The Buddhist Monk: The Shaman Archetype in Japanese Folklore

I’ve joked in the past that I aspire to be like Yoda at tea ceremony, ie the epitome of zen. Now that’s a picture…

Sen no Rikyū, the most influential historical figure in the world of Japanese Way of Tea was a student of Zen. He served as the tea ceremony master to the infamous warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, aka the unifiers of Japan, during the warring period (1467–1615).

Rikyū is said to have incorporated the philosophy of wabi-sabi into Way of Tea, and in later years he used a tiny, simple hut especially built in the garden for tea ceremony. The entrance to the hut was purposely so small that samurais had to leave their swords outside to fit through it, symbolising that in the spirit of Zen they left impure thoughts behind. The image of samurais from rival clans in a hut at tea ceremony (recorded to have been real occurrences) somehow reminds me of the Chinese proverb, ‘it’s better to be a warrior in the garden than a gardener in war,’ though I would bet those samurais did fight in a civil war, or two. It wasn’t called the warring period for no reason. Ironically too, Rikyū is said to have met his violent end by ritual suicide in a tea room, in the garden. I cannot help but feel that Rikyū’s life itself became wabi-sabi; beautifully imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete…

I do love to see The Way of the Samurai running in the veins of Japanese culture. For example in the traditional Japanese dance, the fan is symbolically used like the sword outside the tea room.

When wearing a kimono, it is formal to have a foldable fan tucked into the obi, a wide belt, and in the traditional dance it is used as a prop. Dancers flutter them like the geisha does in entertaining her customers, or gaze into it as if it is a mirror, or indeed, stab the air with a folded fan as a pretend sword in the male dance. At the beginning and the end of each dance lesson, the teacher and student would sit on their knees facing each other and bow to pay mutual respect. As they sit down to bow, they place their fans, folded, in front of them, drawing two parallel lines on the floor. These lines symbolise the sacred, personal boundaries that they vow not to cross during the course of the dance for the sake of peace.

Monks often appear in Japanese folklore, which is of no surprise considering Buddhism has been around for the last 1,500 years in Japan. They are seldom the protagonist, except for a well-known exception of quick-witted Ikkyū, who was a real historical Zen monk from 14th to 15th centuries. However, the monk archetype in these stories, in my opinion, differs from the archetypal modern monks of today. Back in the day, they were more of a shaman/medicine man.

The modern monks in Japan are generally thought of as people who conduct pubic and private ceremonies, such as the funeral rites. They drive cars, have mobile phones, and even go night-clubbing with a beanie hat on to conceal their professional identity and failing miserably, much to my father’s contention. I don’t personally mind. Whatever floats their boat… When I visited the office of a large temple near Tokyo Tower, the monks there appeared more like civil servants to me, but with cleanly shaven heads and floral, though quite sombre, garbs. There are still many mystical buddhist sects in Japan, whose ceremonies are often ‘shamanic,’ but they are relatively hidden from public view.

There is a tale of haunting, which is a popular theme in Japanese folklore, from Akita prefecture, 450 kilometres north of Tokyo. An old lady who lives alone in a remote village is visited by three adolescent girls at night. They come singing every night. They entice the old lady to play with them, singing and laughing. As they sing, the old lady begins to feel euphoric and somewhat intoxicated, and eventually falls asleep. When she comes to, the sun is already high up in the sky, and she finds her body dull and achey. After seven nights of this, she is too weak to even perform her daily chores. Suddenly she remembers that girls sing about a monk called Hokaku who lives at the mountain pass. She seeks Hokaku, knowing instinctively that he is the only one who can save her from her impending doom.

Hokaku explains to her that she has been haunted by the ghosts of the forest who wish to kill her but tells her not to worry. To remedy the situation, he instructs her to cook an aubergine hot pot, plenty of it, and feed it to the ghosts.

That evening the old lady serves the girls plenty of aubergine hot pot, just as instructed by the monk. When she wakes up the next morning, in the same manner as she has done the previous week, she finds the three soup bowls the girls used, upside down on the floor. Curious, she begins to turn them the right way up one by one. There she finds, underneath each of the bowl, a mushroom. She realises she had been haunted by mushroom spirits. It is said that in Akita region people began to eat aubergine and mushroom together after a case of enchantment by the mushroom spirit…

Shaman as defined by dictionary.com is, ‘a person who acts as an intermediary between the nature and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc.’ I would assert that Hokaku fulfils the requirements to be considered a shaman, noting also the above dictionary’s definition of magic, which is, ‘the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.’

Hokaku must have been able to communicate with the unseen world. How else would Hokaku know by whom the old lady was haunted, and what to do to exorcise them?

The ‘old wives tales’ element of the folklore interests me very much. Time and time again I find wisdom in it, so much more than it receives credit for. After reading the above folk tale, I looked up the antidote to mushroom poisoning. Apparently there aren’t many natural antidotes for poisonous mushrooms. Aubergine, however, contains alkaloid called atropine which is a known antidote for some mushroom poisoning! Atropine is also found in mandrake and belladonna. Sounds like magic…

It is plausible that many folk tales were in fact written around the wisdom. Take this story, for example. It may have been that a wise woman or man wanted to convey a way in which a mildly poisonous mushroom could be consumed; by cooking them with aubergines. Let us not forget that a large portion of the farmer class in Japan struggled to eat and so, naturally, they foraged. Or was it simply a warning about a hallucinogenic mushroom that could kill?

The thing that has intrigued me most since childhood about monks in folklore is their ability to talk to animals, again a shamanic trait. Frank Fools Crow (1890–1989), Oglala Lakota civic and religious leader from the US, who was considered holy by his people, said in an interview conducted in the 1970s that he spoke to birds and animals just as he did with humans, in Lakota language. How I have envied him! I am sure many people feel that they can understand their pet animals. I, for one, am one of them. But to be able to actually talk with animals, not in a dream, in ‘real’ life is a gift I would love to have.

The monks in Japanese folk tales often help animals in distress. In a popular story titled Bunbuku Chagama from Gunma Prefecture, 115 kilometres north of Tokyo, a monk saves a racoon from being boiled alive. The racoon, Bunbuku, had turned himself into an iron urn (chagama, a tea urn) but could not get back fully into his original shape. Please note here that racoons and foxes were, and still are to a certain extent, considered shape-shifters. Bunbuku tells the monk he has always been a laughing stock amongst other racoons for his inadequate magical abilities. After being ostracised by his own tribe, he ends up being sold at an antique shop. The monk accepts Bunbuku just the way he is -half racoon and half tea urn- which moves Bunbuku to want to do something good for the monk. So he becomes a performing racoon and brings a lot of tourists to the village, and the whole village prospers.

Prospering after saving an animal in distress is another popular theme in Japanese folklore. Sadly, though, such stories often end in tragedy. Without realising, the protagonist ends up killing the animal who crosses the animal-human boundary just to pay homage to their life-saver, especially when it is a racoon or a fox who are believed to be tricksters. I tend to think these animals have often been made a scapegoat when we needed a convenient excuse to trick someone (talk about projection) or even ourselves to keep us away from looking at actual reality. We have come a long way since we believed that animals, ie nature, were out to get us. Or are we none the wiser…? If you agree that history repeats itself, then folklore and legends are a good place to hunt for a clue to solving problems of today, I feel. Maybe this is why I feel like a detective combing through myths and legends from all corners of the world.

Creation myths, legends and folklore portray the fallibility of humans in a myriad of ways. Some even suggest that we were engineered to be fallible at a point in history. Once I’d read a few, I realised there was a similar ‘feel’ running through many of these stories. It makes me as surefooted as a pilgrim going up the Himalayas in believing that ‘it’s all going to be alright in the end.’ That ‘feel,’ in the little green master’s words, is this:

‘Luminous beings are we… not this crude matter.’
- Yoda

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