Matsuri - Japanese Festivals

Gion festival in Kyoto

Most Matsuri today have lost their religious significance and are enjoyed by participants and onlookers more for the fun and excitement they bring. One origin of the word Matsuri is the verb, matsu meaning to wait for, to welcome or to invite God. When one meets God, one`s Higher Self, one needs to be clean so before the festival there are purification ceremonies. The inner meaning of a Matsuri is a ceremony to attract the arrival of the state of Divine Presence, the God within. In order to experience this state of awareness, one needs to clean oneself of the many thoughts and emotions that distract one from focusing one`s attention on the present moment.

The most important thing is to keep one’s mind pure and clean. If the mind is polluted, no amount of rituals and rites suffice. -- Hindu Texts

New Year

On the evening of December 31, Japanese people traditionally visit a Buddhist temple and ring the temple bell one hundred and eight times. It is hoped that with each reverberation the bad experiences, wrong deeds, and ill luck of the past year will be wiped away. Thus, tolling heralds the start of a joyous, fresh New Year.

Monks ringing a bell on New Year`s eve

One can find the number one hundred and eight in all Eastern religions and it refers to the passions. In Buddhism, they speak of the one hundred eight defilements.

The Pure Land is not far from here, for the distance in mileage is 108,000, which really represents the 'ten evils' and 'eight errors' within us. -- Huineng (6th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.) 
The Buddha of the West lives in the Great Thunder Monastery in the land of India, one hundred and eight thousand miles away from here. -- Journey to the West (one of the four great Chinese classical novels) 

In the Chinese novel Journey to the West, the Journey from Chang`An in China, to Vulture Peak in India where the Buddha lives, is also one hundred and eight thousand miles. This implies that if one controls the passions, one can reach a state of prolonged presence, which is symbolized by Amida`s Pure Land. All multiples of nine, such as eighteen, thirty-six, seventy-two, eighty-one and one hundred and eight are used to symbolize the passions.

The man in whom the thirty-six streams of craving flow strongly towards pleasurable objects, the waves of passions carry him off. He is of confused vision and evil thoughts. -- Buddha
Forgive the seeker if he strays off the path for the seventy-two creeds are constantly calling him.
-- Hafiz (14th c. Persian Sufi poet)

Japanese character for 'bright', on the left is the sun, on the right, the moon

Japanese people express their good wishes for the New Year by saying Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu. (明けましておめでとうございます)There is only one Japanese character in this phrase (within the first word). This character is a combination of the characters for sun and moon, and refers to the sun and the moon creating brightness. The sun symbolizes Divine presence, while the moon refers to the steward, the part in us that tries to create this state.

When the sun and the moon join ... the will of God will come to be. -- Quetzalcoatl (Mesoamerican deity)

The New Year is a symbol of renewal. Before the Meiji Restoration (1873), the Japanese New Year was celebrated according to the Chinese lunar calendar (February 3 for the year 2011). The Chinese New Year goes together with the end of winter and the beginning of spring, symbolizing the end of the state of sleep and the beginning of the state of Divine presence.

The storm that surrounds your boat is the winter of your soul. -- Barsanuphius and John , Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)
The ship is your heart. Guard it. -- Macarius the Great, Philokalia
With a great roar the evil demons arise, and through the passions raise mutiny and storm in the heart.
-- Symeon the New Theologian, Philokalia

A 'shimenawa' (sacred straw rope) new year`s decoration at the entrance of a home

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu could be translated as: new life begins ... darkness (sleep) gives way to light (presence). Congratulations! When the passions are under control, prolonged presence can occur.

Japanese characters for 'Shimenawa'

A Shimenawa is a straw rope used to mark a sacred place and is also used as a New Year`s decoration. One of the meanings of the left character for shimenawa is to concentrate one`s spirit or strength on. The middle character means to connect while the right character means rope. One can translate Shimenawa as a rope to connect one`s attention. By keeping one`s awareness focused on oneself and the present without letting it deviate, one awakens the god within.

Connect your daily practices of remembrance one to another, like links in a chain.
-- Jamaluddin (7th C, Sufi and poet)

Wedded rocks, symbolizing Izanagi and Izanami with the rising sun

Before sunrise on January 1, Japanese people often drive to the coast or climb a mountain so that they can see the first sunrise of the New Year. The first sunrise of the year is called Hatsuhinode and the tradition of viewing it, has been practiced since ancient times and was originally performed at the new year based on the lunar calendar, going together with beginning of spring.

At the end of prayer, keep seated till sunrise with the remembrance of God. -- Al-Ghazali (11th c. Persian Sufi mystic)

The Self in man and in the sun are one. Those who understand this see through the world.
-- Hindu Texts, Upanishads

A reconstructed picture of a temple in Luxor, the right obelisk is now in Paris

Isis and Nephthys with six baboons, raising up the sun disk of Ra.
There is a gateway in front of it, right and left with its two obelisks, like the divine sisters Isis and Nephthys who raise up the sun. -- A description of the temple of Edfu in Egypt

Many Esoteric Traditions use the sun as a symbol for the state of Divine Presence. Examples are Amaterasu from Shinto, Maha-Vairocana (Sanskrit for Great Sun Buddha) in Tibetan and Japanese Esoteric Buddhism and the Egyptian Sun God Ra.

The sweetness of spiritual practice is like that of the dawn, while that of witnessing is like that of the sun.
-- Ruzbihan Baqli (12th c. Sufi mystic and poet)


Celebrities throwing beans from a square container
at a Setsubun bean throwing event

Another festival that also used to occur at the New Year when the Japanese New Year was still celebrated according to the Chinese lunar calendar is Setsubun. Setsubun is celebrated on February 3rd. The most common custom in celebrating Setsubun is the traditional Mame Maki or throwing of beans, to chase away the evil spirits and demons.

From thy evil thoughts is born the great demon. -- Hafiz
I am the demon warrior Indrajit, hard to see. I fight invisibly, hidden by enchantment from your sight. I attack behind the wild winds of evil thought. -- Ramayana (Hindu text)

Evil spirits and demons symbolize the many I`s, the 'evil' thoughts and emotions that distract one from focusing one`s attention on the present moment. Even if these thoughts and emotions are in itself useful and good from an everyday life point of view, they are evil because they lead us away from Divine presence to the state of psychological sleep. Good thoughts are thoughts that remind us to be present.

Bean throwing at home

Mamemaki is usually performed by the male head of the household who chants Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!, meaning  Demons out! Luck in! The beans symbolize reminders to be present. In the state of presence we see the many `I`s or demons, and we just ignore them and not listen to them, so they go out. Good luck refers to the state of presence. There is no greater luck than experiencing this state; when presence is prolonged one can experience true happiness and love.

Seeing and hearing, emotions, desires, and opinions are all internal thieves. But if the inner mind is awake and alert, sitting aloof in the middle of it all, then these plunderers change and become members of the household.
-- Hong Zicheng, Caigentan (16th c. Chinese philosopher)

The male head of the household is a symbol of the ruling faculty or steward in us, which keeps trying to bring us back to the state of presence bycontrolling our internal household, the many `I`s.

A man's foes shall be they of his own household.-- The Bible, Matthew - 10:36

Fuku masu or happiness boxes

Traditionally a wooden measuring cup called fuku masu meaning happiness box is used to carry the beans during the ritual. The box is square and the square is a symbol for the state of prolonged presence.

In the Field of the square foot, in the House of the square inch, in the Temple of jade, dwells the God of utmost Emptiness and Light. -- The Secret of the Golden Flower (Taoist text)

A divine square-headed and extraordinary beast, The miraculous creature, the immortal of the waters. The Ancient Soft-shelled Turtle with his carapace of white. -- Journey to the West


A Mikoshi

A Mikoshi is a portable Shinto shrine, which people bear on their shoulders during a Matsuri , a Japanese festival. The practice of carrying a Mikoshi started around the middle of the Heian Era (794 to 1192 A.D.) People did this because they believed that evil spirits were the cause of plagues that were common at that time. In order to get rid of these evil spirits, people began to carry a Mikoshi around the neighborhoods that worship at the shrine. A Mikoshi serves as the vehicle for a Shinto God.

The heart is the secluded shrine of God. -- Al-Din Razi (13th c. Persian sufi)
Your own mind is a sacred enclosure into which nothing harmful can enter except by your promotion. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (19th c. American poet)

The kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

The basic shape of a Mikoshi is a cube with a roof, although there are also other shapes such as rectangles, hexagons, and octagons. The Kaaba is the central shrine of Islam and is also cube-shaped. It already attracted pilgrimages as the most important sanctuary in pre-Muslim Arabia. The name Kaaba means square. For Muslims, the Kaaba is the House of God, where the divine touches the mundane. (It`s original name was Beth-el which means House of God)

The heart is the divine Kaaba. -- Ibn Arabi (13th c. Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher )
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? -- The Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:16
First lay the foundations, that is, start to guard the heart and cleanse it from passions; then build the spiritual house, that is, repulse the insurrection against us, raised by evil spirits through the outer senses, and learn to cut off such attacks as quickly as possible; and only then should we put on the roof, that is, complete renunciation of everything in order to give ourselves up entirely to God. In this way we shall complete our spiritual house. -- Philokalia, Symeon the New Theologian

Master with a square third eye, Tibet

A Mikoshi symbolizes the spiritual house where the God within lives, it is the heart that has engaged Divine Presence. The heart doesn`t refer to a physical heart but to the Heart of Heaven.

In the square inch field of the square foot house, life can be regulated. The square foot house is the face. The square inch field in the face: what could that be other than the heavenly heart? -- The Secret of the Golden Flower

Men carrying a mikoshi with a phoenix on top

When the God within is awake in the spiritual house, the many thoughts and emotions going around in our head cannot influence our state anymore and one is awake in the glorious present. This is the inner meaning of carrying around a Mikoshi to get rid of evil spirits who cause a plague. A plague or sickness is a symbol for the state of sleep that we spend most of our life in.

Who is awake and who asleep? The mind is what sleeps. What recognizes itself as God, is awake.
-- Lalla (14th c. Indian mystic)

When actually receiving the teachings, you should regard yourself as a patient, Dharma as the medicine, and the spiritual master as the physician. Listening to and firmly practicing the Dharma should be regarded as recovering from the sickness. -- Gampopa (12th c. Founder of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism)
This is a strange repose, to be asleep with eyes wide open; standing, speaking, moving, and yet so fast asleep.
-- Shakespeare, The Tempest
The vanishing of remembrance is the essence of sleep.
-- Ibn Arabi (13th c. Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher )

A phoenix on top of the Kinkakuji temple

A phoenix on top of a Mikoshi

There is usually a phoenix on top of a Mikoshi. The Phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, immortality, and renewal.

I am pure, pure, pure, pure! My purity is the purity of that great phoenix of Heliopolis.
-- Egyptian Texts, Going Forth by Day

A phoenix is a symbol of the state of presence, which is immortal because it is out of time. The phoenix rises out of it`s own ashes after it dies, symbolizing the state of presence rising out of the state of sleep again and again.

Alice: How long is forever? White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second. -- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol
Never be without the remembrance of God, for His remembrance provides the bird of the spirit with strength, feathers, and wings. -- Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet)

Canopic shrine of Tutankhamun, 18th Dynasty Cairo, Egyptian Museum

The inside of the shrine: four canopic jars

Tutanhamun`s canopic shrine symbolizes the same as a Mikoshi and the Kaaba.

Thy sanctuary is to you as a heart of secret places. -- Egyptian Pyramid Texts

The shrine contains four containers with organs of the deceased, which ancient Egyptians believed were required in order to be reborn in the afterlife. The afterlife symbolizes the state of presence, while the mummified body symbolizes the body of spiritual effort to reach this state.

This body is in Mahayana Buddhism called the Sambhogakāya or the reward-body, whereby a bodhisattva, a steward, completes his vows and becomes a Buddha.

The spiritual body is a summation of virtues. -- Paisius Velichkovsky, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)
I put your heart into your body for you, so that you may remember what you have forgotten.
-- Egyptian Coffin Texts

The physical body already has a heart, so in this Egyptian quote, the body doesn`t refer to a physical body. It refers to becoming emotional when making a prolonged effort to remember the God within. Egyptians could reach the afterlife, the state of Divine Presence, if the heart was lighter than a feather. This means that by leaving behind all other desires, by not having any other desire than being present, one can reach the state of presence.

Four heads of Tutakhamon inside a square

To put it another way, these four are one in God and the one is four. But we cannot grasp the simplicity of God. While we strive to understand that he is as one, he appears to us as fourfold. -- Bernard of Clairvaux (12th c. French abbot)
This immortal fourfold breath, is hidden in the original cavity of the spirit, behind the spot between the eyes.
-- Chao Pi Chen (20th c. Taoist Master)

Life in the afterlife, was a natural continuation of life in Egypt. The pharaohs remained pharaohs, the Gods were the same, and the workers had to work. They ate, loved, married and worshipped. It was a land very much like one's life on earth save that there were no problems, there was only happiness. This is a very good description of the state of Divine Presence.

Hina Matsuri

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) takes place on March 3 and celebrates Girls' Day. This is the day families pray for the happiness and prosperity of their girls to ensure that they grow up healthy and beautiful.

Hina Matsuri doll set

Hina Matsuri traces its origins to an ancient Chinese practice, in which the sin of the body and misfortune are transferred to a doll. Sin refers to listening to thoughts that take us away from our efforts to be present.

There is only one blessing and one sin for a soul on the path: A blessing when he is conscious of God,
and a sin when he is not. -- Madani
(19th c. Indian Sufi) 

The straw or paper hina dolls were set afloat on a small boat and sent down a river to the sea, supposedly taking troubles or bad spirits with them. This is still practiced in some places in Japan and is called Hina Nagashi Matsuri or Floating Dolls Festival.

Girls setting paper dolls afloat

Hina dolls floating in the river

The ship is your heart. Guard it. -- Macarius the Great, The Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)

The Chinese monk Hanshan, Tokyo National Museum

The Hina Matsuri festival symbolizes purification of the heart from the dust of the many `I`s. Dust symbolizes the many thoughts and emotions that pollute the mind.

The mind is like a clear mirror. At all times we must strive to polish it, and must not let the dust collect. -- Huineng
The heart must be frequently swept, the dust of emotions removed, lest the Buddha be trapped in the pit. -- Journey to the West
Sweep out the dwelling room of your heart.
--Shabistari (14th c. Persian Sufi poet)

In this image, the Chinese Zen monk Hanshan has a broom to sweep out the heart.

Three samurai in Hina doll set

The samurai on the Hina Matsuri display, holding a rake and a broom, symbolize the same idea.

Pig, clearing the path with his rake

In chapter sixty-four of the Chinese novel Journey to the West, Sanzang and his disciples reach a ridge that is overgrown with brambles and creepers.

Sanzang reined in his horse to look. He saw that the ridge was overgrown with brambles and creepers. Although the line of the path could be made out there were brambles and thorns all over it. “How are we going to manage that path, disciples?” he asked. -- Journey to the West

This passage symbolizes that the way to the state of presence is blocked with imagination, the random thoughts and emotions going round in our head.

Wherever the thirty-six streams flow from the mind toward pleasure, the currents will sweep that unfortunate person away. Creepers of passion grow everywhere. Whenever you see one growing in your mind, uproot it with wisdom. -- Buddha

During the festival families set up a Hina doll set and pray for the happiness and prosperity of their girls. They hope that their daughter will grow up healthy and can find a good husband. The inner meaning is the heart (symbolized by the daughter) finding a good steward to create the state of presence. The Emperor and Empress in the Hina doll display also symbolize the mind — the steward — and the heart.

The union of the mind with the heart is a union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind with the spiritual feelings of the heart. -- Bishop Ignatii, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)

Emperor and Empress with three ladies in waiting

Floating dolls

The dolls set afloat during the Floating Dolls Festival are male and female, again symbolizing the steward and the heart.

A child that does not resemble its parents, is the child of a demon. -- Japanese proverb

In this proverb, the parents symbolize the mind and the heart. A child of the mind and the heart, is a reminder to be present, e.g. Be. However, if the child doesn`t look like the parents — meaning that it is not a reminder to be present, but a thought unrelated to being present — it is a child of a demon, a child of the lower self.

The devil, in reality, is a man's lower self and passion. -- Hujwiri (11th c. Persian Sufi and scholar)
The children must be like the father; we are made to be god by God. -- Philokalia, Gregory of Sinai

In this quote the father relates to the Higher Self, God the father. The higher Self wants to be present and sends an impulse to be present to the heart. This impulse is symbolized as a child. The Hina dolls symbolize Breaths of Life, or breaths taken with self-remembering. Once one has reached a prolonged state of presence and one is separate from the ten-thousand I`s, one doesn`t need to sweep them away anymore. One has reached Amida`s Pure Land and one can simply observe the many I`s, because one`s sense of 'I' is no longer in them. However, as soon as one forgets remembrance, one becomes the many I`s again and one has to start sweeping again.

Japanese painting of a disciple of Buddha with a Pearly Palace

The sutra Leng Yan says: By purifying thought one can fly and will be born in heaven. Heaven is not the wide blue sky but a heaven palace born of the body. If one keeps this up for a long time there develops quite naturally, in addition to the body, yet another spirit-body. -- The Secret of the Golden Flower

Heaven is not the wide blue sky, but a heavenly palace born of the body, symbolized by a Mikoshi. In fact, Heaven is the state of Divine presence, which has no shape or form and is only known to the person who experiences it.

Fire Festivals

You who seek to feel the Divine fire in your heart, who wish to know and to receive the kingdom of heaven existing within you, come and I will impart to you the science of eternal heavenly life.
-- Nicephorus the Solitary, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)

The Otebi Fire Festival in Fukuyama

The firing process spoken of in the alchemical classics and writings of the Taoist masters,is a metaphor for the order of practical spiritual work. -- Liu Yiming (18th c. Taoist master)

Fire festivals occur all around Japan. Fire is a symbol for the awareness of the Higher Self that occurs in the state of Presence. The sun, another symbol for this state, is nothing but a seemingly never-ending fire that gives of the light of awareness.

The six stages of purification by fire …are in sequence and should never be mixed up; only then can it produce the Golden Elixir. -- Taoist Master Chao Pi Ch’en

Fire burns everything that is not pure and transforms it into the light of conscious awareness. This light is the Higher Self.

The Dosojin Fire Festival in Nozawa, Nagano

Jesus said, I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes. -- Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
The life of this world is your lower self, your passions and your natural inclinations…that is what is meant by this world. -- Al-Jilani (12th c. Sufi)

Without fuel, fire cannot burn.

That which rules within, makes a material for itself out of that which opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it. And when the fire is strong it consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.
-- Marcus Aurelius (2nd c. Roman Emperor)

That which rules within, also called the steward, uses the lower self which opposes presence, as fuel to create a state of awareness in which the Higher Self awakens.

As wax melts in the fire, so does imagination disperse and disappear under the action of pure prayer.
-- Monk Callistus, Philokalia

Imagination refers to the many thoughts going round in one`s mind. If one listens to them, one becomes them and the Higher Self disappears and goes back to sleep. If one doesn`t pay attention to them and keeps one awareness on the present moment, in other words, if one prays purely, the Higher Self or the God within, is able to be awake and the lower self is rendered passive, or 'dies' for as long as one can keep up this awareness. This awareness is the fire that consumes the lower self.

The Otebi Fire Festival in Fukuyama
The true lover finds the light only if, like the candle, he is his own fuel, consuming himself.
-- Attar (12th c. Sufi poet)
Truth is a torch, but a monstrously huge one; which is why we are all just intent on getting past it, our eyes blinking as we go, even terrified of getting hurt.
-- Goethe (18th c. German poet and writer)

When the soul has been purified, it stays wholly in God, having nothing of self in it; its being is in God who has led this cleansed soul to himself; it can suffer no more, for nothing is left in it to be burned away.
-- Catherine of Genoa (15th c. Italian saint and mystic)

If there is nothing left to be burned away, the fire goes out, because there is no more fuel. This is a different way of looking at the symbol of fire, and it is the meaning of Nirvana. Nirvana is extinction, or the blowing out of the fires of the passions, the many`I`s; the blowing out of the lower self. Negative emotions are also symbolized by fire, but not the fire of presence but the fire of hell. Hell refers to the state of sleep, while paradise or heaven refers to the state of Divine presence.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, and Hell of Heaven.
-- Milton (17th c. English poet)
By dwelling our mind on evil things, hell arises. By dwelling our mind on good acts, paradise appears.
-- Huineng (6th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.)
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