Tag Archives: Shinto

Onegaishimasu: A Traveler’s Superstition

OnegaiIn Japanese, “onegaishimasu” literally means “honorable-favor-will-do”. A better translation may be: “You are about to do me a great favor and I want to thank you ahead of time.” I love the word because there is no real short, succinct, standard equivalent of politeness and humility in English for the situations where onegaishimasu is used.  Consider these situations for instance:

  • Someone offers to help you edit your paper for you, as you gratefully hand them the paper, in Japanese, you say, “Onegaishimasu”.  What would you say in English? “Here, thanks.”
  • You are at a post office and you hand the clerk a package to be weighed, stamped and sent on its way. As you had it, in Japanese you say, “Onegaishimasu”. What would you say in English? “Please”?  (yawn)

Well, I live in the USA now and miss the word, but I do use it in one situation — right before leaving my home on a long trip.  Just before driving off in my car, I will put my hands together in gassho and say, “Onegaishimasu”.   I could imagine a Shinto animist saying this to call forth helpful spirits for the favor of protection — sort of a good luck prayer.  But for me, in my head, I am thanking ahead of time those who will be on my path and myself for our efforts to make the trip safe.  It is a reminder to me to be aware, careful and grateful.

Questions to readers:  So, am I being superstitious in a stupid way and just rationalizing it?  Share thought you have before long trips that verge on being superstitious — or religious.

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Click here for more of my posts on superstition.

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Deceptive Knots of Certainty

Theology_KnotAs a Christian, I wandered through a few theological camps: the Dallas Theological Fundamentalist camp, the Jesus Freak Charismatic camps, the Mennonite pacifist camps and a few others. Each camp, each sect, had its own amazing theories (“theologies”) — and those theories each contradicting the others. Every flavor of Christianity has its amazing authors and highly esteemed teachers. And in each camp, when I’d talk with these esteemed teachers or with their enthusiastic disciples, their certainty was clear and palpable.  They had undoubting certainty in their carefully knotted web of theology.

I craved for a bit of that certainty. I wanted a tight world. I wanted my mind to relax from the doubts that naturally arose in a world constructed from invisible cosmologies. But my skeptical temperament allowed me to see through the patterns, and their comfortable nest of belief did not trap me.

I would see how they were tying knots to bury their doubts.  How the tangles did not allow the mind to feel the uncertainty.  Their knot was deceptively deep. (see my post on “Depth & Complexity deception“).  Seeing this, I would leave.

After leaving the Christian world behind, I traveled for more than a decade through Pakistan, India, Japan and China where I intimately encountered  Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism and Buddhism — and each of those religions was equally full of hugely different sects just like Christianity.  During those years  I also discussed and debated religion with these folks much like I had with Christians before. These Asian believers had the same excited eyes, the same certain witness, the same miracles and changed lives to prove to me the truth of their paths. And though their theological knots were done with different texts, different histories, and different saints, the method and result was the same — self-deception.

In my illustration above, I could have drawn a Hindu theology knot, a Buddhist knot, a Jewish knot, a Muslim knot or many others. But a knot is a knot. A tangled web is a tangled web. That is the insight that struck home so clearly to me.

With all these conversations and observations, I came to see that all these theology knot-makers were just people doing very similar things. I began to see the same silly, yet serious efforts to gain certainty, direction, a banner, an identity, hope and much more.  Yet under or inside the knot was a simpler person who was obscured by the knots.

Some folks settle into one of these complex knotted nests, but I just saw the weaving at its deepest level (the mind) and began to feel just fine without needing the theological clothing, without the saints, without the texts, without the certainty. And all of a sudden, I shared much more with everyone than I did before.

Now when people witness to me about their wonderful beliefs and their certainty, I see a knot-maker who is fascinated in the complexity of their own little contrived world. I am happy for them in a way, except that for most, they use their knots to keep others out. Those are weavers whose only goal is to get you into their exclusive tangled mess.

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The Japanese Pagans Don’t Loot?

Japan’s people are primary affiliated with Buddhism and/or Shintoism, yet even that has a largely secular and loose flavor.  Their moral fabric is very different from the various American moral fabrics. And there is no truer test of morality than a disaster.


I was not surprised by the reports of the relative scarcity of looting after the recent Japanese devastation when compared to the looting in the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the England floods, and the Louisiana hurricane — and all those countries have large Christian influences.  However, the lack of looting in pagan Japan probably seems odd to Christians who feel that true morality only springs from a love (and fear) of their Jehovah.   I wonder how that sort of Christian explains this in their mind.

During my seven years in Japan I was always awkwardly adjusting to the Japanese moral fabric: obligation, shame, self-effacement, neatness, thriftiness, family, non-standing-outness, industriousness and much more.  And though much of it was hard for me and a bad fit, I was often a benefactor of this system.  For instance, being a forgetful soul, I lost my cash-laden wallet several times in Japan and each time had it returned intact by friendly strangers.  Another huge example is when a close Scottish friend’s house burned down, his Japanese neighbors (who hardly knew him) gathered together all sorts of support while the foreign community (who knew him well) barely lifted a finger.

The web of ethics in Japan is rich and deep.  But it is not Buddhist, not Shinto, it is complexly Japanese.  Likewise, US ethics is not Christian, Jewish or otherwise.  Sure, religion can influence ethics, but it is only part of the picture.  Ethics is much deeper than religion — to think otherwise is naive.

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Salt Purification

I have have lived in many homes over the last 30 years.  In most of those homes I have performed my own Salt Purification ceremony before moving in,  I borrowed the ceremony while living in Japan where it is called Mori Shio (盛り塩 ).  I first used Mori Shio to appease the mother of my Japanese girlfriend who felt our first home together had poor Feng Shui.

Well,  though it was a superstition I of course did not believe in, the ceremony grew on me and this is how I do it:  In each corner of the house, I place a small pile of table salt.   I then give thanks to those who lived in the house before me and thanks to the future I will enjoy in the house.  A few days later I sweep up the salt with gratitude.  I must confess that the Japanese also do this to avoid bad luck in the house and I am sure part of my psyche is infected with this thought too.

Salt is also used at Japanese funerals. Sumo wrestlers scatter salt to purify their wrestling ring.  Just like many try to justify Jewish Kosher laws with scientific explanations, some Japanese have said the salt makes sense because it helps kill bacteria.  But it is clear that magic, fear, tribalism, ritual purity and much more are responsible for these traditions no matter how they try to sanctify them with science.

But for me Mori Shio is pure ceremony, tradition and specialness.  It is my way of marking house transitions. I don’t belief in spirits (well, the majority of me does not), but I do belief in the power of ceremony and the beauty of filling the mundane with meaning.

Question for readers: Do any of you embrace superstitions you don’t really believe in?

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