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Book Review – "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan" – Part I: Introduction

In attempt to find the root and reasoning for Japanese culture as a whole, I have been directed to this book written by Carmen Blacker, “The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan.”

In this quest to better understand Japan, I have found myself repeadetly focusing on religion as the conductor of belief which manifests itself throughout Japanese history and modern society. But Japanese religion happens to be quite elusive to the objective and reasoning mind. My first mistake in trying to understand Japanese religion was segregating the beliefs of Japan into two seperate groups of Buddhism and Shinto (indigenous religion of Japan). I was constantly trying to discern which part of Japanese society belonged to which religion, and attempting to find the one true belief-system in Japan. To do so is to be innaccurate.

The rest of this entry is interestingly enough not specifically about “The Catalpa Bow”, but is rather my own necessary introduction to the book concerning my experience attempting to investigate this quandary of religions in Japan. At this point, I suggest you get your preferred blog-reading-beverage in hand and come with me on a journey to the Tateyama Museum.

Early on when I came to Japan, one of my first adventures was to the Tateyama Museum, which concerns things around Mt. Tate, the tallest mountain in Toyama Prefecture, and considered one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan along with Mt. Fuji and Mt. Haku. (At this point, I am going to refer to Mt. Tate as Tateyama, because yama means mountain, and is naturally added to the name of the mountain to make it Tateyama. To say Mt. Tateyama is repetetive, and to say Mt. Tate is just weird, so we say Tateyama. In fact, I find it weird to use “Mt.” as a prefix to any mountains in Japan, because the Japanese name always includes the connotation of mountain, whether its adding yama, san, or dake to the end. For example Mt. Tate is Tate-yama, Mt. Fuji is Fuji-san, Mt. Haku is Haku-san, and Mt. Tsurugi [which we will talk about later] is Tsurugi-dake).

Before I left, I mentioned my plans to one of my fellow teachers at school who said that an ex-teacher of Sakurai High School (where I teach) is now working at the museum. This was in fact my first experience in trying to go on a casual solo adventure, but instead being given a strict itinerary of plans and meetings by Japanese people trying to help me. In this instance, I was very lucky to have this happen to me. The man I was to meet, Sawada Sensei, met me at the Tateyama train station and drove me to the museum where he would be my guide for the next six hours. In fact, if I hadn’t arrived at Tateyama so early, and hadn’t had the benefit of a car, there was no way I would’ve been able to see all of the museum.

The museum was split into different parts which were about five minutes away from each other by car. The first part is a small movie theater where you watch two films about Tateyama. One film is about the flora and fauna and the changing of the seasons on the mountain. And the other is about the spiritual history of the area.

It starts out as an animated film depicting a prince who was hunting in the forest at the base of the mountain with bow and arrow. He came across a bear which he shot, and followed it’s trail of blood as it ran off in escape. The path lead into a cave where the trail of blood led to a golden Buddha-like image. At that point the prince has a great epiphany. I asked Sawada Sensei a question that seemed very simple in my mind: “Is this Buddhist or Shinto?” He made confused Japanese sounds and left me with long explanations. I was frustrated and tried to tell him that all he had to do was answer “Buddhist” or “Shinto”, but he couldn’t. The video depicted a few other legends of the area, and eventually turned into an 80’s looking claymation about a priest who died and went to a cave where his fate was judged by menacing demons who sent him to hell to be tortured in many various ways by more terrorizing demons. Then somehow it transitioned to post-apocalyptic Tokyo, representing the future hell-on-earth we face in the future. Crazy. It was early in the day and we had much more to see, so I decided to let all the strange imagery sink in and venture on with an open mind, trying to discern what was Shinto and what was Buddhist.

Next we went to the next part which was two seperate exhibitions: one depicting heaven, and the other hell. According to belief, both heaven and hell can be found in the mountains in this area. Specifically, Tateyama is heaven, and Tsurugidake is hell. Tsurugidake (Mt. Tsurugi) is considered one of the most dangerous mountains to hike without extra gear, and is famous for its sharp and jagged appearance. In fact, before WWII, the Japanese map had a blank spot where Tsurugidake was, because no one had been able to climb up and properly survey the area. (The recently released movie, “Tsurugidake: Ten-no-ki” is about the successful summit and surveying of Tsurugidake. I highly recommend this movie for so many reasons, but doubt you can find it in English. Also, check my earlier post from July titled, “Hiking Through Heaven and Hell” for my experience climbing Tateyama and Tsurugidake with my brother and fellow aikidoka.) These mountains are also famous for mandalas. The mandalas are large two-dimensional depictions of the moutain range, with sharp spires and large tortuous demons around Tsurugidake, and Buddhas floating on clouds around Tateyama. So, with our discussion on Buddhism and Shinto, the Buddhas depicted seem to clearly mark this Buddhist, but the use of local legends and spirits mark it Shinto. If this was an important spot within the Buddhist universe, wouldn’t it be important to all Buddhists universally?
View of Tateyama

Shrine at the peak of Tateyama

A closer look

Tsurugidake from base camp
See the person in the middle of the picture? If you want to get to the top, this is what you do.

View from the top
A couple of scenes from the mandalas

Here I approach my limits of knowledge about Buddhism, but I did recently read about a very interesting characteristic of Japanese religion that seems to contradict itself:

“It is fascinating to note that animism has remained part of the Japanese religious tradition down to the present. Buddhism rejects animism in principle, but the current of animist belief runs so strongly and continuously through Japanese culture that Buddhism was influenced by it almost immediately upon its introduction to Japan. This is one manifestation of the Japanization of Buddhism. The persistence of animistic beliefs in Japan leads some people to infer that the Japanese religious consciousness is undeveloped. It is the ancient inclination of the Japanese to live in close accord with nature, pointed out above, that has sustained animistic worship of nature to modern times. But to conclude from this alone that Japanese religious consciousness or thought is undeveloped is premature. …

“In general, the Japanese affirm the world and humanity as they are and do not seek a realm or a state of existence that rejects or transcends the natural world. Several reasons can be given for this mindset. For one thing, though there have been many prolonged and bloody contests for power and authority among the Japanese, the nation was never successfully invaded or ruled by another people before the twentieth century, so that the Japanese never had to face the bitter reality of occupation by a foreign power or submission to foreign beliefs. For another, Japan’s climate is temperate, and the country has no vast spaces for people to wander in. The Japanese tendency to remain firmly grounded in the natural world has been at times a strength, at times a weakness. This was the environment of thought, feeling, and belief into which Buddhism was introduced, a religion that rejects reality as it is – the phenomenal world – and teaches a way to transcend it.”
Tamura, Yoshio. “Japanese Buddhism.” Pages 20, 25-26.
So I looked to my guide while pointing to a mandala and asked again, “Buddhist or Shinto?” Sawada Sensei shook his head back and forth replying, “Chigau!” (wrong, or different).
Anyway, we first entered the museum’s exhibit of hell, which could be described as well done haunted house without the midgets running around in costume trying to scare you. You walk through narrow hallways that get progressively smaller, and suggestive rock formations and other structures half concealed in shadows are revealed with a lot of red and white flashing lights. There was an invasive soundtrack that wasn’t quite music or screams, but sounds that really grated against the human imagination. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but certainly affected and struck with hellish feelings. Good job to whoever created this.

Sawada Sensei entering hell

Next, we entered the heaven exhibition, which was a complex dislpaying art exhibits made from students and faculty from the Tokyo University of Art. These were equally as ambiguous as hell was. The exhibits were large 3-D sculptures displaying both complex and simple geometric images with a lot of light and water, which to me represented form and transcendence.

Some exhibitions of heaven

The last part of this complex, which seemed connected to heaven but also seemed to be its own entity, was a large dimly lit warehouse-like room with a tremendous white orb in the center, and four small white pods in the corners. I have to mention that throughout all of this, Sawada Sensei was a very pleasant companion, letting me wander on my own, trying to answer my strange questions that were often in incoherent Japanese, and pointing out things of importance I may have missed along the way. Here he was essential to explaning this area. First, we went to the pods in the corners, which had curved arching white half-shell open compartments about 7 ft tall that displayed very faint images and designs of color. Below it was a large white orb with similar images. Sawada Sensei told me to listen to the orb, so I put my head to it and heard faint sounds to accompany the images. Each of these four sections represented the four seasons. If I could put a color to each season, winter was blue, spring pink, summer green, and fall red. As for sounds, fall and winter were similar in that it sounded a bit like dripping water, and spring and summer had more melodic sounds. To be honest though, all of this stimuli was incredibly faint and ambiguous, and so this is just my interpretation.

Sawada Sensei in front of the stimuli

Then we went to the large white orb in the center which looked like an egg. Sawada Sensei told me it represented the womb, and had a space in the middle that we could enter, so we did. We took our shoes of and dove in, and laid ourselves down in the concave middle and looked at the ceiling which had stronger, but even more ambiguous lights and images, with an irregular bass we felt through the walls and floor.
Buddhist or Shinto?

What does this have to do with anything?

How could you define the movie, heaven, hell, and the seasons/womb exhibit I had just experienced? Perhaps here we find a key to this puzzle. Whatever it is this museum is about, it is something to be experienced, not studied or analyzed. It is not to be divided into categories of religions, dates, and times, but rather the universal stimuli that are represented in this local region needs to be individually processed.

It was soon after that we finally found the magic word to make sense of all of this: shinkou (belief). All of these things we were seeing were not Buddhist or Shinto, but a natural synergy of the two which made Tateyama-shinkou. At first this made me very proud to be in such a wonderfully independent region of Japan with its own unique belief-system. At that time, I thought there was Buddhism, Shinto, and Tateyama-shinkou. But is another inaccurate view. Finally, after another year in Japan, I have finally after all this time realized that it is like this all over Japan. Every region has a significant and ancient local belief that is some combination of Buddhist and Shinto and other things (as we may see from “Catalpa Bow”).

Why has this phenomenon of mixing, matching, assimilating religions been so difficult to understand for me as a Westerner? And why does modern Japan distinguish between Shinto shrines (jinja)and Buddhist temples (otera)? I have a few ideas of my own, but the answers are far too many to list here. There are volumes upon volumes of academic writing attempting to answer this question. To give one small example very briefly here, during the Meiji Era in the 1860’s when Japan opened up to the West and started a mass transition to the acquiring of Western ideas and items, Buddhism and Shinto began to be categorized as religions and thusly divided. During WWII in order to increase nationalistic fervor, Buddhism was placed lower than Shinto because it was shared among other “inferior” nations of the world like China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and India, and an emphasis was placed on Shinto as the source of Japan’s nobility and superiority, allowing the country to convince thousands and maybe millions of kamikaze (the wind of the gods) pilots to kill themselves for the gods. Perhaps you should try and ask someone Japanese about the seperation of the two belief systems. However, often times you will find that they don’t know exactly and don’t particularly care either. You worship your ancestors during Obon festival in early August, go to a shrine for New Years (Oshogatsu), and go to a Buddhist temple when someone dies. Beyond this information, I have found little help in trying to understand Japanese religion by asking Japanese people. Perhaps you have heard of the saying: “Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.”

Anyway, back to the museum, Sawada Sensei and I progressed to the final part which was the actual “museum” part of the whole museum complex, and displayed many of the ancient mandalas depicting Tateyama and Tsurugidake as heaven and hell. Sawada Sensei said he could give me a ride home because he lived fairly close to Kurobe, but I would have to wait for an hour. I of course accepted the offer, and he pointed me in the direction of a nearby grove of cedar trees that surrounded many small Shinto … wait … Tateyama-shinkou shrines.

Japanese cedar trees (sugi). Like American ones, but different.

Though it was very early on, this stands as one of my most memorable experiences in Japan to date.

Perhaps after this story, we can proceed to the book, “Catalpa Bow” better prepared to understand the experience of Japanese religion as found in its most exotic forms of shamanism.
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