Godairiki-san Rice Cake competition and yamabushi traditions – Taoist traditions from Southeas


春を呼ぶ奉納餅あげ

A competition for rice cake lifting was held at Golden Hall of Daigoji Temple on February 23 from 12 noon. Participants wishing for a state of perfect health and safety compete to see for how long they can hold the rice cakes in their arms. Women lift rice cakes of 90kg, the men, 150kg ones.

More about the event in the NHK news below…

Rice-cake lifting contest in Kyoto (February 23, 2012)

Contestants competed to lift and hold giant rice cakes for as long as they could at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto on Thursday. 71 people took part in the traditional event, aimed at fostering good health, at Daigoji Temple. The men’s rice cake was150 kilograms, while the women’s weighed 90 kilograms. Most contenders could not even pick up the cake, but a few managed to hold it amid cheers from spectators. A 28-year-old gardener won the men’s contest, holding the cake for 2 minutes and 58 seconds.A 40-year-old female police officer won the women’s category with a time of 8 minutes and 7 seconds.She got the rice cake as a prize and said that she will share it with her fellow officers and relatives.

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Who are the Godairiki?

大威徳明王

大威徳明王


軍荼利明王

軍荼利明王


不動明王

不動明王


降三世明王

降三世明王


金剛夜叉明王

金剛夜叉明王

Lit. five great bodhisattvas of strength. These five bodhisattvas *bosatsu  are described in Chapter 7 of the the Buddhist text NINNOUGYOU  as protecting the lands of kings who uphold Buddhism, particularly through obedience to the Tripitaka or three divisions of the Buddhist canon or sutras.   In the latter Amoghavajra (Jp: Fukuu ), they are referred to collectively as simply the bodhisattvas of the five directions, gohou bosatsu.

The NINNOUGYOU  (generally considered to be an apocryphal work composed in China) was revered in Japan from the Nara period onwards as one of the three state-protecting sutras GOKOKU SANBUKYOU , and the cult of the godairiki bosatsu spread with the institutionalization of the ninnou-e , a practice based on the NINNOUGYOU. This ritual which aimed at protecting the country was first held in the tenth year of the reign of Empress Saimei (660). The ninnou-e was celebrated at the foot of Mt. Kouya  in Jison-in (826) Wakayama prefecture, and then was revived, after a break (1108) in the Kondou, with the main image *honzon , for the ceremony being stored in Kitamuro-in.

A variation of the ninnou-e performed annually at Daigoji in Kyoto, is in fact called godairiki-san although it is strongly tinged with elements of the cult of the *godai myouou. The godairiki bosatsu are depicted in wrathful form, with Kongou seated on a lotus and the other four standing with one leg raised. All extant images date from the Heian period or later, and are related to the celebration of the ninnou-e. Early examples of the godairiki include the iconographic drawing of the *Ninnougyou mandara in the Spencer Collection in the New York Public Library and the set of five standing images in Akishinodera, Nara. A set of early line drawings *hakubyou  is preserved at Fugen-in  in Mt. Kouya. Polychrome depictions include a single-scroll representation kept at Kitamuro-in and a set originally of five hanging scrolls thought to date from the late Heian period and now kept at Yuushi Hachimankou juuhakkain both in Mt. Kouya. Two scrolls of the latter set were lost in a fire in 1888, and the remaining three (Kongouku, Ryuuoku and Muijuurikiku) have been designated national treasures. Source:  JAANUS godairiki bosatsu 五大力菩薩

The Godairiki cult appears to have been promoted by the yamabushi ascetic monks as Godairiki-san worship and rituals are promoted at Junteido Temple, and other sub-temples of Shogoin-Monzeki, which also hold an annual event called Godairiki-san  which celebrates the worship of the five bosatsu Buddha statues on February 23rd.

The Godairiki-san worship also has a history that goes back a thousand years to the establishment of the Daigoji Temple in Nara. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate permitted the practice of Shugendo (the mountain asceticism, also called Yamabushi) in Sanboin from Rigen Daishi (Shobo). As the head priest Koken of Daigoji entered the Omine mountain in Nara, the Daigo tradition became increasingly associated with Shugendo more and more. To commemorate this tradition, the event called Hanaku nyubu shugyo (Practice to enter the Omine mountain to offer flowers) is held by the head priest of Sanboin.

During the Godairiki-san Ninnoo-e ceremony, the priests ennumerate the virtues of Godai-myou and pray for the stability of the nation and prosperity of people. More than thirty thousand people visit this event annually. Worshipers may purchase “Godairiki Mie”, an amulet to prevent from the unfortune such as theft and robbery.

Before the  “Godairiki-san” or Festival of the Five Powerful Deities at the Daigo-ji Temple in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, a competition called “mochi age riki hoonoo” is held whereby people test their strength by lifting the heavy kagami-mochi rice cakes, one in white and one in red.

The giant rice cakes used in the Hercules contest are showcased from February 10 at two locations, including JR Kyoto Station plaza in Shimogyo Ward. The Godaiji temple holds the display of rice cakes to publicize its annual memorial service held on February 23. On the first day of display, red-and-white two-tiered Kagami-mochi, with a diameter of 80 centimeters and weighing 150 kilograms, are placed in the lobby of a hotel near the station, as well as in the station plaza.

13 Buddhist monks dressed as mountain priests stand before the Kagami-mochi and blow conch-shell horns and read Buddhist sutras aloud in the ensoulment ceremony as they prayed for the happiness of local residents and tourists.

Kagami-mochi rice cakes are offerings to the gods,  in the kamidana, for Toshigami, the god of the new year, to bring good luck and prosperity in the new year. They are considered auspicious foods in ancient times placed in various places around the house, although they are today mostly restricted to the tokonoma and Shinto altar areas.  They are said have originated from its resemblance to an old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror, which also had a religious significance. The spiritual symbolism for the rice cakes varies from the ‘spirit’ of the rice plant being found in the mochi, to it being a strength-giving food, to its disc-shape symbolizing the going and coming years, “yin” and “yang”, or the moon and the sun. The “daidai” layers means “generations”,  and is said to symbolize the continuation of a family from generation to generation.  In the context of the giant kagami-mochi rice-cake lifting competitions, and wishes for strength, the most obvious symbolism is that rice-cakes are storehouses of energy and strength!

As to the origins of rice cakes, Wikipedia suggests that its origins may be traced to indigenous Jomon Period flour cakes or to the Korean tteok rice cake that dates to the Bronze Age.

However, it is more likely that the origin of the rice cake offering is connected to the Southeast Asian (China) practice of offering Taoist rice cake offerings to their deities (see photo below). Specific cultural similarities in the sacred practices can be seen in those practised during the nine-day Nine Emperor Gods Festival, a Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, that is observed primarily in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, and also the Riau Islands. The way that the Kagami-mochi is displayed is closer however to the way that nian-gao sticky cake is offered to the Chinese kitchen god who is worshiped also by the same peoples in the same region. Traditional says nian-gao is offered to the Kitchen god, Yu Huang Da Di (i.e. on the Jade Emperor’s birthday,  on the 9th day after the 1st moon of the lunar calendar), or according to a 3,000 year old legend to Emperor Wu(Youtube video).

DSCN4713

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods embodies the worship of the nine sons of the Sky Father deity and the Big-Dipper Mother of Heaven (who holds the registrar of life and death) who are traced to having originated from Han China or the reign associated with the Zhou emperor. Dou Mu, mother of the Nine Emperors and Mother of Heaven is seen with arms stretched and holding on to a sun and moon which is also said to be the underlying symbolism for Japanese rice cakes. Thus it is likely that the rice cake offering ritual was a practice originating in the same Austro-Asiatic migrants who disseminated the rice culture to Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia. This particular festival though practised in different countries, contains many elements similar to matsuri festivals of Japan, such as the participants wearing hachimaki (white  – or red), bearing palanquins for their deities, Taoist fire-walking ascetic practices, and sending off boats into the sea.  One of the versions of the myth indicated that the migrant deities came by way of Yunnan, Fujian, Thailand to their final destination. Since genetics research on the Japanese has shown a strong Yunnan-Tibetan connection(the two peoples have in common Y-DNA haplogroups  O, D, YAP+ as well as Gm afb1b3 human immunoglobin gene marker; the mtDNA M9a1a1 basal lineages of southern China, southwestern China, and northern China that are also distributed in Japan, and its major sub-haplogroup M9a1a1c that is prevalent in northern China, and that is also distributed in Japan), this may indicate the early agriculturalists migratory path from the southwest of China.

According to a blog on the Nine Emperor Gods (Chinese Taoism) festival in Malaysia, showing pictures of rice cakes that look a lot like mochi, except they are red instead of white:

“A carnival-like atmosphere to welcome the spirits of nine emperors from the heaven to the earth who are worshiped as one deity known as Mazu, the Taoist goddess of the sea and queen of heaven, who represents health, wealth and prosperity.”

A further thought, could Mazu be the origin of Amaterasu, the shining light and Sky Mother goddess of Japan? The Big Dipper has had sacred symbolism and importance for burials since the Yayoi period, the earliest evidence being Big Dipper etchings on a pair of ceramic pottery of the Late Yayoi period.

Intriguingly, the mythical Sky-Earth symbolism (of East Asia) of square and round shapes of rice cakes is retained in Vietnamese culture. The rounded, convex cake of glutinous or nep rice’s “cupola-shaped top is said to resemble the shape of the heavenly vault” while the “square shape is considered a symbol of the thankfulness of the Vietnamese people for the great abundance of the Earth, which has supplied them with nutritious food throughout the four seasons of the year”(source: Story of the Rice Cake in Tet holiday).

Concrete connections or coincidence?

What are the odds of all these uncanny similarities of sacred practice being a coincidence?

Further readings:

Read more about Godairiki-san temple ricecake and other offerings the Saijiki page  and see more photos at Stephan’s blog.

See a 14th-15th scroll painting depicting the Godairiki-san from Christies.

Kagami-mochi (Wikipedia) and Mochi

Sticky chewy sweet traditional Chinese cakes writes “When you see this type of sweet, rice cakes [made of rice and sugar] you know that the nine emperor gods festival is coming. On the first day of the Chinese ninth lunar month, some Chinese of the Taoist (?) faith will go on nine days of vegetarian fast. So, this extremely sweet rice cakes will be sold…”

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in Malaysia: Myth , Ritual and Symbol embodies the worship of the nine sons of the Sky Father deity and the Big-Dipper Mother of Heaven (who holds the registrar of life and death) who are traced to having an origin in Han China. Thus it is likely that the rice cake offering ritual was a practice originating in the same Austronesia migrants who disseminated the rice culture to Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia. One of the versions of the myth indicated that the migrant deities came by way of Yunnan, Fujian, Thailand to their final destination.  [Note: The birthday of the North Pole Star is also celebrated in a Festival of the North Pole Star on the 27th day of the tenth moon(month of the lunar calendar), while the Kitchen god’s  Zao Jun’s Birthday is celebrated on the 3rd day of the 8th moon/month of the lunar calendar in China]

Rain and the Nine Emperor Gods “Locals have several beliefs about the deities and the festival… that it will often rain during the nine days of the festival, and also usually on the day before. The belief is that the deities, who are said to spend their entire time at sea with the exception of these nine days, bring the rain and cleanse the area for their arrival.”

According to a blog on the Nine Emperor Gods (Chinese Taoism) festival in Malaysia, showing pictures of rice cakes that look a lot like mochi, except they are red instead of white,

“A carnival-like atmosphere to welcome the spirits of nine emperors from the heaven to the earth who are worshiped as one deity known as Mazu, the Taoist goddess of the sea and queen of heaven, who represents health, wealth and prosperity.”

Nine Emperor Gods Festival (Wikipedia) | Nine Emperor Gods (Chinatownology)

Story of the Rice Cake in Tet holiday (by Vietnam Culture website retr. Mar 19, 2012)

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