Every altar has two candles, an incense burner and two vases full of flowers.
Last time I was in Japan I was talking to my Japanese friend about flowers. Consider these three contexts:
1. There is a lantern flower day in Tokyo in which on an annual basis people gather around a specific temple and party while buying, carrying and displaying orange lantern flowers. These flowers have some medicinal function and it appears that they are being displayed for or offered to the Gods of the temple.
2. At funerals and a few other solemn occasions, big colorful bouquets of mixed flowers are displayed in large vases on tables. Are these for the ancestors? For the newly dead? For the living families of the dead? (To cheer them up?) For the gods of the underworld in hope that they will be lenient with the newly dead?
3. The art of Ikebana is a profoundly aesthetic presence in Japan. It is taught more or less as a pure exploration of aesthetics of seasonal change, space, spontaneity and craft. I might even venture that it is a ‘high art’ with Modern notions of universality.
My friend insisted that these are fundamentally different categories. The only commonality being flowers. Coming from my knowledge of Daoism, which uses flowers on every altar, and sometimes uses a specific species of flowers as an offering to a specific deity (like Purple Myrtle for Ziwei); the difference between the first two contexts seemed to be simply a temple altar to a god, verses a family altar to the dead. The context of the example of Ikebana seemed like an attempt to take the experience of the reciprocity between the living and the dead,* characteristic of ritual altars, and apply it in an abstract cosmology. In other words it’s the same thing without any mention of the gods or the underworld; the cosmology is the same but abstract. (Like with Aikido, in Ikebana they think of squares, circles and triangles; as categories of information about esthetic uses of space, color, shape, texture, etc...)
Well, my Japanese friend said I was wrong, these categories have nothing to do with each other.
It seems I may be up against the same thing in Taiwan with the relationship between martial arts and the dance performances of the demon generals who escort gods on procession. (Bajiajiang I have been mentioning is just one type of escort used here.) They are thought of as distinctly different categories. However, it is obvious to someone like me who has studied marital arts all his life, that they are doing martial arts. Which presents the question, does experience trump culture? In any event, it’s not so simple, most people will admit they don’t really know what happened in the past. They have no way of knowing if martial arts and dance performances were the same thing at some time in the past.
At least I now have loads of video and images to demonstrate my various points. More posts to come.
(*Gods are the dead in Asia. I wonder if that would have exploded Nietzsche’s mind.
We are, in fact, our ancestors. Offerings to ancestors must be done by a relative, because we access our ancestors through ourselves.)