Culture Corner 10.3.16
Since this body
By the one who promised to come,
My only thought is wondering
Whether it even exists.
-Ono no Komachi
Why did you vanish
Into empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
When it falls,
Falls into this world.
Today we’ll be exploring the land of Manga, Tanka poetry, Deguchi Norio, Tokyo Ghoul, and Hirosaki. That’s right, today, it’s all about Japan! For starters, I’ll be stealing Chris’s thunder for this post. (Kind of like an usurpation of power). Now where to begin? Yes, yes, I want to start with bells.
No, not the ones your phone has dagnabbit, I meant Bon. Some general facts. (Sorry to any Japanese people out there if I butcher any of these, I’m looking inside this unfamiliar culture through an outsider's amateur perspective). The Japanese celebrate the New Year's’ ceremony by ringing a bell 108 times. Its significance lies primarily in Buddhism, where each ringing of the bell is meant to cleanse us of a sin. However, the ringing of bells in Japanese culture can also be linked to the Japanese Bon festival.
Cool, right? Just wait, this’ll get cooler.
Now, time for some more facts. The Bon festival is a Japanese-Buddhist tradition meant to honor the spirits of the dead. Interestingly, the Bon festival is also linked to flowers, and a particular one I want to introduce is the Hōzuki, also known as the winter cherry-flower, lantern-flower, and winter lantern.
The seeds of a hozuki are used as offerings to guide the spirits of the dead. They are placed inside of paper-lanterns and are then allowed to float across the river, thereby helping guide the spirits of the dead. This is interesting to me because of the interconnectedness of everything. The Hōzuki, once it blooms, undergoes a fascinating change. See that white calyx? Once the flower blooms, the white calyx begins to envelop the flower like a cage, offering the flower protection. Offering the seeds then becomes this symbolic gesture and the flower, over time, comes to connote protection, just like the calyx protects the flower.
The etymology of Obon (or Bon) can be traced as far back as the Chinese Ulambana (or Urambana), which means Hungry Ghost festival. It is similar to the Bon festival wherein ghosts and spirits, especially deceased ancestors, rise up from the realm of the dead. Unfortunately, that’s as far back as I could go etymologically.
So bell ringing in Japanese culture can be associated with summoning the spirits of the dead. Interestingly, there are two bells which are rung. The first one summons the spirits, with the second one sending them back. (These bells are also known as Bonsho, and they are gigantic as f***). The bells are metaphorical to the idea of a cycle. They’re meant to represent the coming of winter, along with the end of fall. This idea of the cycle will start to sprout up more and more as this post goes on.
Next, I want to talk about impurities, or Kegare, in Japanese culture and Shintō religion.
First off, Kegare is an important concept in Japanese religion. Nowadays, it is used to refer to impurities of the spirit, wherein some spiritual force in you has been tainted, needing to be cleansed.
However, Kegare had at some point in time been looked at as an infectious disease. This can be seen in the Engishiki, a Japanese text on laws and customs.
There’s another aspect of Kegare I want to talk about, and that’s stagnation. Now, if I recall correctly (because right now I’ll be going based off memory what I once heard about Kegare), through impurity, one can see stagnation.
In Shinto thought, the river is a great example of this. Remember how I mentioned earlier that there is a cycle? Well, a river also has a cycle. For example, when a river flows properly, it stays pure and clear. Remember that episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, with Guru, when the river was blocked? Once that obstruction had been removed, the river was able to properly flow.
|You must gain balance within yourself before you can bring balance to the world.|
-Thus Spoke Guru
When a river (or any channel of water) is blocked off, because the water ceases to flow, it becomes stagnant. Through this stagnation, impurities are born. Impurities can also be looked at as microorganisms, such as vermin. That’s one way of applying Shinto thought to the flow of a river. It’s a beautiful metaphor too, because a human is just like a river. There are times where negative thoughts just writhe their way into our minds, causing us to stagnate. It’s only when we’re able to clear our minds do we breathe a sigh of relief, as if our river is able to flow again.
Cool, right? Here’s where it gets cooler. Remember the Bon festival? There’s even a thought wherein a polluted river is unreceptive to celebrating the Bon festival. Strictly speaking, in Shinto thought, any sign of Kegare, or impurity, wouldn't be conducive to summoning the spirits of the dead, especially one’s ancestors.
Everything connects. The bells, hōzuki, cycles, impurities, rivers, stagnation, everything.
Bells, hōzuki, cycles, impurities (kegare), and rivers, that’s all folks. (No, just kidding, I have more). I’d love to write more, it’s just . . .