Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness

Book Review: The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness  
by Jeff Warren   (Random House 2007)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is very up-to-date, thorough, fascinating, applicable, and written in an entertaining style with some anecdotes that really made me snicker. The Wheel of Consciousness is presumably the author’s classification scheme of states of consciousness, both naturally occurring and those that can be trained. There are twelve given and they are as follows: 1) The Parasomnias – which include sleep paralysis, sleep-walking, and narcolepsy, 2) The Hynagogic – state of drowsy pre-sleep imagery, 3) Slow-wave sleep, aka deep sleep, 4) REM sleep – or dreaming, 5) The Watch – a between sessions of sleep state of euphoria, 6) The Lucid Dream, 6) The Hypnopompic – slurred half-awake state after sleep, 8) The Trance – induced through hypnosis and shamanic methods, 9) The Daydream – fantasy state, 10) The SMR (sensory-motor rhythm) – a trainable mindful state characterized by low-beta brain waves with a rhythm on the border of beta and alpha , 11) The Zone – optimum state noted by athletes, musicians, and others, 12) The Pure Conscious Event – highly aware meditative states. Some of these “states” may not be entirely distinct such as the hynagogic, hypnopompic, and parasomnias and may, as well as others, overlap and otherwise be indistinguishable or barely distinguishable from some of the other states of consciousness.

The author is a Canadian journalist/producer in radio and science. He made it a point to travel to various workshops and centers to practice things like lucid dreaming induction, meditation, hypnosis, neurofeedback training for multiple sessions – some extensive. He also managed to personally interview and learn from some of the experts in these fields. The book is illustrated with the authors own cartoons, drawings, charts, and musings – often to make learning fun. There are also extensive notes and references to many interesting works in these fields.

He begins with Hypnagogia showing the brainwave patterns transitioning from waking to sleep – or sleep onset. He spent time in a sleep lab as a subject during this phase. Scientists are not exactly sure how to classify hynagogic experiences – whether they are dreams or thoughts, something in between, or something altogether different. For me, hypnagogia is one of the more fascinating aspects of this wheel of consciousness as I have had some personal experiences and read about many others. Some see the hypnagogic as a doorway to other realms. The 18th century Swedish Emmanuel Swedenborg is said to have made his extensive mystic travels in the hypnagogic state. The author introduces the fascinating work of Andreas Mavromatis regarding hynagogia. Mavromatis described four stages of hypnagogia: 1) Flashes of light and color – what William James called ideoretinal light, 2) Floating, drifting, faces, nature scenes – aka body schema distortions – this is the stage where one may hear auditory hallucinations or feel as if one is falling resulting in the twitch known as the myoclonic jerk (this is not uncommon and I know I have experienced it many times), 3) Autosymbolic phenomenacoined by Viennese psychologist Herbert Silberer ( a contemporary of Freud) it refers to a way of making thought more energy-conserving for a drowsy mind where thoughts are simplified into easy symbolic perceptual pictures. This is the stage where it may be possible to mine creativity. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali developed rather similar methods for doing this as they would be prone to dozing off in chairs  – they would devise a mechanism for waking themselves just after crossing over into the stages of sleep onset.  4) Hynagogic Dreams – these are the strange dreams that sometimes occur during sleep onset – I find them to be often different in quality but not always.

During stage 2 of Mavromatis’s scheme is where the parasomnia called Sleep Paralysis occurs. This is the Incubus/Succubus phenomena of the Middle Ages and it is common for most people to have experienced it on occasion although some folk experience it in a more chronic fashion. The author goes through some interesting analyses and theories about Sleep Paralysis in the literature and in folk beliefs. There are some interesting newer books devoted to the subject that relate and compare SP experiences with many other psychic phenomena including spirit possession, poltergeist activity, schizophrenia, alien abduction experiences, shamanic illness and destruction/reconfiguration, strong EM exposure, Out-of-Body experiences (OBEs).Near-Death experiences (NDEs), etc. The author even has an interesting SP experience in the lab where he awakens unable to move:

“But when I tried to move my lips no sound came out. I was frozen. At that moment I became aware of a presence directly behind my head. I tried to crane my neck but again, I was paralyzed. And then a voice, very clearly, whispered in my ear: “Harry versus Mad Potter.”
      “Harry versus Mad Potter.”! At the time it seemed like one of the most profound things I had ever heard, clearly a message of great import, possibly for all of civilization.”

Next on the wheel he goes through Slow-Wave sleep. Not much to say here as it is deep sleep with no noticeable conscious activity or REM. Scientists think that there is unconsciousness (and thus complete unawareness) in slow-wave sleep possibly with repetitive mentations rather than dreams. Vedantic and Buddhist yoga traditions, however, consider deep sleep to be a profound state of bliss – though only accessible to the realized beings. As to the function of slow-wave sleep, the obvious choice is for rest as certain bodily systems are off-line but some researchers think that it is a maintenance time to repair neural free radical damage. Others note that growth hormone is released in deep sleep – that is when children put on growth spurts. Cortisol is at its lowest level during deep sleep which is generally beneficial for the immune system.

Next on the wheel is a curious ‘state’ or period of which I was completely unaware, known as – the Watch. This is also known as – the Stirring Hour. Apparently, without dependence on artificial light people would sleep in a more segmented pattern – having a ‘first sleep’ from about 9PM to sometime after midnight and another sleep session from about 2AM till dawn. I between was the state/period he calls the Watch. He notes the characterization of the ‘first sleep’ in medieval literature and also some modern experiments to re-introduce where after a while in controlled conditions of having to lay down for 12-14 hours (the dark time in the winter) for several days and nights, the participants would fall into these patterns. One researcher, Wehr, suggested that this was a time for ancient man to contemplate and have a sort of channel of communication between dreams and waking life that has been lost. Perhaps it is one of the way in which we differ from our ancestors. Perhaps also – this is another place where we have lost touch with our mythic mind. The Watch has to do with circadian rhythms, our biological clocks. People have been divided by some into larks and owls, night and morning people and it seems we see this and experience it alot. Artificial light can delay the release of melatonin, our night hormone – while candles and oils lamps seem to remain below the threshold. The late-night awakening called the Watch is characterized by normal alpha brain waves but also with a definite increase in a hormone called prolactin, considered to have a calming effect. This may account for the notion of an altered state. Prolactin is associated with lactating mothers and peacefully roosting chickens – I can vouch for the super-relaxed, drowsy chickens. As well as prolactin, melatonin and cortisol are also increased during long nights. Prolactin was thought to be only produced and maintained during sleep but at least one researcher noted that higher prolactin levels were retained during these late-night awakenings. But it is a subtle state as any small disturbance was found to interrupt prolactin release.

The author actually does do a very good experiment to study this state by going to an isolated family cabin alone for nearly three weeks in late autumn. He has some very interesting experiences such as waking up while his dream continues to play out before his eyes. He notes increased sensitivity to light, including even small clock lights which he ends up turning off early in the experiment. After about a week he began to experience the Watch, where he would wake up. He notes that it was generally pleasant but a delicate state that any stimulus could ruin. Towards the last week of the experiment he notes that he stayed awake longer and noticed waking up more times in the night. Interestingly, he notes that humans in hunter-gatherer societies sleep like this. Of course, they are much more affected by circadian rhythms and less affected by artificial light. They also need to be on guard for predators and raids. So segmented, or polyphasic sleep is the norm for them as monophasic sleep is for us. Some have tried to increase their productivity and sleep requirements by implementing polyphasic sleep but with generally less than desirable results. Many cultures include napping. He notes the almost required mid-day nap in Cairo, Egypt. This is also common in many European countries. I remember when I was a small child my grandmother would take a short afternoon nap. This would be considered bimodal sleep. What all this suggests to the author is simply that sleep is plastic, or flexible to a certain extent, although most research suggests that it is important to get enough sleep for health reasons. But I also have heard tale of those who can maximize or efficientize their sleep with powerful mental habits – such as a Theravadin monk I had met who says he feels entirely refreshed after sleeping four hours a night.

Next on the Consciousness Wheel is the REM Dream. Here is an interesting quote from Lucid Dream pioneer Stephen LaBerge:

“Asking why we dream is like asking why we are conscious. We dream because the brain is designed to make a model of the world whenever it’s functioning.”

Warren divides modern dream researchers into two competing camps: the hardware folk – ie. the neorophysiologists, esp. Harvard’a Allan Hobson, and the software folk – ie. the psychologists starting with Freud. In studying dream content Freud noted emotional connections between memories as making another type of narrative decipherable by the psychoanalyst. Hobson’s Activation-Synthesis dream theory is based on correlation between dream content and brain physiology – in terms of which areas of the brain are activated and de-activated and which neurotransmitters are fired. Hobson suggests that dream content is by-product nonsense. The psychological camp acknowledges the physiology but says that dreams are still involved with emotional wish-fulfillment and suggest that the physiological changes are more results than causes. Theories of why we dream include those of emotional processing and those of memory consolidation as well as those of preparing the brain for waking. Another old one is that of ‘ancestral skill rehearsal.” REM sleep occupies the most time in early life when the brain is most rapidly developing. Some researchers suggest that dreams are an instinctual type of knowledge, possibly pre-lingual.

Next we have the Lucid Dream. Here we get to experience the author’s first bout with the Nova Dreamer, Dr. Stephen LaBerge’s headgear device that helps to induce lucid dreams. This is used in addition to other techniques. There are reality tests during lucid dreaming such as checking a digital clock, reading and re-reading text, examining the hand (from Carlos Casteneda fame), and toggling a light switch. If one uses cues during the day to habitually ask oneself if one is dreaming one will be more likely to ask the same question during a dream. That idea derives from the Indo-Tibetan dream Yoga tradition. The author had his first ever lucid dream the very first night he used the Nova Dreamer, although he admits he did not have another one for quite a while. He was very excited and it seemed a n awesome experience to him. LaBerge along with his mentor William Dement at Stanford sleep lab had discovered that lucid dreamers can signal with the eyes to researchers when they were dreaming lucidly. Over much experimentation they discovered that lucid dreaming happens almost exclusively in REM sleep.

The author and his girlfriend Kelly than attend one of LaBerge’s Lucid Dreaming retreats in Hawaii. There is a section in the book from the workshop designed to highlight (or un-highlight as it were) one’s scotoma, or blind spot –where the optic nerve breaches the retina due to no presence of rods or cones (although I don’t quite get it). A dot and a plus sign within a circle on a piece of paper are used to make one disappear. When one then does it again on a checkered surface – where the plus sign in the circle disappears the mind replaces the empty space with more checkerboard – as that is what the brain expects to see. So as LaBerge says – this replacement section is made of the same stuff dreams are mad of. LaBerge calls these expected scripts or assumptions about a given object or situation – schemas. He says that these ‘schemas’ “capture the essential regularities about how the world has worked in the past and how we assume it will act in the future.” Hobson believes that lucid dreaming is a dissociation in the same way that sleep paralysis is thought to be a dissociation. In sleep paralysis it is said to be a sleeping component invading waking in lucid dreaming it is a waking component invading sleeping. And this, would say Hobson, is all a result of neurobiological happenings. LaBerge would disagree based on solid cognitive psychology evidence. The author’s girlfriend got a WILD, or a wake-induced lucid dream resulting in a classic OBE. There is the technique of “dream spinning” or spinning in a lucid dream in order to stabilize a lucid dream. The author had experienced a classic “false awakening” during his first lucid dream. LaBerge makes the interesting note that the dreaming state is similar to the waking state but without sensory input and the waking state is like dreaming but with the addition of sensory input. Another big factor in inducing lucid dreams seems to be expectation at least more-so than desire. It is suggested that is perhaps why beginners who think about and focus on having a lucid dream seem to get one when they had never had one before. The author does get another lucid dream near the end of the workshop that ends up being quite hilarious and keeps well to the overall hilarity of the book.

Next is the hynopompic state, or transition from sleep to waking. The term hypnopompic is often used interchangeably with hypnagogic but there are likely some differences. Imagery seems to be a little different as hypnopompic imagery seems to arrive fully formed from the dream state rather than transforming before our eyes. The author sees the hypnopompic as most common with the Watch state. I guess a lot of Sleep Paralysis is experienced in the morning hypnopompic although I have only experienced in the early evening hypnagogic. There is the phenomena of hypnopompic speech – which is often garbled or mumbled – and the disoriented feeling many people experience upon awaking. Neurochemically, our levels of cortisol typically rise an hour or two before we awake so that may be a factor in the hypnopompic state.

Next on the wheel is the Trance State. He focuses way more on the clinically described Hypnotic Trance rather than the Shamanic Trances experienced by peoples around the world – which are harder to study. Harrington actually describes those mentioned above as the two main types of trances. He says that the shamanic trances are involved with performance and cultural expectation. Although this may be true – especially in the early stages and in the induction or upkeep of the state – I think that is a bit misleading and may serve to degrade the validity of such states. Other examples of trances include highway driving, book reading, nightclub dancing, musical performance, athletic performance, and TV watching. Clinical hypnosis does have some definite medical applications like mitigation of pain (especially during surgery) and smoking cessation. Apparently some people are more hypnotically suggestive than others and perhaps more importantly, some hypnotists are more skillful at inducing the trance state than others. The Placebo Effect, ie Psychosomatic Effect (which has been proven to be very real and very powerful) is implicated by some to be the real force behind hypnosis as its exact mechanism is unknown.

First the author took two of the standard tests to determine his suggestibility to be hypnotized – the Harvard Scale and the Stanford Scale. He ended up on the lower end of responsiveness and then went home with a CD in order to do a regular practice of self-hypnosis. He seemed to have no trance-like experiences and remained at the lowest end of susceptibility. Among researchers of hypnosis there are those called ‘States’ who think that the hypnotic trance represents a state of altered brain function that represents a neurological reality. Others, the ‘Non-States’ think it only has a psychological reality. The author leans toward the ‘States’ theory as more evidence is mounting – although if I may suggest there certainly seems to be a very strong and definite psychological component as well. The neuro-scientist Allan Hobson in his book, The Dream Drugstore, thinks hypnosis “is a dissociated state of waking into which many of the features of sleep have been inserted” and thus is “the precise reciprocal of luycid dreaming.” Among the ‘States’ there is Howard Spiegel (and his son David Spiegel) who developed the Hypnotic Induction Profile (HIP) in the 1960s. This is a measure of hypnotic susceptibility. More specifically the – Eye-Roll Sign, or how much white shows when the patient closes the eyes while looking up at the eyebrows. Those who show very little white are the Apollonians – very unsusceptible; at mid-level are the Odysseans; and those who show the most white are the highly susceptible Dionysians. There are other suggestibility scales as well, some based on a patient’s ability to trust. The author actually visits Howard Spiegel at his apartment for an interview. Spiegel was 92 at the time. Spiegel dismisses the myth that the hypnotist can impose a trance. He says that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis, although a hypnotist can be skilled in showing them how to activate the trance state for themselves. Spiegel claims an 80-85% success rate in hypnotizing patients. The author gives a complete account of his being hypnotized by Spiegel where he raises his arm without realizing it, has an instance of amnesia, and a few other interesting things happen. He found the process rather mind-boggling. Spiegel describes the trance state as a state of receptivity where one is open and trusting towards whatever one is involved in. Spiegel notes as well that the psychological construct of expectation also plays a role in trance induction: “We know that our expectations even modify what we perceive, because often what we perceive includes what we interpret we perceive.” Speigel also dismisses the materialist premise that the mind is the brain perpetuated by Descartes. He thinks that modern medicine does not appreciate enough the psychological and social aspects of affliction and healing. He says that, “we are overmedicating people and not giving them enough psychological instruction to help change behavior and solve problems.” The author sees the medical implications of hypnosis as “mind-body renovation.”

Next is the Daydream, or what some psychologists term, Task Unrelated Thought. This is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book. It is known that working with mental imagery to solve problems and learn tasks can be effective and that children at play, which involves fantasy can help them learn and cope with situations. Daydreaming and fantasy may have some applications in brain rehabilitation as well. As for the value of daydreams for the rest of us, the author suggests that the state of daydreaming is more uncensored, open, and receptive so that we can perhaps better reflect on mistakes and faults and make new positive associations.

Next is the Sensory Motor Rhythm, the SMR, which refers to a specific brain wave signature in the low beta (or high alpha) range of 12-15 Hz. This is equated with a state of mindful alertness and feelings of well-being. It has been proven to be learnable to induce through the technique of neurofeedback training, formerly known as biofeedback. Neurofeedback is used for many things but lately has been found to effective for treatment of ADHD among children and ADD among adults. The author embarks on a multi-week scenario of visiting the neurofeedback lab . The technique consists in tweaking ones own mental state willfully and/or natural in order to change the brainwave graphs before them on a computer screen. Basically the whole technique is a form of Operant Conditioning, where one is rewarded (by the graph readout) after producing the desired state. The author had a lot of difficulty getting results with this training – at first. One day he noticed that he felt pleasantly relaxed and ‘zoned out’ and had associated that with the low part of the SMR state but really it turned out to be the alpha state (he did not have alpha graphs on his screen). Even though this was not his originally intended result, alpha biofeedback was once the main goal – before the discovery of the SMR. Inducing the alpha rhythm is actually quite desirable for stress reduction and it often a by-product of the meditative arts. The author talked to some folk at the lab who had experienced dramatic results with neurofeedback training regarding some dysfunctional conditions. The author finally did achieve the SMR: “I effused to Kelly when I got home:”The is-ness! I really felt the doors of perception cleansed! For those few moments I felt I had bypassed Huxley’s cerebral reducing valve! It was a classic deautomatization experience, baby, a classic.” “She patted my hand and told me to deautomatize the dishes.” He describes the experience as not about reducing sensory input but – boosting its resolution – resulting in “crisper, more sharply defined quality to both internal thoughts and external stimuli.” Unfortunately the author was not able to produce the SMR regularly although perhaps since he got it rather late into his 40 sessions – he did not train it enough. Some researchers are more skeptical of the actual benefits of neurofeedback training (not so much the states they produce) and think it is more applicable to stabilizing specific conditions such as epilepsy (its most famous success) and ADHD. Scientists involved in neurofeedback research such as Sterman think that in order to get better results the recording methods would need to be tweaked to get to places deep in the brain – for better signal isolation. He also thinks that the ubiquitous-ness of neurofeedback in questionable New Age marketing ploys has hurt the real scientific research possibilities. One is reminded of cybernetics, the development of cy-borgs, ESB (electical stimulation of the brain) experiments, and other mind manipulation methods that have yielded very interesting results. Sci-fi movies are full of these ideas.

Next he talks about –The Zone – which refers to the ‘state’ that artists, athletes, musicians, and others get into when they are deeply entranced in their work. This state certainly has similarities to and overlaps with the trance state, It seems to be a state where energy is preserved for efficiency when some difficult but wel-trained tasks become sort of automated. It is associated with a relaxed state and alpha brain wave activity. It is characterized by clear focus. The researcher Czech researcher Csikszentmihalyi noted the following criteria: “having a clear set of goals, getting clear and immediate feedback, and (most important) matching your skills with the level of challenge.” He referred to this as “flow” – ‘finding that sweet spot at the  top end of your abilities.”

Next we come to – The Pure Conscious Event. This is the set of states sought after during meditation. In this chapter he describes how to meditate, mostly according to the Buddhist tradition, and gives an explanation of the traditional jhanaa, or mediattive states according to Theravadin Buddhism. He chose to attend with Kelly a Buddhist meditation retreat in Scotland, since most of the more recent successful neurological experiments noting real neurological changes have been done with Buddhist monks. This is an interesting chapter with a lot of the more scientific studies of meditation given such as those by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his Varieties of Meditative Experience and also the tradition Pali/Theravadin meditation manual called the Vissudhimagga. The Pure Conscious Event refers to a state of consciousness that is beyond subject and object which may also refer to a deeply mystical state. This state is said to very difficult to achieve although some people can get there seemingly accidentally or unintentionally – but often only very temporarily. The ‘paths’ of meditative training are designed to get one to stabilized states such as this regularly and fully. Former professor of religion and founder of the Journal of Consciousness Studies – Robert Forman, has developed something called Forman’s Mystical Progression – where first is the Pure Conscious Event which is described as interior silence without external awareness followed by – Interior silence with external awareness – followed by – the merging of interior silence and external awareness.

Warren interviews the retreat master Smritratna about his own meditative experiences. He notes some experiences which he refers to in the traditional term samapatti – unusual or extraordinary experiences – but also notes as most veteran meditators do, that these ‘experiences’ are not important. He describes them as ‘special effects’ and far less important than increasing one’s presence of mind. The author even has a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’ where he wonders why he can’t meditate properly and why he is running all over the world chasing states of consciousness. The author makes the interesting suggestion – based on neuro research on meditators who have made the most consistent high-amplitude gamma across the cortex without pathology – that maybe evolving humans’ latest invention, the frontal lobe is still evolving and meditators are at the leading edge. “Not evolving in terms of natural-selection evolving, but evolving in terms of neuro-plasticity allowing our environment to customize newer and more radical uses for our brains.” Regarding Buddhist meditation he says (rightly I think) it is about flexibility, about selectively boosting benevolent compassion as a guide.

Finally the author concludes with some of his own rap-up ideas and charts of the wheel of consciousness as he has described it. Quite an enjoyable book this was and a great learning experience – a fun and very detailed and thorough way to study consciousness with all of its exciting implications.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest

Book Review: Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest  by Shundo Aoyama
transl. by Patricia Daien Bennage  (Kosei Publishing 1983, 1st English Ed. 1990)

This is a very pithy book but also very accessible and easy to read. The author became a novice in a Japanese mountain temple at the age of five and has spent her life learning, practicing, and teaching Zen Buddhism. This book will make you think, cry, and ponder the meaning of your own life. One gets the very distinct impression of a genuine spiritual practitioner. Spiritual people that I have met seem to have certain qualities of acceptance, mindfulness, calm, and sincerity that radiate about them. They tend to do things carefully. Having personally studied and practiced with the translator of this book I can say that she is certainly such a person and reading the book I can see that she had an authentic teacher here.

This book is a series of personal stories and anecdotes, observations about life and human nature, and traditional Buddhist teachings. Many of the stories are deep observations of ordinary things, the flow of water, the change of the seasons, and savoring each moment. There is one on the importance of offering a smile and developing warmth. She notes the smile as one of Buddha’s seven offerings that are without cost. I have yet to find what the others are.

There are some word-gems of wisdom in this book. It is much a reminder of how to live mindfully and with good habits of contemplation and introspection. The author lays her own life bare in order to be a positive example for others. Concerning the ever elusive idea of happiness she writes:

“Happiness that depends on what you acquire or become is only conditional happiness, not true happiness. No matter what happens, it is all right. If you become ill, then just be ill; if you are poor, then just be poor. Unless you accept your present circumstances, happiness cannot be attained. To face any situation and accept it with open arms if it cannot be avoided molds the attitude enabling you to see that such a wonderful way of living is possible. This is indeed something of consequence. As soon as this attitude is achieved, you have reached paradise, anytime, anywhere, and in any circumstances.”

Shundo Aoyama gives many quotes and poems and teachings from Zen Masters, artists, children, and regular everyday people to illustrate – how to think and how to live. She suggest that we ask ourselves the question – “What am I doing right now?”

“Hardly more than specks of dust on this earth, we get angry and quarrel over trifles. We are carried away by our emotions. If we could see ourselves with complete detachment, we would feel as if we were sitting alone like a great mountain, because we would be seeing ourselves with the Buddha’s eyes.”

She tells the story of a 30-something woman who came to a meditation retreat (sesshin) and at first was sitting zazen beautifully. Then for one evening session she did not show up and apparently tried to commit suicide making much blood to be cleaned up. Being rescued by a nurse nun and the police she was taken to hospital. The author was sad but said that even though the agony of the young woman’s life was taking a toll on her, the hearing and practicing of the Buddha’s teachings would still be beneficial as seeds planted for the future. Specifically she said that, “... a connection with the Buddha’s teachings is never lost.”

She tells stories of zen practitioners and regular folk that managed to deal with difficult circumstances and still live meaningfully. She tells the story of Junkyo Oishi, a former geisha that had her hands severed and later became a nun and a famous painter, holding the brush with her mouth. Seeing canaries in a cage she realized that birds do much of their life activities with their mouths and this inspired her to do likewise.

Aoyama’s lineage is that of Soto Zen, which refers to a reformed sect strongly influenced by the teachings of Zen Master Dogen in the 12th century, thus it is often called Dogen Zen. She gives many teachings and stories from Dogen including the following:

“ In Shobo-genzo Zuimonki, Zen Master Dogen says that we should live each day, each hour, in the same frame of mind as that of a man falling from a horse. In that brief moment before he hits the ground, all his ability and learning is useless, and there is no time to think, no time for daydreams or self-reproach. When we face a matter of life and death, there is no time to look around or fantasize. All depends on our readiness. Zen Master Dogen said that we should live our whole lives in a state of readiness.”

Dogen wrote many things, often specifically for monastic folk – sort of extensions of the vinaya. Some were about suggested behavior and attitudes when working in the kitchen or in the bathroom. The idea, of course, was to engender mindfulness in every part of life.

She tells of her experiences of young women becoming mothers and the changes she sees in them. She tells the Buddhist tale of the ghost-demon Hariti who would devour children but had many children of her own and so the Buddha hid one of her children under his robe and when she became distraught he asked her how she thinks the mothers of the children she had devoured felt. After this she became remorseful and a follower and protector of Buddha’s teachings. Aoyama notes that the fierce competition among mothers in modern Japan for the advancement (particularly educational) of their children at the expense of others may actually reflect this mythic story.

Referring to self-honesty and authenticity she offers the following:  

“Worrying about how clever we are, looking around to see if there is someone somewhere who could do something for us, and stating our terms – all this is proof of not being serious. If we spoil ourselves, depend on others, and are generally passive, even a path that had been open to us will in the end be closed. If we face problems squarely, our resolution and endeavor can cause even a tightly locked door to open wide. If we do not, a door that had been open wide could slam shut. The problem lies not with others, but with ourselves.”

She says later that endeavor (an ideal to be practiced) is the opposite of self-indulgence. She gives these lines by the previously mentioned Junkyo Oishi:

“Everything can be accomplished if I try.
I have lived my life thus far by these words.
The birds are my true teachers,
Leading me to write by using my mouth.”

Such is the Mahayana perfection of perseverance. Slow, steady, and continuous effort does yield results even though they may be barely perceptible at times.

Here is another wonderful poem she gives by the poet and scholar of children’s literature Michio Mado (b.1909):

When I came back home on a rainy day,
A cleaning rag was waiting for me
   in the entrance hall.
“I’m a cleaning rag,” it said
   with a friendly look,
Though it hadn’t wanted to become one.
Until quite recently it had been a shirt.
It was as soft as my skin.
Maybe in America or somewhere
It had been a cotton flower,
Smiling in the sun and the wind.

There are humorous stories as well. When  the Zen Master Yuen-men (d.949) was asked,
“What is Buddha?” He replied, “A dried shit-stick.” This is a famous story and may serve to remind us of the value of the convenience of toilet paper (the shit-stick was used as toilet paper in many areas of the east.) She relates being told by a doctor in India that when in Southeast Asia some Japanese soldiers in WW2 mistook the cleaned ones for chopsticks (a rarity for them there)!

She tells a story of walking in the mountains with a group of women, and enjoying every moment, while another woman was complaining vigorously wanting to reach the destination. Although there could be other factors, this was likely mainly a difference in attitude. She says:

“The secret of traveling lies in savoring the things along the way. If you are in a hurry to reach your goal, you miss seeing the forests and the streams and the momentary, unblemished twinkling of the stars.”

“What does it mean to enjoy ourselves along the way in life’s journey? There are times when we fail at work we had seriously grappled with, are misunderstood, or feel surrounded by enemies. Then again, there are other times when we are so ecstatic we could be riding a rainbow to paradise. There are times when we stand at the edge of a precipice of losing a husband, wife, or a child. There is the downhill plunge of a terminal illness, or of not having enough to eat. The journey with the constant changes of scenery is the most interesting. It is the same with life’s journey. It is important not to be swayed by fortune; instead, we must learn to look at the scenery and enjoy it each step of the way.”

She says that we should view good fortune and bad fortune as temporary conditions, like the changing of the seasons. She says we should throw off the – petty self – and accept whatever fortunes befall us. She tells the story of a young Christian woman during WW2 named Satoko Kitahara, who lived in a bombed out shanty town with very poor folk, ragpickers. Every day she would see them off with a smile and wecome them back with a smile. She got tuberculosis and as she was dwindling towards death she would still remind herself to smile – as a notebook found under her bed had just one sentence: “Aren’t you forgetting to smile right now?” What a wonderful offering to all of us and to the ideal of cherishing others. She tells another story of a man who visits his old, sick, and unconscious mother – but when she wakes up with him beside her she only says that his shoulder is sticking out and he should cover it up to keep warm. This taught him the value of habitually thinking of others and displays success in the training of compassionate activity.

She tells the story of Ullambana, which became the Bon, or Obon  festival in Japan. The Buddha’s disciple Moggallana, who was very psychic, came to see the fate of his parents after there deaths. He saw with great sadness that his mother was in un unpleasant hell so he asked the Buddha what he could do to help her. He said that he should give alms to monks and transfer the merit from that to his parents. Here there are two principles of the Mahayana – repaying the kindness of one’s parents; and transferring meritorious energy.
Although the Obon festival in Japan is much like Halloween and has much festivity and is mixed with the Shinto nature religion – these are the two basic tenets.

She tells of the rigours of her monastic education and practices where she entered the monastery at age five under the care of an old nun who was her aunt. 365 days a year they would be up before dawn to do the morning chants, often in a very cold meditation hall. Even while still in the womb, she was destined for the priesthood. She realtes how when she got older she was annoyed and despaired by the corruption she saw in the Japanese Buddhist organizations and clergy but she was encouraged by her mentors to focus on the parts that were still good. She later returned to the mountain temple and did many zazen retreats. Later, in order to repay the kindness of her teachers, now deceased, she spent some retreats as the kitchen cook just as her mentors had done while she taught zazen. This proved to be hard-working and challenging for her.

There is so much to savor in this book about attitude toward one’s conditions and situations. Acceptance becomes a change in perspective that turns misfortune into fortune. She teaches this through everyday stories and stories from the Buddha’s life. There are many other stories recounted of great spiritual and psychological interest as well. Some are personal stories and some of Zen Masters and their students. Truly this is a wonderful and valuable book for anyone who really wants to understand life and how to live.

Here is a final poetical quote from Zen Master Dogen:

Life and death are to be loved,
Changing like the fleeting clouds.
walking either the path of delusion
   or enlightenment
Is only walking in a dream

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore, and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess

Book Review: Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore, and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess   by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine (Avalonia 2008)

This was an interesting well-researched book about the various manifestations of the Celtic Hag Goddess. The authors drew on many tomes and collections old and new of Celtic Folklore. Each of the traditional associations of the Cailleach are outlined in chapters and examined in detail.

First they try to isolate the oldest forms of the Cailleach. They make a comparison of the Maltese giantess, Sansuma, who also carries stones and is associated with the Neolithic stone temples on the island of Gozo in the Mediterranean off the coat of Libya. Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny all mention the worship of the Celtic Hag Goddess among the Celtiberians of Spain. The specific tribe mentioned in the histories was called the Kallakoi who later became Galecians. Kallakoi may refer to them as worshipers of the Calilleach. The Port of Cale, or Port of the Gaels, was mentioned as one of their dwelling places. This later became known as the country of Portugal. From here the tribes and their goddesses are thought to have migrated to Ireland and later on to Scotland and south to parts of Britain where seemingly diluted Cailleach legends appear. She is sometimes linked with Irish Bride as her dark hag aspect. Some researchers consider these migrating Iberian Celts to be the Q-Celts while the P-Celts came into southern England from Gaul. There is an Irish legend of the king Owen Mor (Eoghan) who fled to Spain then returned with a Spanish bride, Princess Beara and settled on the isle, the peninsula of Beara named in her honor. The Cailleach Beara, or the Old Woman of Beara, figures in some old tales, some textually dating back beyond the 9th century. Sometimes the Cailleach is also said to have a Norwegian origin as giantesses are well known in Norse traditions.

The word cailleach may mean hag, old woman, crone, nun, or veiled one. Caillech may even refer to a class of beings rather than one being. The related Scottish word carlin, or carling, refers to a hag witch, the most famous of which is Gyre Carling, the biting old woman – another name of whom is the Cailleach Bheur, with the same meaning. Another related figure is Nicneven, the daughter of Nevis. Nevis refers to Ben Nevis, the biggest mountain in Scotland which is said to be the Cailleach Bheur’s home. Nicneven is also known as Queen of the Fairies, another epithet of the Cailleach. She is associated with water nymphs as are Brigantia and Coventina. All have strong associations with water.

“Certain features stand out of the assorted Cailleach legends and may be considered motifs appropriate to her. These are:
1)      shaping the land deliberately or accidentally, including the creation of lakes, hills, islands and megalithic constructions;
2)      an association with water, through wells, lakes, and rivers;
3)      an association with the season of winter;
4)      gigantic size;
5)      her vast age, being one of the first beings;
6)      her guardianship of particular animals {deer, goats, and cattle mainly}
7)      her ability to shape-shift to a variety of forms, including maiden, heron, and rock”
There are many different Cailleach, usually associated with place, but sometimes also with animals as is the Calleach of the Deer. The authors investigate without conclusions whether there was an ancient priesthood associated with the Cailleach as suggested by Mackay in – The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of Ancient Caledonia. There are legends of the Seven Big Women of Jura who protect the deer.

In legend the Cailleach as giantess  is known as earth shaper, or maker of land. In many myths she carries stones in her apron and when and where the apron strings break – the land, or isle is formed. In Christian times there are similar myths of the devil doing the same. The hag goddess has through time gathered a more evil character through Christian influence. She is also associated with the formation of lakes (lochs) usually by forgetting to put the capstone on a well she opens and closes daily, subsequently flooding the low land. The authors go through several of these legends. In one there is a race of giants which includes the Cailleach Mhore (Great Cailleach) and Gog-Magog. Another is of Carlin Maggie and the Carlin Stones where Carlin Maggie is the head of a Witch Coven and is turned to stone by the devil after flyting him. Flyting is apparently a form of insulting in a kind of contest and sometimes with rhyme. Gyle Carling and Nicneven are also associated with flyting. Dare I say that Scots may be prone to this flyting! Several other stories are recounted including one where two battling cailleach hurl huge boulders at one another. The authors note some similarities to Norse land-shaping giantesses from Jotunheim, particularly the Tale of Gefion. In Jotunheim there are frost/ice giants and rock/hill giants. Gefion and the Caileach are presumably of the rock type.

Next the Water Witch motif is examined. The Caileach is associated with the prediction of weather, particularly dangerous weather. As we have seen she is a creator of floods. There is a place in the ocean north of the Island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland called the Corryvreckian Whirlpool. This means ‘the Cauldron of Plaid’ and refers to the place where the Caileach washes her plaid. It is a place of dangerous unpredictable storms. When the Cailleach’s plaid is washed to white it is said to be the advent of winter, white being snow. In some places she is called ‘The Old Woman of Thunder.’ She is placated by sailors as ‘Gentle Annie.’

She is also known as the Crone of Winter. Some say she rides on the back of a wolf. She is said to rule from Autumn Equinox to Spring Equinox (or from Samhain to Beltaine) and is associated with Lady Day on March 25th which was once called Cailleach Day. Autumn and winter are associated with her elements of earth and water. She has some similarities to the Germanic Frau Holda, or Holle, as a winter goddess. Both are crones that can transform into a beautiful maiden and both are associated with water as pools and fountains, and with weather. There is a Scottish custom where a stone is placed outside at Beltaine and brought inside on Samhain. One place where this is done is called the Hag’s House. In some tales she turns into a stone in the spring to return in winter. There is a Scotch-Irish legend where the Cailleach Beira captures the maiden-goddess Bride and imprisons her under Ben Nevis. The Irish god of love, Angus Mac Og was said to be the son of the Cailleach and to be in love with Bride. The Cailleach tried to keep them apart but Angus was steadfast, borrowing three days from August to hold down the winter. There was a fierce battle of weather but eventually flowers bloomed and the lovers were united. So basically, it is a tale of the Crone of Winter hiding then giving way to the Maiden and Lord of Spring. There is another legend of the Woman of the Mist, or Hag of the Mist where people claim to see an old woman collecting sticks in the mist. The Cailleach is known to gather sticks to keep warm in winter.

Great age is attributed to the Cailleach. In a fragment of the Carmina Gadelica she gives her diet of seaweed, dulse, wild garlic, lakewater, and fish. Perhaps this is her longevity diet. The authors suggest that perhaps this, and numerous other dietary references, represents a strictured diet of a possible priesthood. Another thing they suggest is that since she is known much as the fairies to wash her feet when traveling from one land to another, that this may be some sort of ritual ablution of the conjectured priesthood. The tradition of the Cally-Berry, or the corn dolly Cailleach, aka. the Hag of the Harvest is recounted. This was made by the first farmer to finish his harvest and was to be kept for the winter by the last to finish the harvest. Bad luck could come to that farmer in winter but if he made it through OK better luck would come next season. The Cailleach is also associated with butter and milk. In some tales she milks her deer. Both are offerings on Lady Day and Beltaine, usually prime milking times. Lady Day is also a time to make cow protection charms. Milk and butter were also offered to fairies and house sprites. There are stories of raising the dead with magical milk. There are other tales given as well of the uncountable age of the Cailleach.

The Cailleach was often said to have a herd about her of deer, and sometimes goats, wild boar, cattle, or wolves. As Lady of the Beasts she protects her herds from greedy hunters and assists honest ones. In this guise she was a supernatural hag or witch haunting mountain passes while driving her herds. She is also connected with birds, particularly the heron. She is sometimes named as wife of the sea god Manannan MacLir and sometimes as a wife of Lugh.

The Cailleach is also a shapeshifter. She transforms from crone to maiden, symbolizing the seasonal cycle. In this respect she is sometimes seen as the winter aspect of Bride. The transformation from crone to maiden is also associated with the bestowal of sovereignty. She often shapeshifts into a heron. The Gyre Carling is said to shapeshift into a sow.  There is story of the Cailleach who renews her great age by dipping in a certain Loch (lake) every 100 years at the exact first light of dawn – she must be the first being in the vicinity to see the dawn or she will die – which eventually happens when a dog barks before she dips. In some stories the Cailleach is said to be a one-eyed giantess. The one-eye motif likely represents supernatural powers and magical sight. The story of Thomas the Rhymer has the Cailleach as Fairy Queen conferring prophesies and giving Thomas the power to prophesize. In another version she gives him accursed fruit to prevent him from lying. In the tale she takes Thomas under the earth as a maiden but then transforms into the Fairy Queen as a hag with blue skin.

There are several Celtic stories of candidates for king being presented with a hag as a lover and it is usually the one that accepts her that becomes the wise king after which she transforms into a beautiful maiden. Many tales tell of this including those of Sir Gawain, the Ballad of King Henry, Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the Ballad of Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter. Incidentally, Steeleye Span does great song versions of both Thomas the Rhymer and the Ballad of King Henry. One of the most famous of the crone/sovereignty stories is that of Niall of the Nine Hostages where the crone guards a well and in order to have a drink the five brothers need to kiss the crone. Only the youngest, Niall does so and she transforms into a beautiful maiden. When he asks her name she replies, “I am Sovereignty.” Although the authors don’t mention this one can make the connection that since the Cailleach created the land it is under her care and as a guardian of the land she keeps a say in who rules it. She may not have liked certain of the Vikings for she is sometimes attributed as ending the Viking Age by appearing in a vision just before the last battle where they were defeated.

The Cailleach has another aspect as Seer and Foreteller of Doom. In some tales she was cryptic in the manner of an oracle. She also has a rather obvious trickster side, often attributed to ornery old women anyway. One such prophetess is called Cailleach of the Spells. The motif of the Washer at the Ford, an old woman seen washing armor there, is said to foretell a great warrior’s death.

An interesting example of rather obvious Christian propaganda is the attributes of the Scottish Gyre Carling as not only Queen of the Witches, but also as Queen of the Jews and the wife of Mohammed. Several of the malevolent forms of the Cailleach show Christian influence, although to be sure she was considered dangerous before then. The English story of Black Annis, or Cat Anna, is a tale in which she is a hag that captures and eats children who wander near her cave which is near a large oak. In the Scottish version she has a single eye like some versions of the Cailleach. After eating her victims she would wear their flayed skin as skirts. Another peculiar set of hag creatures were the imp creatures called Glaistig, who were half-goat and half woman and said to haunt lonely lakes and rivers. They were said to live in caves near water or under waterfalls. They were depicted in various ways and said to herd cattle and look after elderly and mentally disabled humans and children in the manner of brownies. They were said to wail at deaths in the manner of banshees. The Welsh ‘Woman of the Mountains’ was said to lead wanderers astray in the mist. There is a tradition to offer a bowl of water at the base of the May Pole on Beltaine to keep her away, possibly a reference to the end of the seasonal reign of the Cailleach on that day. Mala Lia was a Cailleach that protected swine. When the hero Diarmaid ignored warnings by her and a raven not to hunt a boar with poisonous spines, both he and the boar were killed. Another hag form is that of the Mulidheartach, a dangerous water fairy of the Fuath class, “characterized by a tendency to appear at the door, dripping wet and begging to be allowed to dry herself by the fire. A refusal would result in her growing in size and ferocity...”And again there is the figure of Nicneven and her nymphs, watery beings associated with witchcraft and magic, referred by some as “the Hecate of Scottish necromancy.” There is a St. Bronagh that may be associated with the Cailleach Bearra in Ireland. She is said to have set up a monastery there suggesting a typical case of adapting the old to the new in the Celtic transmutation to Christianity, which it should be pointed out, happened earlier than in much of Europe.

This was a great book with a long bibliography of fabulous references. I am looking forward to reading more books by these authors as they have about five more that interest me.

Dancing With Spirits: Festivals and Folklore of Japan

Book Review: Dancing With Spirits: Festivals and Folklore of Japan by Denny Sargent (Megalithica Books 2010)

This was an awesome book written in an engaging and fun style yet conveying much information and personal observation by one qualified by both vocation and lifestyle to author such a book. The spirits in Japan are called Kami and Kami are said to be everywhere and in the millions. There in “The Land of the Rising Sun” the most famous and venerated of the Kami is the sun goddess, Amaterasu OmiKami. According to Shinto scholars a Kami is defined as “any specific Power that causes awe.” Thus Kami can refer to gods, goddesses, elementals, nature spirits, devils, ghosts, souls, or ancestral spirits. Shinto is the original animistic nature religion of Japan. In the late 500’s AD Buddhism was introduced from China. These forms of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism also had mixed in elements of Chinese Taoism, especially Chan, which became Zen. Thus Shinto took on aspects of these belief systems, both Indian and Chinese forms. The numerous seasonal festivals in Japan are said to be celebrated with great vigor and delight. They are called Matsuri. One of the most famous nature Kami is Asama, the Godddess of Mt Fuji, the most prominent and picturesque mountain in Japan.

He describes Shinto as a modern shamanic religion and notes that a common aim of rites is to purify and make prosperous. One is likelt to hear chanting in Buddhist Temples. The Nichiren sect highly venerates the Lotus Sutra and the devotional chant to the lotus law:
NAM MYO HO RENGYE KO. The Jodo-Shin sect venerates Amithaba Buddha (Amida Butsu) and one is likely to hear the chant NAM AMIDA BUTSU. There is even a Tantric Buddhist Sect in Japan called Shingon which according to the Dalai Lama practices the Carya class of tantra which had not been transfered to Tibet from India but from India to China and then on to Japan. This form is said by him to involve lots of mudras and bodily movements. In contrast, Zen Temples fccus mainly on quiet sitting meditation, or zazen.

The author notes that there are few texts in Shinto but some revered texts involve histories, laws, traditions, mythology, ceremonies, and prayers. There are very few actual books written about Shinto as others have noted and this particular book would be valuable for a tourist or temporary foreign inhabitant of Japan. Apparently, very few regular Japanese folk know the details of Shinto and its history and symbolism with great depth, although the priests who take care of the shrines do.

This book is profusely illustrated with some wonderful photos taken by the author’s wife, Rebecca, that are right with the chapter content. My only regret is that they are not color plates that might reveal the rich colors associated with festivals. The pictures help to bring out the festive spirit described in the book.

First he goes through all the major Shinto festivals beginning with the New Year, or Shogatsu. Interestingly, the New Year festival in Japan, derived from the Chinese was moved to January 1st to reflect the western calendar. It actually runs from Dec 31st to Jan 7th. As in other oriental New Years traditions everything is cleaned before the festivities. There is a custom in Japan of ringing the temple bells 108 times at midnight. The New Years Eve temple pilgrimage is common. Kimono clad children play special games with special toys. Special foods and cakes are eaten. People trade in their old onamori, or charms/amulets for new ones. One important one is called the hamaya. It is an arrow-shaped charm that is hung in the house to protect the family for the year. Though it is a tradition to stay up all night on the first day of the year and greet the sunrise, it is also considered good luck to have dreams of: Mt Fuji, a flying hawk, or an eggplant.

The next festival given is the welcoming spring fest in the beginning of February called Setsubun. This is when the two Oni of winter are chased away. These oni are like little devils, with horns and tails, although they are not strictly evil, just mischievous. Interestingly the two are oni are the red oni and the blue oni. only the blue oni is actaukly green but the issue as to why this is so is quite murky. Ritually, children pelt them with roasted soybeans. Often, dad will put on an oni-mask and get bean pelted by the children while running down the street to get rid of the difficulties of winter season, so these winter demons are chased away. After this each person eats the number of beans corresponding to their age. There is even a theatrical version done where the onis attack a Shinto shrine and the god of the shrine repels them with beans.

The next fest is Shchi-Go-San. This is called 3-5-7 day and is celebrated on November 15. It is a coming of age ceremony for small children of ages , 5, and 7 much like  naming, or Christening. These are the ages where children are more likely to live in places where childhood mortality is high. Children are taken to the temple in special clothing: kimonos and boys pleated skirts. special onamori charms are given and special foods are eaten.

Next is Hina Matsuri, or ‘Girl’s Day’ celebrated on March 3rd. Special dolls and doll assemblies are brought out and displayed. This is one of the ‘Five Great Festivals’ that came from China, along with New Years, Boy’s day, Star Festival, and Harvest Festival. The dolls may represent gods of domestic happiness and the emperor and empress are at the top. They may represent the Chinese King and Queen of Heaven. Health, beauty, marriage, and prosperity are the aspirations. The doll sets are often passed to daughters as family treasures.

Next is Hana Matsuri and Ohanami. This celebrates the birth of the Buddha (April 8) and the spring blossoms. Statues of infant Buddha are bathed with dippers full of sweet hydrangea tea. Special dances, dramas, and sutra chanting are also practiced. This coincides with the flowering of the Cherry trees, called sakura. People picnic under the splendid flowering trees. I have several of these trees at home and one near the window seems to pleasantly ‘freak me out’ every year when I come down from bed on the first morning it blooms.

Boy’s Day Festival is called Tango-No-Sekku. This happens on May 5th. Giant carp banners hang everywhere. It is based on an earlier festival called the ‘Feast of the Iris’ which coincides with the blooming of the irises. Iris was an important herbal medicine and a masculine symbol. A hot bath is filled with iris leaves and a long soak is said to promote strength and stamina. Finely-chopped leaves were mixed with heated sake. This was a favorite of the samurai who thought it helped them fight better. The carp banners and figures of ferocious warriors were used to ward off insects from causing damage in the fields. The festival is really a combination of festivals later decided as a day to foster martial spirit. Swords, helmets, and armor are displayed. The symbol of the carp is used since they have the strength and stamina to swim against river currents. war games are played and children are honored.

The Star Festival, called Tanabata, is celebrated in July or August based on a shifting lunar calendar. This fest is based on the ancient Chinese myth of the ‘Princess Weaver’ and her lover the Divine Cowherd (the star Altair). Since their love interfered with both the weaving and the herding, the King of Heaven banished them to either side of the Milky Way except for the one day – that is this festival. The Japanese weaver goddess Tanabata was entwined into the festival as well. Romance and wish-fulfillment are the qualities venerated and there is also a practice writing elegant poetry. The star gods are offered fruits and sweets. This is the time to make wishes upon stars.

Next is Obon, the autumn festival associated with the dead, ghosts, and ancestors. Obon is based on Shinto festivals, but mainly on the Buddhist Festival of Ullambana.This takes place in August. In China it became the Ghost Festival. There are similarities to Halloween as the dead are invited back to visit and then sent back to their realms. There is a circle dance called the Bon Odori where the ancestors are invited to join the dance. Family graves are visited and cleaned up. Offerings are made here, one of a horse made out of an eggplant that is symbolic as a vehicle for the dead to ride in order to visit. There are many ghost stories where the ghosts did not make it back to their realms and instead decide to haunt. There are games too, even a Japanese version of a Ouija board. The author notes that most Japanese have many ghost stories and he goes through some famous ones.

The Autumnal Moon Viewing festival is called Tsukimi. It is just that – a time to get together to enjoy the full autumn moon. It is probably derived from a yearly dedication and offering to the Moon Goddess, Tsukiyomi no Kami. She is the sister of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Omakimi. They were born from the two eyes of the creator god. Autumnal harvest foods are offered, bathed in moonlight. Offerings of flowering grasses are also common.

One of the more peculiar festivals is the fertility festival called Kanamara Matsuri. Well made up cross-dressing men hoist a seven foot pink penis and lead it around town . Penis and vagina icons and charms are everywhere and also eaten as candy. The legend of its origin has to do with a young woman who had many suitors. After her husband was chosen he got in bed with her and found his penis bit off by her vaginal teeth. Then the clever blacksmith made an iron penis and when he put it in her teeth broke off rendering her safe for entry. Like at many of the festivals, sake and beer are reveled in. People wear styrofoam strap on penises and there are huge ones that several people can straddle. “In general, things were done that the photographic evidence of which probably discretely disappeared later on.”

Next he talks about Tenjin and Tenjin shrines. Tenjin, or ‘heavenly god’ – also called Kanko, is the Shinto deity of learning and wisdom. He is venerated especially by students and intellectuals. He was a real man from the 800’s AD that was a genius but exiled by a jealous emperor.

Next he discusses the amulets, or onamori. There are some to protect houses, like the arrow onamori, some to protect drivers, and a Tenjin onamori for students. There are white and red ones for married couples. One for the man and one for the woman. Onamori are given out at shrines, particularly on festival days. Some are passed down in families. There are also health charms and money charms and charms that represent Shinto deities.

He discusses some interesting Japanese magical creatures. First he mentions kappa, small knee-high green critters that haunt lakes which is apparently a major reason that few people swim in lakes in Japan since they are said to drag children and animals under the water and turn their bowels inside out. But there are occasional friendly kappa as well, especially if they can be tricked. Giant white spirit serpents are also said to inhabit lakes. The Serpent Goddess Amo-Ga-Ike is prayed to for rain. She dislikes any metal in the lake where she lives. She is said to transform into a maiden, to have married a human man and they have descendents with scales on their body. There are many other were-animals too: foxes, cats, badgers, racoon-dogs, storks, snakes, and frogs. Foxes are especially prone. There are said to be two kinds of fox-spirits, those that serve the rice Goddess Inari (she is usually depicted as an orange gate, called torri, and flanked by two white foxes) and mischievous or evil ones. There are millions of those Inari shrines throughout the land. Often near the shrines there will be a cave where the “spirit fox” is said to live. The fox spirit is said to carry the blessings of the goddess so offerings and prayers are made near the caves. People with psychic abilities are sometimes said to be descendents of fox spirits. There are mountain kami called Tengu. The early ones were human-like with wings and beaks. Later they were depicted with red faces and phallic noses. They are trickster-spirits said to be placated with offerings of sake. In some places tengu are revered as guardian spirits by the yamaboshi, or mountain priests who practice a Shinto-Buddhist mix. He says that pictures of Tengu and kappa can be found all over the place. I am sure that those ubiquitous renderings help to glue the traditions and beliefs together.

Daigoku-Sama is the Japanese wealth spirit and inhabits all businesses, often as a statue of a short, fat little man with a cap with a sack over his left shoulder and a hammer in his upraised right hand. Sometimes he stands on large casks of rice. Rice is associated with agricultural wealth as bundles of rice were a key item of trade and payment in history. So he is a local wealth god but also combined iconographically with gods derived from India
such as Mahakala and Ganesh, as he is often depicted with a rat at his feet. Other gods derived from China and India are the seven lucky gods. One of these is Benten, associated with learning and the arts and thought to be equivalent to the Indian Sarasvati. Daigoku is also one of these seven. With his hammer he is said to cut through obstacles much like Ganesh.

There are heavenly kami and earthly kami. Of the Celestial Kami, the sun goddess Amaterasu-OmiKami is the most venerated. She is credited with teaching people to plant rice and weave cloth. She and her brother Susano, (a god of Earth and storm) created two of the three treasures: the Mirror and the Necklace of Precious Stones. The other is the Sacred Sword. They are said to hang on masakaki trees, sacred in Shinto rites. The Sun Goddess is said to have given these things to the first emperor and the royal family claims to still have them. The royal family is said to descend from Amaterasu herself as she originally sent her grandson to take control of the earthly realm in her name. Originally rulership was said to be in a female lineage and the Shaman Queen was said to be the emperor’s wife and sister, a not too uncommon rulership motif. Priestesses were called ‘daughters of the Sun.’ The Earth Goddess of Japan is the Rice Goddess, Inari. She is depicted as orange torri gates flanked by white foxes. She has a long history as a folk goddess and old shrines to her are often excavated so he is very old and is considered now a conglomerate of many local goddesses. She has aspects as a goddess of food. She is also associated with Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess who danced the first rite, luring Amaterasu out of her cave.

Shrines are often associated with place, as in many shamanistic cultures. So where dreams and visions occur, or legends, that is where the shrines end up. Buddhists also rever the goddess Inari as a dakinisen, deriving from the Snskrit word dakini, a type of wisdom goddess of the tantric tradition. In her dakinisen form, Inari is depicted as a beautiful goddess with flowing hair, carrying sheafs of rice, and riding on a large white fox. her symbol of the orange gates is a feminine symbol and the white foxes (male on left and female on right) – the male carries a key or rod and the female hold a ball or a tear-drop shape with flames. These are likely esoteric gender/sexuality symbols associated with fertility, both physical and spiritual. The key opens the storehouse of rice (or perhaps wisdom) and the faming tear is said to symbolize life energy, or Ki. The Goddess of the ocean, Funadama, is venerated by fishermen. Her shrines are made as niches in the masts of ships.

Again, this was a wonderful book with wonderful pictures. Interestingly, I was looking for a good book on Shinto, when the author announced on a magickal e-group lodge we are both part of, that he just published one. As he notes, with the advent of Buddhism long ago in Japan, the Kami and the bodhisattvas merged and my only wish is that he would have included more of the Buddhist bodhisattvas and deities that are very popular there such as Jizo, and Kannon, and perhaps some of the Shingon Tantric protectors as well and not to forget the venerated Zen Masters such as Bodhidharma (called Damaru in Japan)  that are well depicted.