Chrysanthemum Festival

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For the past couple days, this date–9 September–has been nagging at me. I knew it was supposed to be significant, but couldn’t remember why. Maybe it’s just because I know that in East Asian cultures, when the day and month are the same number, and especially when that number is odd, it’s a festival day. The 5th day of the 5th month is Boys’ Day/Dragon Boat Festival, the 7th day of the 7th Month is the Star Festival, and so on. But although I’ve visited Japan and Korea quite a bit, it has always been in summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity to experience most of the seasonal festivals, including this one; I have a sort of vague sense that they exist is all. But I had a strong urge to find out what 9/9 might be about.

Turns out today is the celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan. The festival properly belongs to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, but whereas in China lunar dates are still observed, in Japan they have been shifted to the Gregorian solar calendar. In China it is more commonly known as the Double Ninth Festival or Double Yang Festival. Odd numbers are associated with yang (and even numbers with yin), and as 9 is the highest single-digit yang number, yang energy is thought to be at a peak on this day. This year, the lunar date of the festival is 21 October–which is proper autumn, unlike today in Southern California where it is 103 degrees and most definitely still summer.

For wealthy Chinese, the festival seems to have grown increasingly aesthetically elaborate, with displays of assorted chrysanthemum cultivars, mountain- or hill-top picnics, drinking of crysanthemum wine with toasts to the celebrants’ longevity, and composing and reciting poems.

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However, I suspect the festival came to my attention, whether it was some long-buried subconscious memory surfacing or something more synchronicitous, because of its ancestor- and mortality-themed aspects. I don’t know if I’m becoming especially ancestor-oriented lately, or if my ancestors are clamoring for attention. I think, due to life circumstances which I will touch on in my next couple of posts, it’s a little of both. It is interesting that the chrysanthemum is associated with death in both Western and Eastern cultures; perhaps because, “Blooming late in autumn, the chrysanthemum signals the coming of winter, and death…” (Casal 1967: 102). I suppose it’s equally possible that Europeans simply imported the Asian symbolic associations of mums along with the flowers themselves.

Casal (op. cit.) speculates that in its original form, prior to being co-opted for rich people’s poetry parties, the chrysanthemum festival was a solar ritual focused on the mutual preservation of the sun’s and people’s vitality through the winter. I’m not sure I buy the solar hypothesis per se, but I do think that the complex symbolism of the chrysanthemum–mourning and melancholy, good health and longevity (it’s an important herbal medicine in Asia), protection and purification–make the most sense in the context of the contemplation of and encounter with our own mortality. And although I couldn’t find a single decently-cited internet source* (not even on Google Scholar) with much information on the Chrysanthemum or Double Ninth Festivals, I did find repeated references to it being a day to honor ancestors and the elderly. Note that there are other festivals and ceremonies in honor of the dead at other times of year, which might be why this aspect of the Chrysanthemum Festival has been downplayed over the years.

*This is why I didn’t bother putting in many links. If you’re interested, google Double Ninth and Chrysanthemum Festival and you will easily find the few crummy sources available. They mostly just repeat each other.

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On karma and magic

“Karmic,” by Horacio Cardozo.

When it comes to the nature of reality, one of the few things I feel pretty certain of is that most Westerners are completely wrong about karma.

The general attitude to karma in the West is that there is some cosmic scorekeeper, who punishes you with unpleasant life circumstances when you do wrong, and rewards you when you do right. Just as declaring bankruptcy doesn’t erase your student loans, death doesn’t rebalance your “karmic debt,” so if you are a bad person in this incarnation you can be assured of having a bad time of it next time around.

It makes sense that Westerners would see karma this way–it’s a viewpoint drawn directly from Christianity. Though there are some sects of Christianity in which it is believed that there’s no way for a person to deserve God’s grace, there are others–especially Catholicism–in which a person can accrue merit through good deeds. This may or may not result in blessings in this life; my understanding is that usually it’s construed as shortening one’s time in Purgatory. Many Protestant sects, especially those influenced by Calvinism, are of the opinion that happy life circumstances are a sign of God’s favor, whether or not you did anything to deserve them (not that you ever could, you miserable sinner). In fact, they argue that your behavior is already pre-ordained anyway, so the amount of grace in your life was determined before you were born.

In the 20th century, many Christians abandoned the idea of a judgmental God, original sin, and heaven and hell, but still wanted wrongdoers to be punished, and a misunderstanding of karma as an impersonal yet deterministic and judgmental force fit the bill. Even people who are not Christians (at least not any more) love the idea. There are even magic(k)al versions, such as Wicca’s threefold law of return (everything you do comes back to you in triplicate).

I recently came across this opinion that karma “has no place in western [sic] society” and “there is no karma unless you choose to believe in it.” (Spoiler alert: The author doesn’t believe in the threefold law either, and is pretty down on Wiccans generally.) I am not a Wiccan so I have no dog in that race, but I do take issue with the idea that karma exists only if you believe in it and you shouldn’t believe in it if you’re from the West.

I don’t have the slightest problem with learning from other cultures. Indeed, it would be stupid not to. Archaeologists and historians are pretty sure this is why the Norse colony in Greenland died out–they tried to farm and raise livestock like they had back home, and when the climate proved unsuitable, they opted not to learn marine mammal hunting from their “heathen” Inuit neighbors. The Inuit made it through the Little Ice Age fat and happy; the Norse Greenlanders all died. Racial and cultural essentialism is ahistorical bullshit and also stupid from a survival perspective.

But appropriation is a big worry for many Western white people nowadays. Basically, we pitched most of our traditions into the rubbish bin in favor of scientistic materialism, then, having grown dissatisfied with that, many white Westerners cast about for something that would give them a sense of spirituality and meaning and connection, and they/we pretty much had no choice but to borrow from other cultures that hadn’t fallen into the materialist trap, or occasionally, make up new stuff. (I’ll come back to appropriation in another post.)

At the same time, not coincidentally, European empires were heavily invested in oppressing and exploiting various less-materialistic societies, and that created a convenient opportunity for mining interesting philosophical and spiritual teachings. Especially for the British in India, where there were thousands of years’ worth of philosophical writings to reward those who could be troubled to learn Sanskrit and Pali. And so karma–or rather the total misconstrual thereof–made its way West. There were a lot of things that the Theosophists didn’t get right (and to be fair, plenty of Asians get it wrong too, as is the way with all esoteric conepts), but “karma” has probably been the most popular for the reasons I outlined above.

But as defined in its original meaning–and there are subtle differences of interpretation among different Indian philosophical schools, as one would expect–karma is an immutable law, and a damn useful concept. It’s an essential component of a worldview that magic(k)al people should recognize.

It works like this:

All beings are interconnected, directly or indirectly (six to infinity degrees of Kevin Bacon). For us animists, that means literally everything is interconnected. (Here’s one take on that.) Sticking with Indian philosophy for the sake of consistency, we can call this Indra’s Net, in which each being is a multifaceted jewel. From the Avatamsaka Sutra:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

(My emphasis.) Indra’s Net is thus a metaphor “used to describe the interpenetration of microcosmos and macrocosmos.” Hmm, interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm…where have I heard that before? Oh right. That would be the Western Magical Tradition then.

If we accept the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm, and thus of all beings in the universe, it stands to reason that the ripples of one’s actions touch all beings. Given sufficient time (and pretending for the moment that time is linear and unidirectional), each action would affect and reflect from every single jewel in Indra’s Net, bouncing around and back again.

That’s karma. Karma is the situation of every action as–to borrow John Michael Greer’s phrase–“an ongoing cascade of interactions” within the infinite interconnectivity that is the universe. The complexity of it is beyond what the human brain can grasp.

Is there some cosmic calculator that makes sure you get punished for being bad? Of course not, but there is already shit in the pool, and if you shit in there too, there will be even more shit to swim through. What is this “shit”? It’s the Black Iron Prison, it’s man’s inhumanity to man. No one punishes you, you just deal with what you and others have co-created.

Magicians, sorceror/esses, witches, wizards, occultists–I haven’t met one that doesn’t believe in taking ownership of one’s creations. I don’t believe in a law of return, but I do accept the laws of thermodynamics. Because I recognize my part in unconsciously befouling the pool, with my conscious actions I try to fill the pool with rose petals, diamonds, and unicorns. Inevitably I am, like you, only magnificently human. We mess up a lot. Your personal system of ethics doesn’t have to include the concept of karma; you don’t have to be guided by empathy for others; you don’t have to think about the wider (indeed, infinite) effects of your actions or the unforeseen unfurling of your magics in space/time. But whether you think about it or not, you are bound in Indra’s Net. We are all in this universe together (unless we’re not, but that’s a topic for another day). Now that the term has been well borrowed into my native language, English, I find “karma” to be a convenient and succinct handle for this truth. What you choose to call it is up to you.

Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival

Tanabata streamers and wishes.
Tanabata streamers and wishes.

Tanabata, or the Star Festival (the 7th day of the 7th month, by either the lunar or solar calendar), is a holiday I was introduced to while staying in Japan. According to legend, on this day each year, two mythic lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited. In China, where the story originates, the festival is known as Qixi or the Festival to Plead for Skills, and in Korea as Chilseok. When the festival is celebrated according to the solar calendar, it corresponds generally to the beginning of the summer monsoon rains, when the oppressive heat and humidity becomes slightly more tolerable; however, in the lunar calendar it falls around mid-August and was originally the beginning of autumn.

Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way

In brief–Orihime (the star Vega), the weaver-princess, was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She fell in love with Hikoboshi the cowherd (Altair). But when they were together, Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi his cattle, so the King of Heaven cast them apart and created the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to keep them apart. Orihime was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, so the King of Heaven agreed to let the couple meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. But neither could cross the river, until the magpies, or in some versions the magpies and crows, made a bridge for them.

In one Chinese version of the story, Orihime (or as she is known in Chinese, Zhinu) is the daughter of Xi Wangmu (the Queen Mother of the West, or Great Female Ancestor of the West) rather than the King of Heaven. Xi Wangmu is a very ancient deity, whose cult exploded in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and one that I find particularly fascinating. I am indebted to the webpage “Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” by Max Dashu for the following information.

Xi Wangmu lives between heaven and earth, in a paradise garden among the clouds on Jade Mountain or She Wu (“Female-Snake-Shaman”) Mountain. In her garden grows the World Tree which bears peaches of immortality. With her are various magical animals, including the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, the rabbit in the moon, phoenixes, and qilin. In a 3rd-century AD scroll, Xi Wangmu describes herself thus: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.”

“Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.”

Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard's tail.
Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard’s tail.

In the earliest representations of her, Xi Wangmu looks like a human but has the teeth of a tiger and tail of a snow leopard. The tiger is the directional symbol of the west, and may have been since the very dawn of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic. She bears a staff, and wears a sheng headdress marking her as a weaver “who creates and maintains the universe” and controls the stars and constellations. The involvement of Xi Wangmu in the myth of Tanabata might indicate that it was originally a festival in her honor:

“This sign [the sheng headdress] was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, ‘the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.’ [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, ‘when the divine and human worlds touch,’ and cosmic energies were in perfect balance.”

(My emphasis.) After the Han Dynasty, the worship of Xi Wangmu was blamed for inciting ecstatic peasant movements and especially for too many uppity women peasants, so the goddess was “civilized.” Gone were her wild hair and fangs, replaced by royal robes and jewels, and her opposite, the Queen Mother of the East, was replaced by the King Father of the East to balance out what was perceived as an excess of feminine directional power and yin. In some literature she was demoted to mortal human status, or even depicted as a kind of succubus. Nevertheless Xi Wangmu remained beloved by the people, who often referred to her as “Nanny.”

tanabata streamers

Inspired by a miraculous tale of love, or by the awesome cosmic powers of Xi Wangmu, Tanabata is a day to make wishes for the fulfillment of long-cherished dreams, in particular the desire for new skills. People write these wishes on slips of paper and hang them on tree branches, and colorful streamers decorate the streets. Japanese festivals are open to all comers, being a matter of community participation rather than religious or cultural identification, while the stars are visible from all over Earth (albeit different ones in different hemispheres), so I don’t think there are any issues of appropriation to fear here.

If you wish to celebrate the Star Festival, you can complement the colorful modern traditions with more ancient ones, including:

  • Nine lamps dedicated to Xi Wangmu
  • Propitiating ghosts and the dead
  • Sewing fall/winter clothes, embroidery, weaving
  • Offerings of melons and fruit, candles, incense, and miniature clothing, shoes, or furniture in groups of seven
  • A “wish-fulfillment banquet”