By Bill Roberts
Bill Roberts participates in annual Onisaburo reading.
On the night of Oct. 18 each year, the people of Oomoto gather to read together from the works of Onisaburo Deguchi, the Co-Founder of their religious movement. The event is quite unlike anything a Westerner might have experienced elsewhere. Everyone who attends reads aloud at the same time and from different passages. I was fortunate to attend the event this year (2001), which was the 80th anniversary of the day Onisaburo Deguchi began working on these writings.
First a little background. Oomoto, which translates as The Great Origin, has its roots in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Shinto is a collection of ancient beliefs and practices based on nature worship. Most of the Oomoto rites are variations on Shinto practices. But whereas Shinto is polytheistic, Oomoto teaches that all gods come from the same divine source—that all gods are essentially the same god. Oomoto also teaches that God is a spirit that pervades the entire universe.
In 1892, Nao Deguchi, a poor illiterate peasant woman, began to have a series of visions that would lead to the founding of Oomoto. In 1898, Onisaburo Deguchi, an educated but poor young dairy farmer, had his own ascetic experiences, which were similar to those of shamans in Central Asia and elsewhere as recorded by scholars. Onisaburo’s ascetic experiences also included prophecies similar to Nao’s revelations. The two would eventually meet and work together to build Oomoto as a religious movement.
Twenty-five years later, beginning on Oct. 18, 1821, Onisaburo Deguchi began to dictate to several scribes what would become 81 volumes (200,000 pages) of writings based on these experiences. From 1921-26 and again in 1933-34, he kept four or five scribes working daily. Oomoto was under persecution by the Japanese government at this time. Onisaburo had to keep a low profile and thus had time on his hands for this task. The writings are entitled Reikai Monogatari, or “Stories From the Spiritual World.”
In commemoration of the date that he began this task, the people of Oomoto hold a special service each Oct. 18 in the main worship hall at the Kameoka center. The event begins with a 20-minute worship service. Everyone who attends also brings a volume of “Stories From the Spiritual World.” After the worship service, at the appointed time, everyone reads out loud from the volume they brought. This cacophony of reading by a couple of hundred people continues for 30 minutes without stop. Oomoto followers elsewhere in Japan also participate, starting and ending their readings at exactly the same time we began and stopped in Kameoka.
Only a few of his writings have been translated into English. My Japanese colleagues provided me with some so I could read, too. There I was, the only non-Japanese reader, reading out loud in English with everyone else reading in Japanese. Afterwards, the grandson of Onisaburo, Kyotaro Deguchi, spoke for sometime telling stories about his grandfather.
The writings, all in the first person, are dramatic, similar in flavor to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso). Some have a Carlos Castenada feel to them, although Onisaburo was not using drugs. He was in a trance in a cave on Mount Takakuma, near Kameoka, when he had these experiences. The portions I read were more like Dante’s Inferno. An angel guides Onisaburo through the underworld. He is armed only with a special scarf, a holy wand and an incantation to protect against evil. Here’s one brief passage:
(WARNING: Not for the squeamish, but it does have a happy ending.)
“Before my eyes were a throng of women, blood pouring from their mouths, some of them impaled through the bowels with spears, others sacrificing their blood to a horde of infant vampires, still others with poisonous snakes draped around their necks. They were all raising a tremendous howl and flinging themselves about in an extremity of agony and despair. Their tormentors with bamboo spears were jabbing them in all parts of their anatomy, the blood gushing in torrents and giving off a terrible stench. A truly terrifying spectacle! I quickly shook the holy wand from left to right to left. Once, twice, three times! Their sufferings came to an end and a number of the women, in tears, gathered around me showering me with kisses.”
This passage illustrates one thing that strikes me as quite different between Onisaburo’s story and the one Dante tells. Dante only observes, never helps anyone on his journey. Onisaburo repeatedly helps people the way he does in the above passage. Another thing that differs: Dante’s work had a strong political agenda, as he tells what he sees happening in hell to all the political scalliwags of Italian history. Onisaburo’s work–at least the little I have read–does not have real historical characters other than the mythical gods.
The above passage notwithstanding, the few sections I have read are laced with a sense of humor. For example, in one passage Onisaburo witnesses the final judgment of mortal souls brought before the king of the underworld. He goes on for several paragraphs musing about how much easier it is to pass judgment on people without all the legal maneuverings one would find in an earthly court of law. Then Onisaburo’s spirit guide explains there’s no need for appeals or arguments because the king knows exactly what these people did and what they deserve. Onisaburo’s tone in this passage is quite humorous.
It seems to me that whatever important religious content contained in “Stories From the Spiritual World,” they also represent an important literary accomplishment.