The Trouble with Superstition

Today, I wanted to share yet another good passage I found from the 13th century Japanese text, the Essays in Idleness by Kenkō. This deals with the notion of superstition, using the example of the Six Days, but this could apply to others such as Yakudoshi, horoscopes and such:

[91] The yin-yang teachings [e.g. Taoism] have nothing to say on the subject of the Red Tongue Days [shakkō 赤口, one of the Six Days]. Formerly people did not avoid these days but of late—I wonder who was responsible for starting this custom—people have taken to saying such things as “An enterprise begun on a Red Tongue Day will never see an end” or “Anything you say or do on a Red Tongue Day is bound to come to naught: you lose what you’ve won, your plans are undone.” What nonsense! If one counted the projects begun on carefully selected “lucky days” which came to nothing in the end, there would probably be quite as many as the fruitless enterprises begun on the Red Tongue Days…Good or ill fortune is determined by man, not by the day. (trans. Donald Keene)

Kenkō is a Buddhist monk, and well-versed in the notion of karma, but I think he also points to two important points:

  • Karma and “fortune” are determined by us. We are responsible for our own fate.
  • Superstitions seem real until you apply wisdom to them.

Elsewhere he relates a story about an Ox:

[206] Once when the Tokudai minister of the right was chief of the Imperial police, he was holding a meeting of his staff at the middle gate when an ox belonging to an official named Akikane got loose and wandered into the ministry building. It climbed up on the dais where the chief was seated and lay there, chewing its cud. Everyone was sure that this was some grave portent, and urged the ox be sent to a yin-yang diviner. However, the prime minister, the father of the minister of the right, said, “An ox has no discrimination. It has four legs—there is nowhere it won’t go. It does not make sense to deprive an underpaid official of the wretched ox he needs in order to attend court.” he returned the ox to its owner and changed the matting on which it had lain. No untoward events of any kind occurred afterwards.
They say if you see a prodigy [portent] and do not treat it as such, its character as a prodigy is destroyed.

Wisdom and good conduct are indeed the highest blessings one can have from the Buddhist perspective. Superstitions have no power apart from what you give them.

P.S. Was not intending a double-post today, but got the scheduling kind of confused. Enjoy anyway! :-)

One thought on “The Trouble with Superstition

  1. Hi Shinyo, I left a note on your blog. You’ve given me some ideas about how to be more reachable for queries, thank you. :)

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