Image © C. Pawasarat.

Guardians Against Epidemics

Blessings from Retreat


March, 2020

by Catherine Pawasarat Sensei

Greetings dear sangha,

I’m currently in a writing retreat, working on my guidebook to Kyoto’s spectacular Gion Festival. In retreat at Clear Sky, it’s a beautiful spring! Warm, peaceful and sunny.

There’s a small team supporting me with the book, so while in retreat I am checking emails from them. They’ve told me how they’re in lockdown or self-quarantine. Meanwhile, I keep seeing emails with subject lines about what this or that organization (including Clear Sky and Planet Dharma) are doing about COVID-19. In truth it feels a world away.

If it weren’t for my team in various countries, for emails, if it weren’t for the internet, I might feel even more peaceful than I do. It gives me some perspective on the “retreat” part of “retreat center,” retreating from samsara, from an essentially mad world. While doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering therein.

An electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19

Amazingly, the main deities of the Gion Festival are guardians against epidemics. The Gion Festival started 1,150 years ago as a ritual to overcome plague.

Over the years I’ve reflected much on the relevance of the Gion Festival today. It attracts more than a million visitors a year, but is it just a hyped up tourist event? How many of those people even know that deities are at the heart of the festival?

You might not be surprised that one of my goals with my book is to recall the festival’s spiritual origins and meaning. It’s a most fruitful retreat, to be questing for optimal ways to share about guardians against epidemics with the public at large.

It gives me some comfort that every building at Clear Sky has a chimaki amulet from the Gion Festival, designed to protect everyone who goes in and out from plague. It’s giving me some satisfaction that I was gifted all those chimaki from well-wishing festival patrons, brought them back across the ocean, through customs and put them all up. May they provide protection to everyone who spends time here at Clear Sky.

“Surely these trying times are some of the most fruitful to hone our spiritual practice.”

A scroll painting depicting the ox-headed emperor, or Gozu Tennō, Hashi Benkei Yama collection. © Catherine Pawasarat.
Japan’s native spiritual tradition is Shintō, which means, “way of the spirits.” They say there are more than 800,000 spirits in Shinto, ranging from gods replete with histories, legends and families, to the spirits residing in a stone or waterfall. It’s a kind of animism or shamanism.

Shintō morphed with Buddhism in Japan the same way that Bon morphed with Vajrayana in Tibet. So the two main deities of the Gion Festival are both Shintō––Susanō-no-mikoto, the god of storms––and Buddhist––Gozu Tennō, the ox-headed emperor, a guardian deity of the Buddha’s first monastery, Jetavana.

The tempestuous god of storms carries plague on the winds to those that displease him. He’s also known as the god of love, and his beloved is Princess Kushi Inada, the goddess of rice. The rain from storms is what gives life to rice. So we see how death and birth are always hand in hand, so to speak, or perhaps we should say, lingam in yoni.

But I puzzled for years over this ox-headed guardian deity––why an ox? Then a learned friend of mine pointed out that it was a Japanese version of Yamantaka, the Lord of Death, guardian of the threshold between this life and the next bardo.

Both Susanō-no-mikoto and Gozu Tennō are considered either the bringer of epidemics, or the protector from them. Sounds a bit risky, doesn’t it? What’s the determining factor?

Balance, of course. Balance in our lives, within our selves, with our communities, with nature, with both the seen and unseen worlds.

Surely these trying times are some of the most fruitful to hone our spiritual practice. And speaking of balance and spiritual practice, I’m going to return to my relationship with these guardians against plagues. Wishing you many hours of sunyata, bliss and insight on the meditation cushion, for the benefit of all beings.

Click here to read Doug Duncan Sensei’s message on the COVID-19 situation, What an Amazing Life: COVID-19.

Top Banner image: © Catherine Pawasarat.  These three portable mikoshi shrines are temporary residences during the Kyoto’s Gion Festival for Susanō-no-mikoto, the Shintō god of storms, princess Kushi Inada, the goddess of rice, and their eight children.

Offerings before a shrine with a scroll featuring the calligraphy, “Gion Gozu Tennō” at one of the Gion Festival floats. Yamabushi Yama. © Catherine Pawasarat.

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