As a symbol of eerie horror, the skull has always been a taboo. However, in Japan, a "skeleton culture" has been formed. Whether it is an idol star or a young boy or girl, the skull culture has been widely spread.
Zen and Skull
As early as ancient times, there was a "skull culture" in Japan. The famous Zen master Ikkyu (1394-1481) of Japan's Muromachi period wrote a book called "Kana Dharma", which is an easy-to-understand religious text called "Skeletons". There are 12 illustrations of skeletal groups that remind people of various life scenes of human life, with Buddhist verses interspersed between them. It makes people realize that the world is impermanent, and that the lying mandarin ducks in the red night tent and the bones buried on the loess ridge are just a difference in thought.
A famous Japanese Zen master of the Edo period, Ryokan (1758-1831), wrote 302 Chinese poems entitled "The Nine Phases", which describes nine phases of a person after death, namely:
- New death phase
- Bulging phase
- Blood coating phase
- Chaos phase
- Bite phase
- Bruise phase
- White bone phase
- Scattered bone phase
- Tomb phase
Later, the Japanese scholar Toshiyuki Iida collected such poems by Ryokan, annotated them, and compiled them into "The Translation of Ryokan's Skull Poems Collection". When commenting on Ryokan's poems on the skull, Iida Toshiyuki pointed out that Ryokan's "The Nine Phases" is a far cry from the poems shown by mortals who wander in the whirling world, disgusting and seeking pure land, and appealing to intellectuals, guiding them from impure views to liberation. Instead, it is a literature of self-analysis through skeletons, which leads to a conscious self confession.
Tachikawa Ryu and Skull Worship
The Tachikawa Ryu, which was popular in the Kamakura period, practiced skull worship. The Tachikawa Ryu is a mixture of Shingon Buddhism and Onmyodo. It also stipulates the grade of skeletons. The deity uses the skeletons of wise men, practitioners, and kings as top grades, as well as those of parents. The main reason for Tachikawa Skull Ritual is to "return the soul" through skeletons. Specifically, it refers to painting the skeleton with lacquer, setting the teeth, and then smearing the skeleton with water and drawing the mandala. In addition, every night at the hour zi and chou, the incense for the return of the soul should be lighted and the mantra for the return of the soul should be recited. If the ritual and ceremonial activities continue for seven consecutive years, then the skull will speak in the eighth year. "Return of the soul" is a soul-calling rite. With this rite, the "soul" that has been gone can be called back, and the skeletons can speak after combining it with the remaining "soul".
A large number of legends and customs about skeletons are recorded in "Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past". It is said that if you encounter a skeleton looking at you, don't avoid its sight, otherwise you will go blind. Conversely, look at it boldly. After a while, the skeleton will disappear. The book "Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition" records the legend that a skeleton told others about his death and then caught the murderer.
In Japan’s skeleton culture, the skeleton is no longer a symbol of eerie and horror, but a tool for evocation or another form of soul dwelling. Oda Nobunaga once made the heads of Nagamasa and others into a skull cup to show his control over the souls of these people. In addition, as the eternal form of life, skeletons are also entrusted with the meaning of "respecting life and focusing on death."