East Asian religions are very different to the Judeo-Christian beliefs which dominate the West. Whereas there's just one, all-powerful god in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, East Asian Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and folk beliefs each have thousands of gods, goddesses, saints and spirits (some kind, some malevolent). There's also considerable overlap between the faiths. This article looks at some of the region's most extraordinary religious sights.
Mummified Monks (Japan)
Undoubtedly the most gruesome religious practice in the history of Japan has been that of self-mummification, known in Japanese as Sokushinbutsu. Between the 11th and 19th centuries, it's believed that hundreds of monks, members of the Shingon school of Buddhism, attempted to mummify themselves by following an extreme diet in the final years of their lives.
Shingon Buddhism is exceptionally secretive (no books about it were published in Japan or overseas until the late 1940s) so how the custom began and what its practitioners hoped to achieve isn't clearly known. Nevertheless, knowledge of their methods has survived: For the first 1,000 days, the monk would subsist on nuts and seeds while doing vigorous physical exercise to pare away any body fat. For the next 1,000 days, he would eat bark and roots, and also drink a kind of tea made from Urushi tree-sap (a substance used in the old days to lacquer bowls). The tea's toxicity meant that, following the monk's death, the corpse wouldn't be eaten by maggots. The final stage involved retreating into a small stone-lined chamber where the monk would meditate, occasionally ringing a bell to let others know he was still alive.
When the bell ceased to ring, the man's fellow monks would seal the chamber. After a period (some sources say another 1,000 days), they'd open it to see if the self-mummification had been successful. The majority of bodies decomposed as normal and were cremated, but at least 24 achieved Sokushinbutsu. Several of these mummies (like the one pictured here) are on public display inside temples, where they're revered as sacred if obscure Buddhist relics.
Breast Shrine (Japan)
Throughout East Asia there are many houses of worship where the faithful ask their gods and goddesses to help out with fertility and childbirth, but Karube Shrine is perhaps unique in being dedicated to the wellbeing of the female breast. Located in Soja, a city of 67,000 in south Japan's Okayama Prefecture, the shrine is taken very seriously by many Japanese women.
The shrine sounds like something that would only have become popular since World War II, when Japan's beauty industry took off. (In recent years, Japanese women have spent five times more per capita on beauty products and cosmetics than their American counterparts.) However, it has a long history, having been founded in 1678. Even now, it resembles an old wooden building in the countryside more than an ornate temple.
The resident deity is Chichigamisama, the Shinto Goddess of Breasts. She's believed to help women deliver babies safely and lactate. She has also been credited with sending breast cancer into remission. Not surprisingly in a country where breast enhancement is a popular form of cosmetic surgery, some females come here seeking a bigger bust.
Inside the shrine's main chamber are what look like fake comedy breasts; the flesh is too white and the nipples far too red. These are purchased by worshipers who write their wishes on the wooden mountings, then leave them behind so the goddess will see (and hopefully act upon) their prayers.
Tapsa Temple (South Korea)
There's nothing shocking nor unsettling about this Korean place of worship, but it represents the eccentricity of one man, as well as being highly unusual and visually attractive. Set in a nature reserve in Jinan County, North Jeolla Province, this Buddhist temple was founded by a layman (later ordained monk), Yi Gap Yong (1860-1957). He found the valley's unspoiled, uninhabited environment conducive to meditation.
Yi stayed here most of the time between 1885 and his death, constructing 120 stone pagodas, some of them three times' the height of a man. In none has mortar or stone-cutting been used; Yi simply found stones that fit and piled them with precision. Around eighty still stand.
Gay Rabbit God Shrine (Taiwan)
With the exception of Christian groups influenced by US evangelicals, few people in Taiwan are offended by homosexuality, and it seems gay marriage will be allowed in the near future. Gays and lesbians do come under pressure, however, because many older people believe male-female marriage and begetting children so the family line continues is not an option, but rather a fundamental duty sons owe to their parents. Just as Taiwanese folk religion includes deities who specialize in protecting seafarers, police officers, residents of particular villages, and crops before they are harvested, the traditional belief system has space for gays.
The divine personality now worshiped as the Rabbit God is said to be the spirit of a man called Hu Tianbao. Hu lived in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and was beaten to death after he revealed his unrequited love for another man, a civil servant. When he arrived in the afterworld, the gods in charge of Hell appointed him the deity overseeing homosexual relationships. Because rabbits are docile creatures, they sometimes signify gays (in Hong Kong, "rabbit" is a slang term for a gay man). Taiwan's gay-rabbit temple is quite new, having been established in the Taipei suburb of Yonghe in 2005 by a gay Taoist priest. It's hidden in a back street and far smaller than many of the island's folk shrines, but slowly gaining supporters.
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