Views of Japan

A cultural guide to Japan and its history that you won't find in guide books!

The Empress Somedono is possessed by a tengu (天狗).
The Empress Somedono (829-900) was the wife of Emperor Montoku (r. 850-858). Also known as Akirakeiko, she was the daughter of the Regent Fujiwara no Yoshifusa (804-872), chief adviser to the Emperor. She was the mother of Emperor Seiwa (r. 858-876). 
In the Shui Õjõden (1123), a text recording stories about rebirth in the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha, it is recorded that: 
"Empress Somedono was possessed by a tengu. Several months passed by, but nobody could exorcise the tengu. The tengu announced: ‘Unless the buddhas of the three eras appear, who could dare oppose me.’ 
After some time the priest Sõõ (831-918) who had founded Mudõ Temple on sacred Mount Hiei was summoned to perform an exorcism. 
Sõõ prayed to Amida Buddha for a week, but his prayers had no effect on the tengu. Sõõ then returned to Mount Hiei to pray instead to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Immovable Wisdom King.
Fudõ Myõ-õ sat upon his great dais facing the south. When Sõõ sat to pray to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Wisdom King turned away from Sõõ and faced the west. When the priest seated himself in the west, Fudõ Myõ-õ turned to face the east. The priest again sat in the east facing Fudõ Myõ-õ, but the Wisdom King again turned to face the west. After a few more times at trying to pray to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Wisdom King finally returned to his original position facing the south.
The priest seated himself again in the south and with tears in his eyes, begged Fudõ Myõ-õ, ‘I request an answer to my prayers, why do you turn away from me?’ Fudõ Myõ-õ looked into the teary eyes of the priest and spoke, ‘In accordance with my vow that if a person keeps my spell even once, I will protect him for lives to come, I have not responded to your petitions and have turned away from you. This is my reason, in the past, the priest Shinzei of Ki kept my spell; however, because of a slightly wrong attachment, he fell into the realm of tengu and now torments the Empress. 
Because of the original vow, I must protect this tengu. You must go to the palace and secretly whisper to the tengu, ‘Are you the tengu of Kaki no moto, the priest Shinzei of Ki known as Ki no Sõjõ? As he answers, lower your head and perform an exorcism by quietly chanting the magic Buddhist spell of the Daiitoku. The tengu will then be bound by this spell. Meanwhile, I will absolve him of his wrong attachment and lead him back to the path of the Buddha.’ Sõõ was deeply moved by the words of Fudõ Myõ-õ. He did as he was instructed, asking the question and performing the exorcism. He was able to successfully seize the tengu and banish it. The Empress Somedono recovered soon after.” 
The tengu that possessed Empress Somedono was Shinzei (800-860), the priest of Ki known as Ki no Sõjõ. Shinzei was a disciple of Kõbõ Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon-shu Mikkyõ (esoteric) Buddhism. He transformed himself into a tengu and possessed the Empress because he supported Prince Koretaka as the new emperor in place of Prince Korehito.
Empress Somedono's father Fujiwara no Yoshifusa had her child, Prince Korehito (later Emperor Seiwa) placed upon the thrown when he was nine. A child so young had never been crowned emperor before. There was considerable opposition to Yoshifusa's meddling in imperial affairs, and so a struggle began between Prince Korehito and his half-brother Prince Koretaka (844-897). 
In the Heike Monogatari (1180) it says:
"The struggle for the throne between the two princes was to be decided by a sumo tournament and ten horse races. The actual outcome however would be dependent on the mystic powers of the Mikkyõ (Buddhist magic) of two priests - Kaki no moto Ki no Sõjõ Shinzei, the head priest of the Shingon-shu Tõ Temple and disciple of Kõbõ Daishi, praying for Prince Koretaka - and Eryõ, priest of Tendai-shu on Mount Hiei and guardian priest of Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, praying for Prince Korehito.
Koretaka won the first four horse races and Korehito won the next six. During the sumo match, it was already apparent that Korehito was going to win as he had a champion of enormous strength. But Eryõ performed the magical Buddhist ritual to Daiitoku and piercing his own skull with a kongõ-sho, removed brain matter and threw it into the ritual fire as an offering to the Buddhist gods. This action was approved by the Buddha and so Korehito's wrestler won the match, he was then named Emperor Seiwa.”
So, the fight between the powers of a Tendai-shu Mikkyõ priest and a Shingon-shu Mikkyõ priest led to the possession of the Empress Somedono by a tengu.
© James Kemlo

The Empress Somedono is possessed by a tengu (天狗).

The Empress Somedono (829-900) was the wife of Emperor Montoku (r. 850-858). Also known as Akirakeiko, she was the daughter of the Regent Fujiwara no Yoshifusa (804-872), chief adviser to the Emperor. She was the mother of Emperor Seiwa (r. 858-876). 

In the Shui Õjõden (1123), a text recording stories about rebirth in the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha, it is recorded that: 

"Empress Somedono was possessed by a tengu. Several months passed by, but nobody could exorcise the tengu. The tengu announced: ‘Unless the buddhas of the three eras appear, who could dare oppose me.’ 

After some time the priest Sõõ (831-918) who had founded Mudõ Temple on sacred Mount Hiei was summoned to perform an exorcism. 

Sõõ prayed to Amida Buddha for a week, but his prayers had no effect on the tengu. Sõõ then returned to Mount Hiei to pray instead to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Immovable Wisdom King.

Fudõ Myõ-õ sat upon his great dais facing the south. When Sõõ sat to pray to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Wisdom King turned away from Sõõ and faced the west. When the priest seated himself in the west, Fudõ Myõ-õ turned to face the east. The priest again sat in the east facing Fudõ Myõ-õ, but the Wisdom King again turned to face the west. After a few more times at trying to pray to Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Wisdom King finally returned to his original position facing the south.

The priest seated himself again in the south and with tears in his eyes, begged Fudõ Myõ-õ, ‘I request an answer to my prayers, why do you turn away from me?’ Fudõ Myõ-õ looked into the teary eyes of the priest and spoke, ‘In accordance with my vow that if a person keeps my spell even once, I will protect him for lives to come, I have not responded to your petitions and have turned away from you. This is my reason, in the past, the priest Shinzei of Ki kept my spell; however, because of a slightly wrong attachment, he fell into the realm of tengu and now torments the Empress.

Because of the original vow, I must protect this tengu. You must go to the palace and secretly whisper to the tengu, ‘Are you the tengu of Kaki no moto, the priest Shinzei of Ki known as Ki no Sõjõ? As he answers, lower your head and perform an exorcism by quietly chanting the magic Buddhist spell of the Daiitoku. The tengu will then be bound by this spell. Meanwhile, I will absolve him of his wrong attachment and lead him back to the path of the Buddha.’ Sõõ was deeply moved by the words of Fudõ Myõ-õ. He did as he was instructed, asking the question and performing the exorcism. He was able to successfully seize the tengu and banish it. The Empress Somedono recovered soon after.” 

The tengu that possessed Empress Somedono was Shinzei (800-860), the priest of Ki known as Ki no Sõjõ. Shinzei was a disciple of Kõbõ Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon-shu Mikkyõ (esoteric) Buddhism. He transformed himself into a tengu and possessed the Empress because he supported Prince Koretaka as the new emperor in place of Prince Korehito.

Empress Somedono's father Fujiwara no Yoshifusa had her child, Prince Korehito (later Emperor Seiwa) placed upon the thrown when he was nine. A child so young had never been crowned emperor before. There was considerable opposition to Yoshifusa's meddling in imperial affairs, and so a struggle began between Prince Korehito and his half-brother Prince Koretaka (844-897). 

In the Heike Monogatari (1180) it says:

"The struggle for the throne between the two princes was to be decided by a sumo tournament and ten horse races. The actual outcome however would be dependent on the mystic powers of the Mikkyõ (Buddhist magic) of two priests - Kaki no moto Ki no Sõjõ Shinzei, the head priest of the Shingon-shu Tõ Temple and disciple of Kõbõ Daishi, praying for Prince Koretaka - and Eryõ, priest of Tendai-shu on Mount Hiei and guardian priest of Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, praying for Prince Korehito.

Koretaka won the first four horse races and Korehito won the next six. During the sumo match, it was already apparent that Korehito was going to win as he had a champion of enormous strength. But Eryõ performed the magical Buddhist ritual to Daiitoku and piercing his own skull with a kongõ-sho, removed brain matter and threw it into the ritual fire as an offering to the Buddhist gods. This action was approved by the Buddha and so Korehito's wrestler won the match, he was then named Emperor Seiwa.”

So, the fight between the powers of a Tendai-shu Mikkyõ priest and a Shingon-shu Mikkyõ priest led to the possession of the Empress Somedono by a tengu.

© James Kemlo

A little shintõ shrine I came across while driving in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa. The water in front is a natural spring that comes up from the ground here. 

Kami are believed to inhabit everything and almost anything may be kami. Natural phenomena such as rocks, trees, mountains, streams, waterfalls, animals, thunder, etc may all be kami or the manifestation of kami. 

Wasabi growing at Wasabi no sato in Gotemba, Shizuoka. Wasabi no sato is a huge farm that grows wasabi for sale to both the public and for commercial distribution. It has many products for sale that are made using wasabi.

The clear, clean water used to grow the wasabi comes from nearby Mount Fuji and it is directed here by a series of canals. 

Wasabi is a member of the mustard family. Because it is extremely costly to farm, outside of Japan it is horseradish coloured green that is usually sold as “wasabi.”  

Wasabi paste and powder is made from the stem of the plant, not from the root as some people believe. 

Wasabi no Sato official site

The supernatural powers of Buddhist idols - part one

Japanese Buddhist priests and those trained in Japanese Buddhism acknowledge and understand the magical and supernatural properties of Japanese Buddhist icons and statues and the various Buddhist gods. Indeed, it is the supernatural properties of a consecrated Buddhist statue or icon that is at the heart of Buddhist reverence in Buddhist temples across Japan. 

Those not initiated into Japanese Buddhist practice as well as art historians, Buddhist apologists, and “buddhologists” however, either completely overlook the powers of Buddhist icons and statues or insist that there is only a didactic function to Buddhist statues and icons.

Those intending to draw new followers to Japanese Buddhism, falsely claim that images and icons are intended merely to symbolise the virtues of Buddhahood, or to nurture a sense of reverence.

The biggest mistaken claim that I often come across from modern “Western Buddhists” is that belief in the powers of Buddhist statues and icons is antithetical to the tenets of “true Buddhism.” 

There is a belief among Western Buddhists that there was somehow originally a “pure” or “true” Buddhism that was bereft of superstition and magic that somehow was miraculously passed on over the centuries through various cultures to reach only the Western world. Even more astounding is the claim of some of these Western Buddhists that they are practicing this “true Buddhism” and that all of Asia is somehow practicing a “corrupted” form!

This tendency to disregard the Buddhist belief in the power of Buddhist statues and icons, and the belief in Buddhist gods is a characteristic that is referred to as the Protestantisation of Buddhism: the habit of presenting a “real Buddhism” as a rational and humanistic creed that rejects the supernatural, magic, idolatry and ritual. Despite the centuries of extensive ethnographic and textual evidence that clearly proves the opposite. Canonical works, thousands of tales about Buddhist miracles and magical happenings all attest to the supernatural abilities of Buddhist images, statues and icons.

In thousands of texts across Asia statues are said to walk, move, fly, disappear and reappear, talk, appear in dreams, sweat, cry, and even dance. Thousands of Buddhist monks and priests across Asia down through the centuries claim to have experienced all of these things as well as having communed with the Buddhist gods through their representative statues and icons.  

Early Buddhism centred around the worship of stūpas - the memorials which commemorate the Buddha’s birth, awakening, first sermon and final nirvāna. These stūpas were the mainstay of Buddhist pilgrimage and reverence and were believed to emanate magical properties. The stūpas were attributed the abilities of healing and by visiting them followers were able to relive the episodes of the Buddha’s life.

More than simply commemorative monuments, the stūpas supposedly contained actual parts of the Buddha’s body that were distributed across india and later Asia. By distributing his body in this way it was believed that the stūpas would be imbued with the powers of the Buddha. Contact with the stūpas, usually by rubbing, was believed to have a magical efficacy increasing the happiness of believers and guaranteeing salvation in the other world.

Advocates of modern Western Zen are the best example of the Protestantisation of Buddhism. They propagate the fiction that Zen shuns the use of images altogether - something that is very far from the practice of Zen in Japan. Walk into any Zen temple in Japan whether it be Obaku-shu, Sõtõ-shu or Rinzai-shu, and you will immediately be surrounded by Buddhist statues, iconography and art. All of which, it is believed by the faithful, is alive and capable of supernatural manifestation.

How and why did this come about?

In the late 19th century Buddhism was the subject of some very serious critique in Japan, as also was Shintõ. Many Japanese were by this time schooled in Western thought and many adopted the arguments used by European Enlightenment critics of Christianity. Buddhism was condemned as crude, primitive, and unscientific. Shintõ at this time was also being criticised as no longer relevant to modern society, but it was Buddhism that was being kicked to the gutter for being non-Japanese.

Buddhism, with it’s ghosts and demons, gods and deities, was said to be at the heart of Japan’s feudal mindset and the cause of the nations technological and scientific backwardness.

In response, Buddhist priests, many of whom were now educated in Western philosophy started to play down the supernatural beliefs of Buddhism and to tone down the teachings for a growing Western audience. 

The Buddha was rapidly remodelled to suit Western tastes, he was painted as a freethinker who opposed the superstitions and prejudices of his time - something that is not corroborated by historical records and Buddhist religious belief. 

© James Kemlo

First half of a lecture given to the Japan Society on Buddhist beliefs and iconography.

The secret techniques of Araki Tõ Ryū (founded around 1720).
These hiden gokui (secret scrolls) of Araki To Ryū (written in 1789) detail the okugi or the secret techniques of kyūsho zeme (kyūsho attack). 
Kyūsho (also called tsubo) are anatomically weak points on the human body that when struck or pressed produce pain, cause a person to loose consciousness, or even maim and kill. 
The art for striking these kyūsho is called kenpõ (fist way) in the Araki Tõ Ryū and the methods of actually striking is termed atemijutsu (body striking methods). 
Araki Tõ Ryū Kenpõ relies on the use of striking with gekitotsubuki (small hidden weapons), the empty hands, the elbows, and the knees. The feet are rarely used to strike, but some techniques for heel strikes are detailed.
The scroll lists the kyūsho and the techniques used but doesn’t detail what the techniques actually involved. Martial scrolls like this, called densho (transmission scroll), were intended only for those who had mastered the school and reached the level of proficiency enabling them to use the secret transmissions. Terms used are only recognisable to an actual practitioner of the school to avoid a non-practitioner, and possible enemy, from using the scroll to learn the techniques.
Killing methods are termed sappõ (killing methods) and those methods that use the kyūsho for healing are called kappõ (resuscitation methods). These two methods combined are termed sakkapõ (killing and resuscitating methods).
Striking a persons vulnerable points was privileged knowledge closely guarded by martial schools and inventors of schools spent considerable effort investigating the effects of striking them and how to apply effective methods. Atemijutsu can be applied to neutralise a limb, especially a weapon arm, or even to cause an opponent to loose consciousness.
In the Japanese martial arts, striking is usually only used as a distraction tactic or to weaken the opponent before applying a throw or trip to bring him down, however, some kyūsho when struck will have a numbing affect and later may even cause paralysis or even death.
© James Kemlo 

The secret techniques of Araki Tõ Ryū (founded around 1720).

These hiden gokui (secret scrolls) of Araki To Ryū (written in 1789) detail the okugi or the secret techniques of kyūsho zeme (kyūsho attack)

Kyūsho (also called tsubo) are anatomically weak points on the human body that when struck or pressed produce pain, cause a person to loose consciousness, or even maim and kill. 

The art for striking these kyūsho is called kenpõ (fist way) in the Araki Tõ Ryū and the methods of actually striking is termed atemijutsu (body striking methods). 

Araki Tõ Ryū Kenpõ relies on the use of striking with gekitotsubuki (small hidden weapons), the empty hands, the elbows, and the knees. The feet are rarely used to strike, but some techniques for heel strikes are detailed.

The scroll lists the kyūsho and the techniques used but doesn’t detail what the techniques actually involved. Martial scrolls like this, called densho (transmission scroll), were intended only for those who had mastered the school and reached the level of proficiency enabling them to use the secret transmissions. Terms used are only recognisable to an actual practitioner of the school to avoid a non-practitioner, and possible enemy, from using the scroll to learn the techniques.

Killing methods are termed sappõ (killing methods) and those methods that use the kyūsho for healing are called kappõ (resuscitation methods). These two methods combined are termed sakkapõ (killing and resuscitating methods).

Striking a persons vulnerable points was privileged knowledge closely guarded by martial schools and inventors of schools spent considerable effort investigating the effects of striking them and how to apply effective methods. Atemijutsu can be applied to neutralise a limb, especially a weapon arm, or even to cause an opponent to loose consciousness.

In the Japanese martial arts, striking is usually only used as a distraction tactic or to weaken the opponent before applying a throw or trip to bring him down, however, some kyūsho when struck will have a numbing affect and later may even cause paralysis or even death.

© James Kemlo