Since February 2015, I have been in Asia. I spent a year teaching English is Korea and since then I’ve been to Japan and Thailand, with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on the itinerary for the next few months. While I’ve been here I’ve had the chance to visit lots of religious establishments like temples or shrines and to observe the religious beliefs and practices of Asia. I’ve even had a chance to do a 24 hour stay at a Buddhist temple. And throughout this, I’ve learned some interesting things which I think we could learn from and possibly apply to our Pagan practices at home.
Korea has a variety of religions practiced – from Shamanism to Buddhism to Confucianism. It also has a large, very powerful and very right wing, Christian community – I still struggle to understand why people with such a rich cultural heritage would throw it away to become Christian but there we go. For today I want to focus on the traditional Korean religions. First Shamanism. Korean shamanism has some interesting elements. First is the fact that as Korea is such a mountainous country, their mountain spirit, the Sanshin, is a very important spirit still honoured in the country. In fact because many Buddhist temples are built in the mountains, they usually have their own building and altar dedicated to the mountain spirit. Originally the spirit was personified as a female but Confucian influence has changed it to male. Interestingly, the Koreans also have a folk festival called Daeboreum on the first full moon after the lunar new year in which they build a large bonfire for the village and do special shamanic dances and prayers around it. The purpose is to get good luck and fortune for the year ahead and frighten away bad spirits.
Confucianism is probably the number one ideology in Korea and it affects all aspects of their lives. One thing Confucianism emphasises is the importance of ancestor veneration. Koreans honour their ancestors at two big events during the year, as well as on anniversaries of the deceased. The two big events are the Lunar New Year (what the west calls the Chinese New Year), and the Harvest Festival (Chuseok) at the September full moon. At these times families return to their hometowns, set out massive tables of food and drink for ancestors, and perform a ceremony including lots of bowing to the ancestral spirits. For those Pagans interested in detailed ceremonies for ancestral veneration I think we have something to learn from contemporary practices in Korea. It’s also interesting to note the similarities of the time periods with old western Paganisms – like the Anglo Saxons who honoured their ancestors at Modranicht (new year time) and at Winter Nights (the end of the harvest). Similar practices take part in Japan at these two times. Maybe our Pagan practices should include ancestral veneration at harvest and new year?
Finally, Buddhism plays a huge role in Korea. Buddhist temples tend to be built in the mountains and the natural world is an important aspect of Korean Buddhism. Korean Buddhism is primarily Seon (Zen) Buddhism. While in Korea, I had the chance to do a 24 hour stay at a Buddhist temple (Beomeosa) and it was a very interesting experience. One of the things they teach is how to bow before the buddha images correctly. This is not bowing to Buddha but rather to the Buddha nature within yourself. It is also acknowledging respect for the three “jewels” of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching) and the Sangha (the community). In most forms of Buddhism, you begin most ceremonies with three bows to these three Jewels. They are usually full prostrations to the floor. (In fact I did a 108 prostrations ceremony which was strangely calming and meditative). It made me think about the way we approach the Three Kindreds in Paganism. Since then I have added three full prostrations into my rituals at the point where I welcome and say goodbye to the Three Kindreds in order to show them respect. I think this is a practice western Pagans could add to their practice too.
You can’t mention Japanese religion without talking about Shinto – their native animistic faith. Shinto worships many many spirits called Kami. When I was in Japan I visited quite a few shrines, learned how to do the proper washing hands and worship procedure, and saw a Matsuri (festival). It illustrated for me how a Pagan faith could look in a modern technologically advanced country. One interesting aspects of Shinto is that the centre piece of their altars is a mirror. This is where the spirit of the Kami is enshrined. I think it is seen as a gateway for the spirit to come through to our world from theirs. I’ve also read elsewhere that it’s almost like you are looking back and realising the Kami within yourself. Perhaps having a mirror on the altar is something for Pagans in the west to consider. I had an interesting experience when I went to one out the way quiet shrine in Kyoto where I did the normal procedure and prayer and suddenly felt like all was right with the world, like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It is hard to explain but it was a moment of “something.”
In all the Asian countries I’ve visited so far, their native animistic traditions have said that spirits or goddesses dwell in trees. In Korea I visited a folk village which had at it’s centre an old tree where people would leave an offering at an altar next to the tree, while tying prayers to a sacred rope around the tree. This is something I saw repeated on a much larger scale in Japan, especially at Shinto shrines. For pagans who believe in spirits inhabiting trees, this seems a great practice to adopt. This could also take place at sacred springs/ wells too.
Just as in Korea, Japan is also a predominantly Buddhist country. One of their biggest Buddhist sects is Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism which honours many buddha’s and other deities. One of these is Fudo Myo-o, and they hold a fire ritual called Goma in which a fire is lit by a monk and various chants are said throughout the ritual invoking the deity. It is performed to destroy negative energies, bad thoughts and to make requests for blessings. It is interesting to see the similarities with Druid fire rituals.
Finally, Japan might be a reserved culture in some respects, but the shinto faith has it’s own penis festival. One where they parade down the street holding up a massive penis enshrined in a wooden house structure. They sell penis shaped lollies and it is a very fun festival. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that we make a giant penis and parade it down the street like the Japanese do, but perhaps there is something Pagans in the west can find inspiration from here.
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, however, animism still runs deep through the culture. Outside every home, shop, village, hotel and business are small raised houses that look like mini temples. These are spirit houses that house the spirit of the house and the spirit of the garden. They are the spirits of place. Offerings (often the Fanta drink) are made every morning to the spirits in the hopes for their help, protection or to appease them so they won’t cause mischief. There are also spirit houses in rice fields for rice field guardian spirits, in forests for forest guardian spirits and in remote villages there will be large spirit houses for the spirit of the village. The tiny houses are very elaborately decorated and beautiful. I think it would be wonderful for western Pagans to do something similar but in a western style.
Thailand has an interesting festival in November called Loi Krathony in which they float beautifully decorated baskets with candles, incense, coins and other offerings in them down a river to honour the spirits of the water. Perhaps Pagans who want to honour their local water spirits can learn something from this.
Finally, in both Japan and Thailand, there is an interesting fortune telling tradition. This involves shaking a tube with wooden sticks inside until one falls out a small hole in the bottom. On the stick is written a number related to a particular fortune. The person then compares that number with a piece of text somewhere to determine their fortune. It is a very simple method of fortune telling which I can see fitting quite well in western Paganism too.
In my opinion there is a lot that can be learned from other traditions around the world. While we must be careful not to culturally appropriate things, there are still elements in other religions that we can learn from, particularly those who are trying to rebuild a western animism and I hope this blog post has given you some ideas.