Wishful thinking

By: Louk Vreeswijk

Jul 14 2013

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Category: Asia, Japan

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I wonder if I should reconsider my stand on religion somewhat. In earlier posts of this blog I have spoken – illustrating my point with pictures – of the ‘folklore of faith’, implying that apart from its popular forms, there is also a more serious and fundamental side to religion. The latter would be of more importance and closer to the essence: religion as explanation of the world and the place of man in it. Well then, about this so-called core function of religion we can say that it has largely served its turn. It has gradually been replaced by science and philosophy, and for good reason. We can’t call upon god or gods any longer to explain the world.

Man has a universal need for health, happiness and success in life. And since he often doesn’t succeed in reaching this on his own, he presumes the existence of god, gods or spirits that can and will help him in his aspirations, provided he keeps them favourably disposed. I have come to believe that this must be one of the real origins of religion, and that it is actually the ‘folklore of faith’ that embodies it and keeps it alive. Take the practice of wish-making. It may manifest itself in different forms in the various religions and cultures of the world, but these forms prove to be wonderfully universal at their core. For the faithful, the existence of god, or gods, or spirits is a foregone conclusion, but mainly in this respect: to fulfill their needs and wishes. For the rest they don’t need them and are hardly concerned with them.

DSC00033 - Kitano Tenmanu shrine - Kyoto - Copy blog column size

After examples from Catholicism in Europe and Hinduism in India, and in order to add more weight to the claim of universality, we have this week an example from Shintoism in Japan, which is probably more popular than Zen Buddhism. Worshippers visit Shinto shrines to address the deified spirits (kami) that are housed in them. In the thousands of shrines that are spread over the country, worshippers write their wishes on small wooden plates that are specially made and sold for the purpose. Then they hang them close to the shrine, hoping that the kami will fulfill their wishes. It is basically the same story as with the Himalayan Goludev from last week’s post. The difference, interestingly, is in the appearance: while the Indian scene around the temple of Goludev is of an informal, messy organization, the Japanese system is well-organized, with uniform wooden plates, hanging in neatly arranged rows around the Shinto shrine. A typical and deeply ingrained difference of culture.

DSC00036 - Kitano Tenmanu shrine - Kyoto - Copy blog column size

The photos above were taken at the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which is one of several hundred shrines across Japan that are dedicated to the spirit of ancient scholar and politician Sugawara Michizane. Known as a scholar, his spirit is associated with the kami of education, for which reason he is frequently visited by students who request his help. With exams approaching, they come in bus-loads, all eagerly writing down their wishes on the small wooden plates.

Photo of the week: The girl has started writing her wish with the words ‘high school’ (Translation: Oliver Constable). Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto, Japan, 2008

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