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Book Review – "The Catalpa Bow" – Part III: Suigyou

Here is Part III of my book review of “The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan”, written by Carmen Blacker. This is a continuation of the discussion on the three important practices, or gyou, that are carried out by Japanese shaman ascetics: fasting, cold water austerities, and mantra chanting. In the last entry I described the importance of fasting for Japanese shamans. I will not spend much time on mantra chanting, but it is ubiquitous in all the shaman’s practices, and is the one practice adhered to in most all Japanese variations of Buddhism, Shinto, and Shamanism. Mantras are believed to be special words and phrases that when chanted, will increase one’s spiritual power. In Japanese shamanism, these are usually Buddhist sutras, most often the Lotus and the Heart Sutra, but also ancient Shinto names and scriptures. Here, I will discuss the presence of water austerities, suigyou. To me, this is the most fascinating gyou of the three. Let’s read Blacker’s introduction to this particular gyou:
“The next category of ascesis which is considered indispensible to the acquisition of power is cold water. To stand under a waterfall, preferably between the hours of two and three in the morning and preferably during the period of the Great Cold in midwinter, is believed to be an infallible method of gaining power. If no waterfall is conveniently to hand, the practice of mizugori, by which wooden buckets of cold water are tipped over the head and body at stated intervals of time, is considered almost as efficacious.”
(page, 91)

If the shaman’s goal is to increase spiritual power and communicate with spirits, what benefits does this gyou bestow on the practitioner?

“Clarity and concentration of mind are the virtues frequently cited as resulting from both fasting and cold water. It is true that, as several ascetics pointed out to me, these practices often weaken the ordinary physical strength. I have heard more than one confession that the midwinter waterfall brought on an attack of pneumonia, and that the digestive system was not only ‘purified’ but disorganised, if not shattered, by the long absetentions and fasts. But ordinary physical strength is of a different order from reiryoku, sacred power, which cannot be acquired without hazards. Miss Kataoka, whom I met in 1959 undergoing a solitary period of gyou in the Honguu shrine at Kumano, told me that the week of total fasting to which she regularly subjected herself every spring and autumn left her always with an unparalleled clarity of mind and clairvoyance of vision. Likewise the water austerity which she performed every Great Cold – ten three-gallon tubs of icy water poured over her head and shoulders three times a day – no longer felt in the least cold to her. It rather promoted an unrivalled concentration of mind, seishin-ittou, which formed the very basis of her ascetic power.”

(page, 92)

Interestingly enough, subjecting oneself to such severely frigid temperatures enhances one’s abilities with heat.

“Cold thus becomes paradoxically, a means of rousing heat. By enduring cold the shaman in Japan is able to activate in himself that magical heat which with the shaman in so many parts of the world is the proof that he has risen above the ordinary human condition. By demonstrating that he is in the grip of this interior heat, the shaman shows that he is possessed of power, particularly of that power which Eliade singles out as distinctively shamanic in character, mastery of fire. When suffused by this mysterious heat, the shaman is impervious both to external heat and cold. He is capable alike of standing under a midwinter waterfall and of walking over burning embers, and emerging untouched.”

(page, 93)

I have always been vaguely familiar with images of these kinds of practices, be it from fictional stories or movies, but let’s look at some specific examples Blacker has encountered in Japan.

This first example is of a gyouja, one who practices gyou.

“This powerful woman gyouja was first called to the religious life by a vision of the archetypal ascetic En-no-Gyouja. Ringed staff in hand, he stood by her bedside and adjured her to take it upon herself to save those suffering form sickness in the world. Thereafter for three years, always under the direction of En-no-Gyouja, Mrs Hiroshima undertook a regime of austerities in which the local waterfall figured prominently. Often, her daughter assured me, she would stand under the waterfall in the middle of winter for the length of time it took her to recite a hundred Heart Sutras.”

(page, 172)

To be honest, I’m not sure how long it takes to recited a hundred Heart Sutras, but Blacker also cites an example of a particular waterfall that is so strong and cold, one cannot stand under for longer than the recitation of three Heart Sutras. I would be interested to know the durations of these recitations, but for now am satisfied and amazed at this severe practice. Earlier we mentioned that this suigyou, cold water austerity, helps with concentration and clarity, but that seems to be more of a bonus for these ascetics in relation to the goal of these particular gyou, which is communication with spirits. As a modern day American, my belief and interest in such practice stops at the benefits of increased concentration, but for the ascetics who so devotedly practice these gyou, the implications are much larger. Let’s look at what else Blacker has to say about Mrs Hiroshima from the paragraph above.

“At the end of three years, these strenuous efforts culminated in a terrific divine seizure. For a whole week, without a single pause for rest, she was in a continuous state of divine possession. She neither ate nor slept, and only salt water passed her lips while deity after deity from all over Japan came into her body and spoke through her mouth.”

(page, 173)

Blacker also cites many examples of teenage miko, blind female shamans, who in their training, are awoken by their teachers periodically throughout the night, to feel their way to nearby rivers or waterfalls where they are to practice suigyou while chanting certain mantras.

Let’s look at one more example from priests in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. This is Blacker’s most extreme example of cold water austerities in her book.

“Like other ascetics in Japan, the Nichiren priests have to undergo a preliminary period of austerities before they are believed to be endued with the necessary power to deal with inferior spirits. For them, however, the regime is a particularly excrutiation one. Known as the hundred days aragyou or rough austerities, it is carried out every winter either on the summit of Mt Minobu, the mountain not far from Fuji to which Nichiren retired in his old age, or in a secluded remple in the precincts of the Hokekyouji in Chiba prefecture.

“As related to me by Hotta Ryuushou Shounin, the incumbent of the Kanazawa temple, the hundred days aragyou start on November 1st and continue throughout the coldest days of the winter until well into the following February. The regime is as follows. The days start at 3 a.m. with a bout of cold water mizugori. The exercitant priests, wearing only a loincloth, tip over their heads tub after tub of cold water. This excercise is repeated every three hours until 9 p.m., making in all seven times a day. Only two meals a day are allowed, and those consist only of thin rice gruel. The rest of the time is entirely taken up with the chanting of the Lotus Sutra and with practice in the use of the bokken or magic castanets. This peculiar instrument, a flat piece of wood with a ball attached, makes a sharp resonant click held to have a powerful effect on spiritual beings.

“The last spell of Lotus chanting ends at 11 p.m., so that four hours sleep a night is all that is allowed to the exercising priests. Shaving and cutting the hair are prohibited throughout the hundred days, so that those who endure the course emerge on the last day with long hair and straggling beards. From the commemorative photograph which the Shounin showed me I could see that his hair had gone prematurely white with the strain of the penances. And indeed, what with the appalling cold, the reduced diet, the lack of sleep and the extreme pain caused by the correct straight-armed manipulation of the bokken, the Nichiren regime is one of the most taxing and exhausting still to be found in Japan.”

(page, 302)
Here is a link to a video showing the Nichiren priests during aragyou.
Most of Blacker’s examples are drawn from the regions of north east Japan, the Kii peninsula, and Okayama prefecture, but I have personally found a remarkable existence of this practice here in Toyama Prefecture. There is a temple/shrine (think Tateyama shinkou (religion/belief), not Buddhist or Shinto) where stone waterfalls in the shape of dragon heads have been built for the practice of suigyou for the priests. It is said that the priests sit under these waterfalls in the Great Cold (which is particularly severe here on the Sea of Japan coast). In fact, the other day, I found out that the old obaachan (woman) who cuts my hair, travels to the shrine along with many other people on New Years and will sometimes see the priests in the middle of their practice. I will have to make a trip this winter to see for myself.
Here are some photos I took of Nisseki-ji Oiwa-san last summer.


What initially drew me to this book, “The Catalpa Bow”, was an interest in yamabushi, mountain ascetics who regularly practice these three gyou, in addition to many other strange practices. They officially belong to the Shugendo sect of esoteric Buddhism and have been documented in Japan for at least 1,000 years. Accounts are made in medieval Japan describing them as strange beings who dwelled in the forests of mountains honing their supernatural powers. They are often believed to be in close connection with tengu, Japanese goblins which are combinations of crows and people and are responsible for mischief. Everyone I’ve mentioned yamabushi to shake their heads and give me strange looks calling them crazy. Because my Aikido Sensei is a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect, I’ve mentioned my interest in yamabushi, and he replied with a very enthusiastic proclomation of how crazy they are. Even Tame the tea man whom I met last August, a very strange man traveling the country in a tea house he has built on the back of his pickup truck stopping for long periods in the woods, called the yamabushi crazy. One of my English teachers at school gave me the mildest reaction to my mention of yamabushi, but even he said they were crazy.

With the exception of absentions from particular foods during certain sacred times, and mantra chanting which is practiced by the majority of Japanese clergy, the examples we find of people who practice these particular gyou mentioned in Blacker’s book in their most severe and empowering forms are very rare, and often belong to what are considered supernatural or “crazy” belief systems.

Let’s look at one last concluding remark from Blacker on the topic of ascetic practices.

“Here we are surely confronted with the underlying reason for gyou. Performed within a sacred context, with the prospect of a transformed life ahead, ascesis may open the mind to an influx of spiritual strength. By breaking down the ordinary human habits of living, by drastically altering the rythms of sleep and eating, and above all by subjecting the body to extreme degrees of cold, the system is reduced to a point where mere collapse would usually ensue. Where the sacred world lies before one, however, these stresses become the means of opening a crack or vent in the hard carapace of human habit, enabling a new source of power to stream in.”

In conclusion of my review of Carmen Blacker’s, “The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan”, I found it to be a captivating read with a wide variety of experiences Blacker has accumulated from long study and many personal first hand experiences with these very strange Japanese religious persons. For one seeking to better understand Japanese religion, and even modern day Japanese culture, I would highly recommend this rare work. I believe one must study the furthest reaches of strangeness and imagination of a subject in order for enlightened understanding to ensue, and this topic of the Japanese shaman certainly lies far in the polar extremes of Japan.
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2 thoughts on “Book Review – "The Catalpa Bow" – Part III: Suigyou

  1. If you get a chance to train with them this summer, do. I did a weekend intro up in Dewa Sanzan, and then trained nearly every summer down in Kumano. That waterfall meditation is no joke. After a few minutes, my chest muscles were dancing I was shaking so hard. We'd also immerse ourselves in neck-deep water for morning chanting, before sunrise, in mid-September. Coooooold!

    I think they are no more crazy than we martial artists. We simply have odd hobbies…

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