Category Archives: Folk Religion

Turning East and Back again

I’ve been reading Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox’ 1977 book, Turning East. He discusses some of the reasons American youth of the 70’s were looking towards the spirituality of Asia. One of his positions is that the “dropping out” of the 1960’s left many feeling empty. Many who dropped-out with drugs still craved the communal, experiential “trip” that drugs and drug counter-culture provided. Still anti-Western and anti-traditional, they looked to the religions of the East. They enjoyed the community and person-connectedness found in these unfamiliar traditions, especially after the protestant and Catholic churches of the 1950’s did not provide more than simply doctrine and law.

This book is as old as I am. But, as I look today, more than 30 years later, I wonder if some of the same desires for community and something experiential drive the postmodern condition. As I look at the hard-core evolutionists and other sorts of modernists, perhaps they too are craving the same cohesive community, but cannot look outside of themselves for truth? Is the rest of society more Eastern without even realizing it. How much misinterpreted Zen have we internalized in our own contexts?

Cox, not misinterpreting Zen (after studying various sutras) claims to have adopted meditative practices from Eastern religions, without adopting their doctrines; he compares meditation to taking mini-shabbats, as practiced for millenia by Jews. He says Christianity has lost its sense of quietness and stillness in the world, found in the sabbath. Cox said that these practices of quiet meditation have helped him become more authentically Christian! He took the practices of quieting the mind and thinking about his faith without attempting to be Buddhist. He also compares this type of meditation to ancient monastic practices.

On the converse, interestingly, Cox complained that a lot of American adherents to Eastern beliefs did not really know the doctrine or content of the sacred texts; they wanted the experience. How much of that is true today? Interestingly enough, Cox noted that many American adherents also tried to use their new found piety to show that they were better than others, in a sort of game of spiritual one-upmanship. Is this leftover American pietism flowing into a new spiritual skin that masks their Western musculature?

Religious Continuity

Life and Hard TimesAcross the board, it is hard to deny certain continuities of East Asian folk religion. In Taiwan, some so-called “Daoist” rituals are very much akin to those described in The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman delves into Korean folk religion. Spirit mediums (media?) are posessed by the spirits of ancestors or other local gods and dictate demands, other times they reval imbalances in the spirit realm caused by the living. Divinations are cast and shamans (mansin) are consulted to understand why fortune has run out, what the root cause of a particular sickness is, or what plans are most pleasning to the spirit world.

Elaborate rituals are performed in rememberance and honor of ancestors and local dieties. If these are not performed, the forgotten diety may become angry and cause personal fortunes to change and mishaps to abound.

In Taiwan, for example, the ancestors are venerated in shrines and rituals throughout the year. Opera is performed for the benefit of local gods, and graves are swept and kept clean in Confucian tradition to revere the ancestors and keep them happy.

In Japan, family altars enshrine those who have passed away. After cremation, a wooden tablet engraved with the dead’s assumed Buddhist name is placed on the shrine, often with a picture of the deceased. Offerings are given at the memorial of a person’s death, and can include fruit, sake, beer, or other favorite items that the person enjoyed while living. Children are encouraged to show their grades to the deceased grandparents or parents, and prayers are said to the ancestors.

While Confucius did not create any particular religious system, he did advocate the veneation of the ancestors to keep harmony among the living and to keep people tied to the past.

An example of this living tradition today can be seen in a conversation my wife had with a student in Japan. A college student expressed her displeasure with her major, and her frustration. My wife asked why she couldn’t change her major. The student responded that her grandfater would be angry with her. When my wife encouraged her to speak with her grandfather about it, because surely, he’d understand, the student said that she could not do so. When my wife asked why, the student replied, “Because he is dead.”

Another example of this in anime can be seen in the 3rd through 5th episodes of Bleach, or in the first manga. Inoue Orihime’s brother becomes a “hungry ghost” or “hollow” because she forgets about him and forgets to pray to and for him. He comes back to attack her after he is absorbed by other greater negative spirits due to his sadness and attachment to this world. His soul must be purified so that he can pass on. When he is purified, Orihime remembers to pray in front of her shrine to keep him involved in her life.

Many examples of ancestral veneration will be familiar to the student of Chinese and Japanese religions.

Upon reading about the individual account of a particular Korean Shaman known as Yongsu’s Mother, I began to see deeper levels of the individual connection to the dead and the spirits in the Sinosphere. This particular shaman had all sorts of trouble due to strange and fractured relationships with living family members. When they passed on, once she was a Shaman, she needed to keep these spirits happy by according them proper respect within her shrine, giving them offerings, performing spirit dances under a form of trance, and keep them remembered in elaborate rituals known as kut. If she did not do these things, bad luck and misfortune came her way. She was not immune from the whims and the desires of the spirits she served and consulted on the behalf of others.


Also, this Shaman’s take on Buddhism was oddly different from formal Buddhism. Buddhist saints could possess this woman’s mother (and apparenty others) at will. Buddhist images were venerated in the ancestral shrine. One Buddha image that was given to Yongsu’s mother was taken from her by her sister, and she was relentlessly pursued by this Buddha image for a period of years until she was led to its location by her divination practices. Once she regained the image and put it in her shrine, she was finally at peace.

It struck me that she was almost enslaved to these spirits, that they were demanding and capricious. On top of that, the problems she had with them while they were living, seemed to intensify and follow her when they were not. It seemed like there was no freedom from them, even after repeated veneration and respect.

Maintaining harmony must be hard work!

In Taiwan, people leave offerings of food, cigarettes, and alcohol on the streets at certain times of the year to keep hungry ghosts away. In Japan, I have observed small street shrines to local gods and other Boddhisatvas (Buddhist saints) with offerings of coins, sake, incense, and trinkets of all sorts. Now, I have learned that there are various forms of this type of belief in Korea. Folk religion, while crusaded against in Mao’s China, also has taken root in the post-Mao regime. The influence of Confucius’s take on ancestral veneration and folk religion itself is undeniable.

One final thought: I remember having a conversation about religion when I was in Japan a few years ago. I was talking to a student about his beliefs and he asked me about mine. I talked about what I believe, according to the Christian scriptures. He was interested in what they said and wanted to read more. I gave him a copy of my Bible and talked to him about it some more. The next time we hung out, he said that he hated the Japanese gods.

I asked him why he would hate his gods?

He replied that he did not like that they were angry, would do evil things to them if they did not respect them correctly, and would send taifu and disasters on them. I asked him what he thought of the scriptures I gave him. He said he liked them very much, but couldn’t believe in Jesus Christ. I asked him why, and he responded, “Because he is too good. And besides, I am Japanese.”

Mexican Shinigami – Santa Muerte

The other day, I was helping one of our faculty in the Center for Hispanic Studies publish a narrated web presentation, a good portion of it concerning God’s First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before [YHWH], as found in the book of Exodus, chapter 20.

Many of the slides contained familiar imagery, but one particular image caught me off guard and unsettled me greatly:

Woah, a death god?I kind of gasped. Intrigued, I asked the professor just what I was looking at. He said that it is an image of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. The Santa Muerte cult, he went on to explain, is growing in Mexico and has been coming into the USA with waves of migrants. The followers of this cult have home altars with an image of this goddess and burn candles, and recite prayers. They will offer up various “sacrifices” or gifts to this goddess, such as money, tequila or other alcohol, cigarettes and cigars, and food, to name a few items. Prayers to Santa Muerte are usually for things one would not ask the Christian God or even a saint for, such as protection when committing a crime, (which explains the popularity among the smugglers, kidnappers, drug traffickers, prostitutes, and some planning a border crossing,) or sending away a lover, or even for the love of someone, the death of an enemy, or material blessings in business. There are different configurations of this god, wearing a gold robe, white robe or red robe, black robe, and sometimes blue. Each color has a particular meaning, such as gold business or red for love, or black for protection from curses and magic arts.

I had no idea.

The Santa Muerte images often look like a grim reaper, a robed skeleton with a scythe, holding a globe or apple in one of the hands, and having a gold crown on the head.

More Santa Muerte

MictecacihuatlSome researchers and anthropologists link this cult back to the indigenous Aztec goddess, Mictecacihuatl, who is depicted as a female form with a skull for the head. Worshippers of Mictecacihuatl and her husband, Mictlantecuhtli, are believed to have desired the power of death itself. Offerings are said to have been the skin of dead human sacrifices.

How pleasant.

Yet, interestingly, the suspicion is that people who pay homage to Santa Muerte and ask to have favors given must return favors, and each favor must be greater than the last, more lavish gifts, etc. If the favors are not returned, bad things will happen to the negligent, such as death of family members, or the original recipient of the boon.

Sounds a lot like traditional Chinese folk religion concerning hungry ghosts and bad spirits. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, Offerings of fruit, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods are left at various shrines or even in the street at various times of the year to placate bad spirits and hungry ghosts, lest they make trouble for a family. Hungry Ghosts, eh? Ancestors must also be placated, prayed to, remembered, and given offerings lest they become restless and do harm to the family who has forgotten them. Some believe that ghosts cannot cross water or travel in lines that are not straight, so many older homes feature gates with zig-zag turns or crossing over a stream of water.

This is clearly evidenced in Japanese popular culture artifacts such as the Bleach anime/manga, Shinigami-kun, Soul Eater, and Death Note (Just a partial list, really.)

Particularly, in Bleach manga, the storyline about Inoue Orihime and her deceased brother, whom she had ceased remembering and praying to. He became lonely in the afterlife and was eventually devoured by bad spirits, kInoue Soranown as Hollows. He then became a hollow and started haunting his sister until he appeared to her in his monstrous, changed form. He tried to take her life, and then her soul to ease his loneliness. Since he was not an older, more powerful hollow, he was able to be convinced by his true nature that he did not really want to harm his sister, and had a Konsoh (soul cleansing) performed on him by her recently Buddhist funeral-garb wearing death god friend, Kurosaki Ichigo. The 死神 Shinigami, or death-god, of the Bleach realm, does not carry a scythe, but uses a samurai sword to reap souls.

Yeah...death..bad stuff...don\'t do TarotMore research shows that the Shinigami in Japanese manga come from the Tarot card for the number 13, “Greater Arcana” or “Death,” depicted as a skeleton riding on a horse in a suit of armor, or just a skeleton with a sword or scythe. More interesting, and perhaps a mere coincidence, is the fact that there are 13 protection squads made up of Shinigami (Death gods, or sould reapers) in “Soul Society,” the place that the souls of the dead go to pass on.

Now, this is a different look, since they are not skeletal or scary looking; the scary ones are the hollow, the demonic/twisted spirits who live in Hueco Mundo, [Hollow World]. (Interestingly, all the names of the creatures and characters in Hueco Mundo are in Spanish) They generally posess skeletal masks and wear black robe like clothes.

When comparing death gods in Death Note, it’s yet another story. These do look skeletal and creepy, and they esentially gain life by taking human lives by writing their names in notebooks with time and type of death. They live in a barren world and pass away time by gambling and sometimes meddling in the affairs of humans. Either way, they are not a pleasant lot.

While there are interesting connections to be drawn, I don’t know that there is anything conclusive to say about Santa Muerte and Shinigami, other than there are interesting overtones. Perhaps it is just human nature to be afraid of death, so it is easier to try to personifiy death and deify it. The Catholic church is fighting hard against the cult of Santa Muerte, and hopefully they will expose the truth: Death is not a god, not a force. For those who believe in Christ, as it is written, death has been swallowed up by Christ’s death and resurrection, it’s sting is lost forever.