and the Diviner insisted saying they would not leave until she had given them an audience. So she finally consented and Abe Yasu coming forward spoke to Tamamo though the screen.
"My Lady please come a bit closer, I am an old man and my voice is feeble." Tamamo drew very near to the curtain so that her fair hand revealed itself.
"What is this poem you speak of?"
"I will tell it to you:

Merry wine sinks with a leaden head.
Bright fruit, bitter taste.
The Peony disguises the Death Lily,
confusion in its scent.
Vices are illusions web; deception wears desire's mask."

And with that he touched the Scared Gohei to Tamamo's hand. Her hand withdrew with a terrible cry of pain. The curtains blew out and a golden fox with nine tails flew out from the bower and away.

Far, far it few until it came to the plain of Nasu, where it hid itself beneath a large black stone that stood in the plain.

The Emperor was said to have recovered the very day Tamamo disappeared.

There soon came stories of the Black Stone on Nasu plain; that there flowed from it a poison steam, any who drank from it whether bird, beast or man, sickened and died. People were said to have passed away just from sitting in its shade and birds flying over the stone were said to have dropped from the sky. It became know as the Black Stone of Death for over a hundred years.

The wheel of fate turned and so it was that a High Priest named Genyo - a special holy man, was traveling through Nasu on a pilgrimage. The villagers kindly filled his begging bowl with rice and vegetarian food. They also warned him of the Black Stone of Death.
"Do not rest near the Black Stone," they said. "For its poison is ancient and evil."
The priest thoughtfully thanked the villagers for their care but reminded them, "the Book of the Good Law tells us that even the herbs, trees and rocks shall enter into Nirvana."
Instead of avoiding the Stone, Genyo made his way towards it. On arriving there he set up incense and recited scriptures. After many hours when the sun was dipping low on the western horizon Genyo picked up his staff, striking the Black Stone he cried, "Spirit of the Black Stone of Death, Come out!"

A great fire blazed forth from the stone as it split through its middle with a great howling sound. Then all was quite and before the Priest there stood an old woman, her eyes full of tears. She said:
"I am Tamamo, once called the Jewel without Flaw. I am the golden fox spirit, who has lived for over two thousand years. I have the knowledge of all magic and I have been worshiped by nations and by men. But love has changed me and I have passed these hundred years weeping in bitter grief. Please holy man strike me down so that I may be eased of this terrible pain."

"No, poor spirit, I shall not kill you." Genyo removed his priests robes and wrapped them around the fox spirit. He gave her his begging bowl and his prayer beads saying, "go instead upon the long journey of enlightenment."
Tamamo gave a small wan smile before vanishing never to be seen of again.
Genyo lit more incense. Praying for the fox spirit, he said:

"O Buddha Tathagata and merciful Bodhisattva Kwannon, may she be reborn upon the path of Devotion."


It feels quite special to have been to the very place and seen the very stone the legend is talking about. And even though in the end Tamamo No Mae enters the path of enlightenment, we never know whether she really reached it or eventually returned to her cursed stone. The night we spent next to the stone surely felt like the second outcome, but then: We are still alive.

In any way thanks to Florence for letting me share this!


Tuesday, 27 May 2008

御神火祭 Nasu Fire Mountain Festival

殺生石 The Murder Stone

picture from Wikipedia

This weekend one of my friends stationed in 宇都宮 Utsunomiya had heard of an obscure festival in some very northern part of 栃木県 Tochigi Prefecutre called 那須 Nasu (which curiously enough also means eggplant in Japanese).

Welcome to 那須 Nasu

But it gets weirder. On this mountain is a stone called "the murder stone" which is said to have killed countless critters over the time. It is usually not strong enough to kill humans yet... And to keep it that way the locals of 那須 Nasu make an annual festival where they dress like mystical fox creatures do ecstatic dancing and drumming on 太鼓 Taiko (a big Japanese drum), while holding torches and burning big piles of wood.

So let's see where this strange but surely fascinating custom comes from:

狐 Kitsune, The Legendary Foxes

picture from Wikipedia

To be able to understand the myth this festival is based on, we first have to learn about foxes. As in Europe foxes are said to be very cunning creatures in Asia, yet unlike in Europe in Asia there are mystical foxes that can develop in power growing more tails (up to 9) which eventually reach the level where they can shape shift and imitate humans. Foxes are said to be tricksters and like to play with humans, which is while there were usually feared.

If you track back legends about foxes you will also find really old ones in India and China. For a time people thought Japan's tales about mystical foxes were therefore just an Indian or Chinese adaptation, but some stories have survived were foxes have benevolent attributes and fight with and for rather than against humans. So it can be believed that Japan had its own legendary foxes when and wherefore it openly accepted additional tales from Asia.

That is probably why in Japan foxes are also seen as servants of the Goddess Inari (a Japanese Kami depicted as a fox herself) and therefore benevolent messengers. These are called the celestial 命婦 Myoobu foxes. The wild 野狐 Nogitsune (field foxes) on the other hand are wild and mischievous. There are some more types, from which the Ninko is the most well known. Ninko are like European demons taking possession of humans, which can only be expelled with exorcism. Kitsunetsuki 狐つき is the term of someone being possessed by a fox, in earlier times it was a frequent diagnosis for certain psychological sicknesses. What is a bit scary is that the attributes and symptoms of Kitsunetsuki strongly resemble European demon possessions. For example it is said that during the possession the fox' wisdom and knowledge enters the mind of the possessed enabling him/her temporarily to write and read (even if the person was illiterate before) and even to speak in unknown or ancient languages. This similarity is striking and leads me to ask myself, if there is not something true about possessions...

from University Of California

exorcising a fox

These Ninko were very fond of taking possession of beautiful women, which is why those women were sometimes feared. In the Mid Ages it was believed that if you encounter a woman alone on the street at night, she is just bound to be a fox (either possessed by or a shape shifting fox itself).

Finally there is something every precious to all these foxes called 星の玉 hoshi no tama (star balls). They are said to hold a part of the fox' power and cause great damage to the fox if lost or destroyed. If you can find one of those well hidden treasures you might be able to gain a legendary fox as a companion, if you return it:
"Confound you!" snapped the fox. "Give me back my ball!" The man ignored its pleas till finally it said tearfully, "All right, you've got the ball, but you don't know how to keep it. It won't be any good to you. For me, it's a terrible loss. I tell you, if you don't give it back, I'll be your enemy forever. If you do give it back though, I'll stick to you like a protector god."
from an 12th century Japanese tale

玉藻前 The Legend Of Tamamo-No-Mae

picture from Wikipedia

Now that you know about Kizune, I can tell you the legend, the festival in Nasu is based on. Once in Japan there was said to have lived an extraordinary beautiful woman, whose looks were only surpassed by her incredible wisdom and intelligence. She was the most beautiful and clever woman in the whole country, and as such it is not surprising that emperor Konoe heard of her. After he met with her only once he fell into deep love with her and decided to make her his empress.

After some time Emperor Konoe fell deeply ill and no doctor could tell him what was wrong with him. So he took counsel from his astrologer Abe no Yasuchika, who found the source of the sickness in his wife Tamamo no Mae, who he uncovered as a shape shifting fox with the devilish plot to make the emperor ill and take the throne for herself.

After hearing that the emperor was outraged and called for the best warriors and hunters of Japan to hunt down the fox. But Tamamo no Mae was able to elude their hunters for quite some time, until eventually she got cornered. At this time she revealed herself in the dream of one of the hunters Miura no Suke and begged for her life. Mirua no Suke refused and the next day he struck the fox with one arrow in the plain of Nasu.

When Tamamo no Mae's body was struck she transformed her body into a stone using her last magical powers. The stone was henceforth called the killing stone (殺生石 Sesshoseki) and killed everything that came into contact with it. While her body became the stone, her spirit haunted the stone henceforth.

picture from Wikipedia

the legend of 殺生石 Sesshoseki the murder stone

Up to one day, when a Buddhist priest choose the stone by chance for a rest and was attacked by her spirit. He performed certain spiritual rituals and eventually succeeded in convincing the spirit to search for salvation and to never haunt the stone again.

the Buddhist priest who rested near the stone

Even the mighty 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Basho visited the stone once

御神火祭 Nasu Fire Mountain Festival


So the villagers meet once a year at this very stone to repeat rituals similar to that of the monk, to keep Tomamo no Mae's spirit away from the murderous stone. This rituals include building a huge pillar of wood, which will be inflamed at night. A lot of 太鼓 Taki drumming and wild dancing carrying torches in the hands. Also participants (anyone can participate) wear fox masks and costumes while performing the rituals.

All this would look like this:

However this year Tomamo no Mae found a way to avoid this festival/ritual and return back to the stone: Heavy Rain. Since the festival's foundation is fire, it cannot take place when there is heavy rain outside. As misfortune or Tomamo no Mae's magical powers wanted it, heavy rain started just when we arrived at the site of the 殺生石 murder stone.

A Teenage Horror Story

So there we are, facing the murder stone. Behind us festival people putting all the festival stuff into cars and leaving the site. We are far away from home and the trains and buses will stop driving very soon, we have no way of getting home. We will have to spend the night right here, under heave rain, next to the murder stone...

We had but one token of light, which was a kind of wooden hut next to the stone, it had huge openings in all four directions, yet it would at least shield us from the heavy rain.
But when the last light of the day started to fade the horror began...

Since we could not return anymore, we decided to make the best out of it and at least visit the legendary stone. And as it is in Horror stories we decided to challenge the legend and touch the stone. Remember the legend says, whatever touches the stone will die. So we made a pledge that whoever of us would die first would be given a funeral by the others, who then would try and challenge the curse. So ignoring all warnings from the legend, we touched the stone.

the signs are full of warnings

it says the remainder of the murder stone

and there it is

We felt a little awkward but nothing happened, so we returned to our shelter and prepared for the night. Using a rope (always carry a rope with you!) and a flashlight, I built ourselves a twilight lamp, filling the room with just enough light to eat the stuff we brought, drink some wine and tell each other horror stories.

our lamp

Meanwhile the rain was getting heavier and louder and because of that a really tight mist clad the whole area. When I left the shelter for some human necessities carrying an umbrella I could see no more far then a couple of feet, the rest being hidden in mist. I challenged myself in trying to find the murder stone in this mist and slowly step by step approached where I thought it to be. At first I got really scared, because I could not find it anymore, but then it appeared and seemed to mock me "So there are no rituals today, because of a bit of rain. You know what that means, especially after you touched me!".

mystical scary stones at night

I hurried back into our shelter and hid myself in my sleeping bag. Now apart from the heavy rain a really strong wind was coming up blowing the rain partly into our shelter. This was when we stood up and screamed "That's it! The Stone is trying to get us. We need to fortify out position and build palisades!". We looked around and found a huge pile of folding chairs prepared for the canceled festival. We stopped seeing chairs and saw palisade material and started putting the chairs on top of each other slowly erecting palisades around our shelter.

palisades at night with heavy reflecting mist

and how the festival people found them and us the next morning

our palisades

Having found the chairs we looked what else was stored in this hut and found two more tables and a red carpet. We used the additional tables to create a five person bed in the center of the room and used duct tape to a fix the carpet on the table. Like this we would be able to sleep close together and give the stone less possibilities to take one of us alone.

our bed

Outside of the hut, we could see the dark grey shapes of two Buddha statues. Whenever someone looked at them, however, they seemed to face into a different position. Usually Buddha statues are meant to protect people, but since they are made of stone, and the murder stone was so close nearby, Tamamo No Mae was probably able to control them.

the view from the hut

those guys wouldn't stop rotating

and they had a lot of minions

Still as long as they only turned, but did not move we were save. Also how could they penetrate our fortifications? So we managed to get some sleep, often waking up and checking the environment.

And thus we barely managed to survive. In the morning the people from yesterday came back, surprised to see us still alive (maybe their surprise was due to the palisades we erected, I cannot tell). They told us, they will perform another ritual this day without fire, yet trying to calm Tamamo no Mae's spirit. We removed our palisades and cleaned our fortress.

The red carpet was later used as their ceremonial carpet, where they put sacrifices to the fox goddess Inari on. I hope we did not defile them by sleeping on it.

To wake up and get rid of the fear, we decided to walk the nice hiking path nearby the stone, encircling it by climbing up and down the mountain.

description of the hiking path nearby

the path was extraordinary beautiful

it peaks in an observatory,

where you are supposed to see this landscape,

but because of the mist, we couldn't see anything

Then we refreshed ourselves with some Soba and started the long journey back to our homes.

If you have any information about Tamamo No Mae's curse or about how you can survive the touching of the murder stone, please forward them to me.


Sunday, 18 May 2008

座禅 Zen Meditation

After trying guided meditation for a first time last month, I wanted to take my chances, while being in Japan, to experience a different kind of guided meditation. This time I took my friend from Germany and met with my friend 草柳さん Kusayanagi-san in Yokohama.

持寺 (総持寺) Souji Temple

Going from Yokohama to 鶴見 Tsurumi (2-3 stations away), you can find the Souji Temple near the Tsurumi University. According to Kusayanagi-san it is the biggest temple in Yokohama and might as well be the biggest temple in the larger Tokyo area. In any case the area was really huge and we partly had to walk for 5 minutes to get from one room to the next.

Tsurumi Univeristy

Therefore the view, the buildings and surroundings were really impressive. Also impressive was that the temple was actually included in the even larger complex of the Tusrumi University and some other schools like a elementary school and a culture school (In a culture school you can learn things like 茶道 Tea Ceremony, いけばな Ikebana, 折り紙 Origamu, or 書道 Calligraphy).

all pictures taken from Wikipedia

座禅 Zen Meditation

Zen meditation is entirely different from the Tibetan meditation, I have joined last time. Instead of an image to focus on you just have a wall in front of you having your back to the floor. Also instead of focusing on anything, you try to completely erase your mind and free your head of any thoughts. Therefore it is actually not advised to close your eyes completely, since then immediately a series of pictures and thoughts will come up your mind. Instead you keep them half open, starring at but basically ignoring the wall.
What is also very different, is that one monk will constantly walk behind your back and check people for movement. If somebody moves during the meditation, he will be hit with a whiplash. The sound of someone being hit is really scary and many times upon hearing somebody being hit, I winced. However being hit is actually not that painful, as I have been hit once. In the end I must admit I even found it very useful, as every whiplash sound reminded me of again thinking about things instead of emptying my mind.
The mediation was split into two parts with a short break in between. The time was either 40 minutes or two times 40 minutes. I really can't say, since I did not bring a watch and entirely lost track of time during meditation. This time I could hold a state of meditation longer and more easy than the last time. It was not throughout the process, but at least for longer periods in between and it felt quite exhilarating. I fear the guy with the whiplash really helped me relax in a weird kind of way. Of course at the beginning I was totally tense, but with time I realized that this extreme feeling of tense actually made it easier to become the tenseness altogether.

During the first half of the meditation there was also the sound of a broom being wept on the ground heard, yet Kusayanagi-san later explained me the sound was not related. Apart from the broom there were Gongs to announce the break and later when it was over. There was the guy walking around with the whiplash. Another guy poked me with a finger twice, or at least so I imagine. There was some wooden thing somebody hammered on. And some more sounds.
Having your eyes almost closed and unfocused on the wall not seeing where all these sounds come from, gave me quite another experience, while I was awake during meditation. It wrapped me into a completely new world of sounds which stimulated my imagination. It felt a bit like the virtual barber shop, role playing games and video game immersion. It was at least as fascinating as the meditation itself and sometimes really hard to get away from.

Other Kinds Of Meditation

掃除 Souji Cleaning
Kusayanagi-san later explained to me that the broom was actually part of another part of meditation for intermediates. In this meditation exercise you brush yourself into meditation while cleaning the floor.

料理 Cooking
In yet another exercise you exercise yourself in meditation while preparing a meal, as strange as it sounds.

茶道 Tea Ceremony
Also the tea ceremony can be seen as a kind of meditation.

唱歌 Chanting
Viktor finally told me, that in other kinds of Buddhism the normal form of meditation is by chanting.

In the end I guess it is good to gain some experience with different kinds of meditation to be able to pick one that suits you best. You can also take elements from different kinds and mix them together for your personal meditation.

教育 Education

Which surprised me was, that after the meditation we were lead into a great room, where a head monk of the temple held a lecture on primordial lifeforms to us. The lecture was partly taken from a Russian university scientist of Biology and Chemistry and extended by ideas about Zen Meditation (座禅 Zazen). The monk illustrated how similar we are still to this first life form, by still being more fluid than stiff. To illustrate his point he made one volunteer lie down and by moving one leg or arm his entire body was floating around the ground, just like the water filled plastic glove he showed us before.
He continued by showing some toys he bought from a 100Yen stores, that should further illustrate his points and then talked about society systems. He took the system of a "modern" state where the people try to control nature in contrast to people like the Inuit, who try to life together with nature. He then continued in saying the human body is just like the system between human and nature. And you can try to control the nature inside you or try to life in balance with it.

All in all it was a little hard for me to follow, since it was all in Japanese, but it was definitely interesting. He also told us that previous lectures where about vortices, the legend of Sisiphos, and many more seemingly unrelated things, which he apparently still always related to Zen in the end. It also surprised me that the monks appear to work together with the university nearby, as well as professors as far away as Russian. The monk also was perfectly fluent in English and showed a deep understanding of what he was talking about (this time biology and chemistry). This openness and curiosity towards science is quite cool and very different to what you can find in Christianity and Islam. (Although also monasteries in Europe were the centers of science during the Dark Ages).

総持寺の情報 Temple Information

Because of these fluent English abilities, the temple also offers introductions into the Zen meditation in English:
Of course if you are capable of understanding Japanese, you can also join the Japanese lesson at 12:30:

You can easily find the temple when asking or searching for the 鶴見大学 Tsurumi University in Tsurumi near Yokohama, but the site of the temple also offers an access map:

Meditation is a truly great way to enrich your life, go ahead and try it!

all pictures taken from Wikipedia.