Tag Archives: superstition

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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Chaining up your loved ones

mentally ill in Bali, chained for decades (Spiegel)

Mentally ill in Bali, chained for decades (Spiegel)

I loved my vacation on the colorful Indonesian island of Bali. Hindu Bali contrasted starkly to the Muslim main island of Java. I spent two weeks on each, so my impressions are superficial and there is much you don’t see as a tourist.

Spiegel Online has a fantastic article exposing a dark side of Bali — its treatment of the mentally ill. Like many superstitious religions, Bali Hinduism considers mental illness to be caused by possession of evil spirits. The article describes one Bali psychiatrist’s efforts to combat the cruel chaining-up of mentally ill family members.  She tries to secure medicines, safer living quarters and teaches meditation (see this cool photo).

Sure, religious superstition in horrible but as I read the article, it becomes clear that the problem is far bigger than the Hindu belief in evil spirits — the core issue is poverty.  I imagine a large number of even naively superstitious believers in evil spirits would generally treat their supposed possessed family members much better if medications and treatment facilities were available.   They would rationalize to themselves using modern treatment even if part of their brains believed spirits were doing the damage.  So, if I had to choose improving religious stupidity or poverty, I would choose the later. Unfortunately, the two are often tied together.

I work in medicine in the USA where I also see very poor treatment of the mentally ill and the demented. The worse treatment tends to be among those who are poor. It is much easier to be gracious and kind when you aren’t struggling to survive. That is why the poor who love and care for their own stand out far above those with means.

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Cursed by A Chinese Beggar

An Angry Beggar

An Angry Beggar

Decades ago, when I lived in Japan, I would take long summer holidays to other countries.  This story is from one of my trips to China and starts as I was walking out of my Beijing hotel:  No sooner had I stepped out of the hotel’s front door than one of the beggars camped outside ran up to me begging with a loud, obnoxious voice and gesturing to me demands for money. I ignored him and walked on.  In retaliation, he hurled at me, what seemed to be, curses. It was a surprisingly eerie experience. I had ignored beggars in many countries before, but this guy had something spooky about him.

One week after the cursing I came down with a bad chest cold. It was a stubborn cold that I dragged back to Japan with me. It took two months for the chest-ripping cough to go away but it was replaced by palpitations, anxiety, and weakness. Doctors could not diagnose a cause for my unrelenting suffering.  I tried every sort of doctor I could find: modern medical doctors, herbalists and acupuncturists. My symptoms dragged on and on but I would not let the illness stop my daily life:  I continued teaching at a university during the day and going to acupuncture school at night.   I lost a lot of weight and was usually depressed — I was no longer my ebullient, out-going, invulnerable self.  But finally, a little more than a year after the curse, the illness left me as mysteriously as it appeared — for no apparent reason.  That year had taught me a lot about suffering — memories I don’t enjoy pulling up even now.

During that very difficult year, that Chinese beggar haunted my illness. For while I searched for reasons as to why I was ill, and why doctor after doctor failed to help me, I had a nagging suspicion that I had been cursed by that Chinese beggar.  His image and our encounter haunted my mind.  As medicine did not work to take away my pain, I wondered if perhaps it was a curse that had damaged me.

Until my illness, curses were not something I had ever considered to be real.  I had not been a superstitious guy and I had not been raised in a culture that even talked about curses. But in my despair, I wondered if indeed I had been cursed.

Years later, after ‘the curse’ has lifted, I look back on my thinking as pure silliness. But back then, amidst my suffering, the possibility of a curse echoed in my mind for months and months.

Memories of this time in my life were recently aroused after I watched two mediocre films based on the theme of a curse: Season of the Witch (with Nicholas Cage) and Steven King’s Bag of Bones. I normally don’t watch horror films, but my son asked to watch Season of the Witch and Bag of Bones was a free NetFlix film that tempted me the next evening when I was too tired to read.   Oddly, these two films both were based on a curse.  This curse theme then reminded me of the angry Chinese beggar that had cursed my life into fragility.

Before my illness I had thought of myself as rather invulnerable (as I mentioned yesterday), but after my slow recovery, I developed a much greater sympathy for those with illness. I realized the obvious truth that all of us sit on the edge of terrible suffering — we are all vulnerable. The Chinese beggar will never know that he left me with a valuable gift which would help me in my relations with others and in my profession.

Questions for readers:

  • Have you ever had haunting thoughts that you now think are silly?
  • What are your experiences with curses.
This is part of  My (shameless) Autobiography  series
(click here for more)

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Amulets for Buddhists

McMahan, in his  book “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“, takes effort to show how Modern Buddhists may wish to envision themselves as non-superstitious,  but that the majority of Buddhists, both now and historically, have had no qualms with superstition.  One of Buddhists’ many superstitions include amulets.  On pgs 38-39 McMahan quotes a researcher:

“…the cult of amulets is a response to the rapid destabilization of Thai society by modern economic and political forces, which has produced great uncertainty in many lives and fostered an increased tendency to rely on the supernatural.”
–Stanley Tambiah (Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand, 1987)

This quote reminded me of studies reviewed on Epiphenom ( here and here ) which reveal how religions prosper in times of  insecurity–financial, social or health insecurities.  When people feel threatened, they look to magical and superstitious powers promised by their religion for relief from this insecurity.   Amulets are one of the many false promises offered by religions for hope in times of insecurity.

All religions feed on this superstitious delusion in humans.  But blaming superstition on religion is naive.  Heck, the Fortune 500 companies are smart enough to use our cognitive weaknesses too.   The power of amulets and their cousins, talismans, all come from the cognitive illusion of essentialism — that an object can hold power or the essence of something and that such power is transferable.   This cognitive illusion is universal and not a monopoly of only religions — many atheists are manipulated by this illusion on a secular level.   Bruce Hood discusses this phenomena in his book SuperSense showing how it can be found in sports players, business men and many more.

Finally, here is a fun 7 minute documentary on the amulet business in Thailand.  Ironically, when researching this post, I found this video on this page that sells Buddhist paraphernalia.  It also has an excellent short article on how Thai Buddhists fighting in Iraq buy Buddhist amulets for protection.

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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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The Upside Down Religious World

Today I tried to read a fascinating article by Max Tegmark (MIT physicist) called “The Mathematical Universe (HT: Shane).  Below I reproduced one of Tegmark’s diagrams of how “theories can be crudely organized into a family tree where each might, at least in principle, be derived from more fundamental ones above it.”  T.O.E. (by the way) stands for “Theory of Everything”.

Tegmark’s sketch made me think of “religion” where the flow is the opposite direction.  I quickly threw together the diagram below to illustrate the comparison that came to mind for me.  In the religious mind, the basic units of our reality are our real experiences, and then humans create layers above it to support their world.  The religious person’s world is not derived from the top down, though they would strongly disagree.

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My Superstitious Personality

Shiva Hindu StatueWe are all superstitious.  Evidence illustrates that superstitious thinking can even provide humans with some survival/reproductive benefits.  This will be an index of my posts on superstition.

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