Actions, Amulets and the Expression of Meaning
Reflections of Need and Statements of Desire


The Diversity of Actions
Japanese people are rarely passive within the framework of temples and shrines, but generally interact actively with the religious environment around them and with all the diverse objects signifying the presence and nature of the spiritual within that environment. Religious sites are basically settings in and through which religious power may be accessed and diffused, and the various signs and symbols present within them are vehicles of that power, conduits through which its beneficial aspects may be disseminated and shared out. All these signs and symbols, from the rows of statues and the myriad signs of the presence of kami indicated by the ropes ties round trees and rocks to the numerous talismans and amulets signifying good fortune and protection, provide enormous scope and choice of action, each providing an opportunity and setting for interactions through which relationships may be created, whether temporary and conditioned by needs and circumstances or regular and underpinned by personal affinity and devotion. (RCJ, 168)
 
 
 
Statues of Buddhas ... are not simply to be worshipped but are presented with offerings and perhaps decorated. Further extensions of this interactive process involve the symbolic transferral either of merit or pain: by rubbing part of a statue and then the same area of their own bodies people are symbolically extending its merit to themselves. When the action is performed in reverse and they rub themselves first they are calling on the compassion of the spiritual entity (usually a Buddha) to absorb and take from them a pain or illness, as can be seen, for example, at the Saikoku pilgrimage temple Kegonji at Tanigumi in Gifu prefecture. Behind its main hall there is an enclosure housing a statue of the healing Buddha Yakushi. The statue is frequently swathed in clouds of incense lit by the many people who pray for his assistance in overcoming pains and sickness. To the side of the statue is a small kiosk where one can purchase strips of paper with Buddhist spells written on them: the purchaser then places the paper on Yakushi’s body and, while reciting a prayer, pours over it water from a ladle, thus symbolically washing the pain from the afflicted area. (RCJ, 172-3)
 
 
Sometimes the means by which one enters into a relationship with a Buddha or kami , or creates the merit by which one is worthy of the kami or Buddha’s compassion and help, may involve a greater degree of commitment and perhaps even some limited expression of asceticism. One such practice is hyakudo mairi (‘100 times around’), in which people circumambulate (usually 100 times) two stone markers set several metres apart in the grounds of shrines and temples for this purpose. It is performed for many reasons: as a penance for a fault or wrongdoing, as a form of asceticism designed to polish the soul, or, more commonly still, to demonstrate one’s sincerity when seeking the deity’s benevolence and help for oneself or someone else. Hozanji and Ishikiri shrine in Ikoma both have active hyakudo mairi places ....
 

 
[The latter] is associated with healing (particularly of cancers and tumours), and many of those performing this practice are doing so to invoke the kami’s help in curing such a problem or for the benefit of someone else, such as a friend or family member who is sick of undergoing surgery. (RCJ, 173-4)
 
 
The spectrum of activity within one place may thus be extensive, from earnest devotion to amused irreverence, from ascetic practices to folkloric customs: the same person may relate in all these ways within the same religious center. It is clear that this is not a religious system that involves fear and trembling but one that evokes a sense of healthy interaction and allows participants to return home feeling good, happy and positive. (RCJ, 174-5)

How does this compare with the dominant religious traditions of the West?



Requests, Talismans and Amulets
Fuda, O-mamori and Ema

Most religious centres provide an immense array of talismans, amulets and other religious paraphernalia that can be acquired as symbols and representations of the religious power and protection of the Buddhas and kami. These are usually bought for a small fee (for example an amulet for educational success might cost 300 yen, the same price as a cup of coffee), although the religious centres themselves prefer to see this as a form of merit-making and receiving, in which a donation is made and a talisman given in return. ... They fall into two broad categories: those that are to be taken away from the religious place as representations of its power, and those that are left there as a means of sending messages and transmitting requests to the kami and Buddhas. While the first variety operates more clearly as a protective agency and the latter as a means of expressing a desire or wish for riyaku, both in the final analysis seek the same ends, concerned with the well-being of the person who receives the object concerned.
 

 
The most common of the first category are fuda and o-mamori, both of which may act as talismans (that is, bringing good luck) or as amulets (warding off misfortunes and protecting against dangers) .... In reality these two functions are barely differentiated and form interlocking aspects of the same overall process. ... Basically, fuda sacralise an area: once acquired they are placed in, for example, the butsudan or kamidana or elsewhere in the house from whence they protect the environment and surroundings. The fuda in the Keihan train and the amulets in the kamidana on the bridge of the ferry from Kyushu mentioned in Chapter 2 protect those environments and those within them. Similarly I have a paper fuda depicting Fudo, given to me by a priest in Shodoshima: I was, he told me, to place it in the hallway of my house facing the door, and this would keep the house safe from burglars and other miscreants.
 

 
O-mamori are more personalised in that they protect (the word itself comes from the verb mamoru, to protect or guard) a particular person: they are worn on or about the person. ... It is quite common to see schoolchildren with o-mamori for educational success tied to their satchels, and o-mamori for traffic safety hung inside cars to protect those within them.
 

 
The reasons why these are religious objects, and the manner in which they are supposed to work, are interrelated. Although when made they are, even if carefully crafted and pleasing to the eye, merely pieces of paper, brocade or wood, they are then empowered in religious rituals that transform them into manifestations of the kami and Buddhas in just the same way as a statue is changed from being merely an object into a Buddha through the ‘eye opening’ rites (see Chapter 2). At Narita-san, for example, fuda and o-mamori are placed before the image of Fudo (which is Fudo, the spirit having been put into it by Kobo Daishi, as we saw in Chapter 6) and, through rituals performed by the priests, Fudo’s power and spirit passes into the talismans and amulets. They are sacralised, no longer wood and paper but actually Fudo himself. ... Thus the talismans and amulets at Narita-san, as at other centres whose origins stem from the actions of such powerful religious practitioners, stand at the end of a long chain of religious transmission extending from Kobo Daishi via Fudo to the present day.
 

 
The person who acquires them, then, does not receive a piece of wood or paper but a charged concretisation of power, the essence not simply of the kami or Buddha’s power and compassion but of the entity itself. Thus they, the kami and Buddhas, may be carried with one or kept in the home or elsewhere to bring in good fortune, ward off spiritual impediments and absorb bad luck that otherwise would afflict the person concerned. Unlike statues, however, their power and efficacy are transient: having absorbed bad luck or having opened the way to good, they may need to be changed. The general custom (encouraged by shrines and temples, for whom the sale of amulets and the like can be an important element in their economies) is to change them yearly, with the major period of exchange being at New Year, as we saw in Chapter 3. They may also be purchased for a specific purpose or situation; for example, because of an examination, and may thus be disposed of once that need has been dealt with. (RCJ, 175-8)
 

 
Besides this array of means for bringing away power and protection, visitors to religious centres can also choose a variety of objects through which to express their feelings and requests to the kami and Buddhas. The most common of these is the ema, the small wooden votive tablet mentioned in earlier chapters. Usually a few centimetres across, these flat board-like objects carry various colourful pictures as well as the name of the religious site, and often a specified wish as well. ... Usually ema have a space for people to write in their own messages, wishes and, if they wish, their name, petition or message to the kami and Buddhas. At most religious centres they will eventually be ritually burned to make way for more and symbolically to liberate the request. In general terms the requests are directed at kami or Buddha, the exception being ema for mizuko which, as was noted in the previous chapter, are directly addressed to the spirit of the child and are usually concerned with relating expressions of remorse and informing the spirit about family developments. ...
 
 
Besides ema there exist a number of other means for transcribing and conveying one’s feelings and wishes to the spiritual world. The small sticks of wood incinerated in the goma ritual mentioned in Chapter 5 may be purchased at many temples and shrines: one writes a request on the stick and then leaves it at the religious centre, where it will be ritually burned along with others in a ceremony that ‘liberates’ the messages on them and brings them to the attention of the kami and Buddhas. Stones are another popular medium of transmission, and at many religious centres one may see piles of small round stones inscribed with requests which have been left for the kami or Buddha to ‘read’ and act upon. (RCJ, 178-82)
 


How do Japanese practices compare with those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?



Uses and Meanings
The acquisition of such charms and talismans is carried out by a broad section of Japanese society: the five-yearly NHK surveys from 1973 onwards show a steady growth in the numbers of those who state that they carry o-mamori or keep fuda, rising from 30 per cent in 1973 to 36 per cent in 1083. A more detailed 1981 NHK survey on religious attitudes shows a broader picture, with those using them ‘often’ ranging from 29 per cent for teenagers to 56 per cent for those over 70, and ‘sometimes’, from 48 per cent of teenagers to 24 per cent of those over 70. Combining those who do so often and those who do so sometimes the total for all age groups is over 70 per cent, ranging from 72 per cent of those over 70 to 80 per cent of those in their thirties. ...
 

 
There are two preliminary points that should be made concerning these figures. One is that the overall high levels of acquisition should be taken in conjunction with the generally prevalent customs, often interfused with ludic themes, of shrine and temple visiting in Japan, and of taking part in mass activities such as hatsomode and festivals. As my descriptions in Chapter 3 illustrated, part of the ambience of such occasions involves buying talismans, often on a casual basis inspired by the festive atmosphere. The second is that the comparatively high levels of occasional use by young people, shown both in the 1981 survey and my own, are clearly influenced by the heavy involvement of this generation in educational matters, and especially in the periodic and important examinations that control their progress up the educational ladder. (RCJ, 182-3)
 
 
The acquisition of an o-mamori or fuda, then, and the performance of any action at a religious centre may express a complex web of themes, motives and meanings. Not all of them are necessarily present on each occasion: some people may simply buy an o-mamori as a souvenir or present, or rub a statue just because everyone is doing the same, while others will be more concerned with the sense of mental peace they might attain from carrying an amulet or performing an action. As with the actions performed at religious centres in general the nature of the motivations and the interpretations that may be placed on them are for the individual to determine. What is clear, however, is that the orientations of all these actions and objects are concerned with the creation of a sense of ease and with helping people to feel happy and bright in some way, whether through the reassuring peace of mind that can come from bringing into the open an inner wish or worry, or even from the enjoyment that may flow from buying  a talisman as an expression of love or even simply as a souvenir for a sibling, parent or friend. (RCJ, 189-90)