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.


Click here for more of my posts on superstition.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

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)


Filed under Events

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

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?

Related posts of mine:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

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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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

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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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Tibetan Weather Miracle

Dalai Lama teaches Kalachakra

The Dalai Lama had come to Madison, Wisconsin to teach and initiate into the Kalachakra meditation practice.  His seminar lasted five days.  The first four days were held in a mundane large auditorium on U of W’s campus where the 500 of us students could easily fit.  But on day five, the culminating ceremony was held out in some natural, beautiful, wooded property outside of Madison.  There we all sat cross-legged under huge canopy tents set up to shade us from the sun for the day-long teaching.

Two hours into the ceremony, huge expansive dark clouds started to form and the wind picked up.  The tents began for flap.  His Holiness’s voice became harder to hear over the roar of the brewing storm.  So the Dalai Lama stopped the ceremony, paused and then began to explain about his personal weather man.
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Filed under Events, Personal

Promiscuous Teleology

My Typical Superstitious Morning

I laugh at my mind constantly.  She (my mind) is so silly, so primitive, so deluded, so stubborn, so dull.  I mean, how many times have I told her something is not true or not so and yet she keeps coming back with the same perceptions and conclusions.  She is totally unruly.  Yet, I can not live without her.  She is also the source of all the great joys in my life.  Alas!

This above story happened earlier this week and is just one of thousands of examples of how unruly my mind can be.  You see, the bulb simply burns out and I look for someone to blame.  This story reveals how my mind is obsessed with “agency”.  She assumes somebody is behind everything !  This phenomena explains much of religious thinking.  And don’t think that if you are an atheist your mind is free of religious thinking.  It ain’t that simple.

A huge delusion that feeds religious thinking is to see “peopleness” were it doesn’t belong.  Atheists should not be deluded in thinking that just because they have declared themselves free of the gods and no longer deluded by such abstractions, that they are somehow magically free from the curse of peopleness.  OK, I will stop inventing terms.  Bruce Hood, in his book “Supersense: Why we believe the unbelievable” tells us the proper academic phrase for “the curse of peopleness” — “promiscuous teleology“.  “Teleology” is the explanation of phenomena in terms of goals or purposes, as if an agent (a person) is behind an event.  And you’ve got to love the nuances of the adjective, “promiscuous”!  For indeed, the mind goes overboard looking for someone to be responsible for all actions — even if the action is simply a light bulb naturally burning out.  Hood points us to  research that shows that children from a very young age see the inanimate world as alive and relating to them.  Piaget called this “egocentrism” to reflect this self-obsessed perspective.  Children are also prone to “anthropomorphism”, which means that they think about nonhuman things as if they were human.  Adults do the same.  Have you ever lost your temper at a chair that is in your way?  This illustrates how the mind-modules, which are used by religious thinking, are present from a young age and don’t disappear just because someone declares themselves free of the gods.  Two other fantastic books which illustrate anthropomorphism in our religious minds are:

I think what happened in this light bulb story is a variant of that notion of promiscuous teleology which itself is a child of anthropomorphism — two persistent superstitious modules in all of our heads.   Being cognition modules, they must have had or still have some adaptive advantage to exist.  I won’t explore that in this post, but I did touch on the selective advantages of superstitions in my post on “The Benefits of Pareidolia “.

Here, a bulb blows out — but who did it?  No one, of course.  It just finally wore out.  Such is the nature of bulbs.  And when these sort of bulbs die [note the anthropomorphizing language — see how pervasive the thinking is], they go out with a bang.  But now the mistake jumps in:  When the bulb blows, my mind tells me somebody caused it to happen, a person did it.  My mind searches for someone to blame.  It reaches to the most convenient and closest actor — my wife.  She did it!  She probably screwed it in loose or bought cheap bulbs.  Or maybe the darn kids did it by continually bumping the lamp when playing.

“Stop it !  Come on! ” I tell my mind, “I love my wife and kids, why are you attacking them?”  But my mind often has no mercy.  In her delusions, my mind just throws stuff together and tempts me to buy into her story – at least emotionally so.  She does not expect me to analyze what she offers me, she just want me to nod, agree and reflexively move on.

A Buddhist perspective

Buddhism’s primary practice is the honest observation of the mind.  It trains the practitioner to bravely observe one’s true nature — how one’s mind works.  “Bravely”, because what we see is not always pretty or noble.  Buddhism teaches respect for the mind but also offers ways to discipline the mind.  It lets us realize that the mind, while serving us constantly, also generates all sorts of delusions which cause many problems in life.  Observation is the first step in the Buddhist practice.  This task is difficult and is aided by other methods which help weaken the delusions.

Buddhism offers many approaches to cure our undesirable reflexes that lead to our unsatisfactory experience of life.  One, is to observe the illusion but not to feed it.  The practitioner strengthens her mind to resist following a particular unhealthy thought.  For instance, I see my mind accuse my wife and children of causing the bulb to go out and I chuckle at my mind, pat her on the back, maybe even give her a hug and move back into a more restful mind.  Another method is to spend time contemplating positive emotions and positive beliefs so that when negative emotions bubble up (like anger toward others), I readily have positive modules fired up ready to take over if I deem the anger irrational or unproductive.

OK, I had no real intent to go into Buddhist solutions in this post, but I realized how central it was to how I viewed the above situation.  Don’t get me wrong, certainly there is no reason that a purely secular way of dealing with these insights could not be equally as productive.  But I do feel that working with the unhealthy aspects of our minds is best done intentionally.  And it is this intentional inner life that people often refer to as their “spirituality” or their “religion” or their “faith”.  I think this is one of the possible positive potentials of religions.

Sorry, this was a long-winded post, but if you made it this far, I have a few questions:  How do other religious practitioners reading this post work with such mundane emotions in their lives?  How do you pure secularists nurture your mental/moral culture?


  • Superstitious modules in the brain are present from a young age
  • “Promiscuous Teleology” and “Anthropomorphism” are just two examples of Superstitious Brain Modules.
  • Superstitious modules serve a function to the brain, but like all modules, they often are also misused to our detriment.
  • All religions capitalize on the Superstitious Brain Modules, but many of them also offer us methods to deal with their downsides.
  • Superstitious modules keeping working even in Atheists.  I am curious how we acknowledge them and use them.


Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion

I saw an Angel

My children and I went ice skating last night.  Skating is a brand new thing for all of us.  My son was able to skate by himself with only two or three falls per lap.  My daughter, however, clung to me with rubbery legs flailing while I swayed like a thin tree supporting a swing blowing in the wind.  But all of us were nothing but smiles as we skated to lovely Christmas music.

The skating party was thrown by my kids’ dentist who rents out the huge rink every Christmas for his clients and their families.  So there were tons of kids of all ages and temperaments.  There were roughnecks speed-skaters, zipping between us beginners, there were teenagers who were chatting instead of skating, there were Dads trying to impress, well, who knows who, and there were tiny kids with Moms patiently pushing them around.  It was a carnival.

My daughter and I were just trying to avoid bruises — too slow to feel like we were really skating and too fast for our own good.  At one point my daughter was having particular trouble staying up.  She was slipping, left go of my hand and grabbed my arm and jacket, throwing us both off-balance.  Then quietly and almost effortlessly, a red-headed girl skater came up right next to my daughter.  And as she passed us, with the deftness of a Kung Fu master, she lightly lifted my daughter’s arm to perfectly re-establish her balance without my daughter really realizing she’d been helped.

The angelic visitor turned and smiled softly at us as she continued around the rink as if to gently say, “It was nothing.  Have a good evening.”

The stranger’s kindness which expected no gratitude made her appear to be an angel.  It was rather surreal, actually.  I watched her as she skated away, disappearing into the crowd.  She had the grace of an angel, leaving no trace of herself.

Using religious symbols in non-religious ways is one way to weaken their doctrinaire and superstitious use.  The symbol can then lose its dogma and regains its original rich, mythical beauty.   Some may think we should shun all things religious, but a world without myths and symbols is dry.  Instead, we should be as creative as our ancestors and embrace symbols to make them our own.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion