There are probably a lot of things from my childhood and adolescence that you could point to if you wanted to find signs that I was destined for the path that I’ve taken now. I was a mythology buff, for one. That actually seems to be something a lot of pagans have in common. One thing in that particular vein that should probably have been telling was my taste in art.
Whenever my family visited the state art museum, I would quickly become bored with whatever famous artist was on display and wander downstairs to look at the ancient statues. To be fair, this was also likely the historian in me, but I do remember very clearly the times I slipped away from much-publicized exhibits of Toulouse-Lautrec and Linda McCartney to see the gods and goddesses that always seemed to be waiting just for me. Now that I live in town, I’ve made it a point to return to the museum. The gods and goddesses were there, waiting still.
Some time ago I realized that the politics of Japan’s Imperial Court in the tenth and eleventh centuries – the apex of the Classical period – were very much like what would happen if Jane Austen were to attempt to write George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Imagine Game of Thrones without the fantastic levels of gore, explicit sex, or profanity, but with even more political machination, power grabbing, and intrigue. Now imagine that all the historical records were written by people who were incredibly uptight about propriety, and who would never betray a hint of indiscretion.
Martin’s characters murder one another in incredibly inventive fashions, while Jane Austen’s protagonists dispose of unwanted suitors with manners. In Heian Japan, the aristocrats didn’t send assassins, or have their enemies executed. That would be so very unseemly! Instead, they did as Jane Austen did. They killed their opponents socially. After all, the worst fate that could befall one at the Imperial Court was never a charge of treason. It was falling far enough out of favor to have such a charge levied against one in the first place.
You see, in the Japanese Game of Thrones, you either win, or you….spend the rest of your life in quiet obscurity as a monk. While the politics of the Heian Court were as brutal as Martin’s Westeros, the fate of those who lost its Game of Thrones would have been more suited for a Jane Austin novel.
Because what’s a blog without adorable cats???
Sinnamon and Liquorice: pets, darlings, and partners in crime!
I was a child when I first saw my goddess’s face, not older than ten or eleven. I was obsessed with India as a little girl, so my parents bought me a travel guide to look through. It had lots and lots of pictures, and a section on annual festivals. The picture that headed off the festival chapter was an icon of a beautiful lady in a shimmering white dress, with golden skin and a mysterious smile.
What was this lady’s name? Why, she was Sarasvati, the goddess of learning! A goddess of learning sounded marvelous to me, and so did the ritual where books and writing instruments were bought to her temple to be blessed. I would like to worship her, I thought, if only she were real… So I forgot about her.
But Sarasvati never forgot about me…
One problem I have encountered again and again in my relationship with my patroness is the question of her exact identity, and the deeper I dig down into the wonderland of devotional polytheism, the clearer it becomes that the answer is tied up with the debate over just how distinct the identities of the gods actually are.
My relationship with my patroness began when I approached her under the name “Benten” – the common abbreviation found more often in the West than in Japan. However, She soon made it clear that she would rather I call her Sarasvati. Benzaiten was the transliteration of Sarasvati’s Chinese name Biancaitian, which was in turn the title given to Sarasvati in the Sutra of Golden Light by the translator Yijing.
Yet sometimes my goddess is Benzaiten-sama, and refuses to answer to Sarasvati. More importantly, the lore of each paints them quite distinctly. Benzaiten is not only a water goddess, she is a bringer of good luck and a special patroness of women. Sarasvati long ago lost her role as a water deity, and today is a patroness of learning and wisdom, who cares little for vain finery and less for domesticity and the spheres traditionally assigned to women.
So are they separate goddesses? Sometimes it seems so. Yet other times it feels so clear that they are one entity. Historically, they are related, and certainly the personalities ascribed to them are not contradictory…
The more I think, the more confused I am. That’s good, I think. If anyone tells you they have the gods and the Universe all figured out and they can prove it 100%, you should just listen to them…RUN.
Today is the nineteenth day of the second lunar month. It is a sacred day for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, widely known in the West as Guanyin, the Chinese “Goddess of Mercy.” Strictly speaking however, Guanyin is not a goddess; bodhisattvas are enlightened beings, and deities are not. Furthermore, the portrayal of Guanyin and her Japanese counterpart Kannon as being distinctly female came comparatively late in the history of East Asian Buddhism. In fact, in Japan Kannon (Guanyin) is usually portrayed as a a very androgynous youth, rather than a woman.
That is your free history lesson for the day! OM MANI PADME HUM!
A Very Feminine Kannon/Guanyin In the Zōjuji Pure Land Temple, Tokyo