A Mind Like Cotton

The following excerpt is from Omichi no joshiki [Tenrikyo Fundamentals] (pp. 106–110) by Koji Sato 佐藤浩司, professor at Tenri University and instructor at Tenri Seminary. Note: This translation is a provisional one at the moment and may require further revision.

A Mind Like Cotton

Oyasama taught us how we ought to use our minds with a variety of metaphors.

In 1872, Narazo, the eldest son of Ichibei Matsuo, who lived in Higashiwakai Village (now part of Heguri of Ikoma County), located 16 kilometers from the Residence was suffering from an illness.

A joint in Narazo’s right leg had become swollen to the point he was not able to move. Oyasama, who heard of this situation, went to save Narazo and stayed at the Matsuo residence for 13 days, despite the fact She was in the middle of a 75 day fast.

The following story describes Oyasama’s stay.

One morning, Ichibei and his wife Haru greeted Oyasama dressed in formal clothing. Oyasama said to them:

“Both of you always wear your formal haori coats when you come to see Me. From now on, just wear your everyday clothes. Would it not be more comfortable for you?”

After they bowed reverently to Her, She said, “Today I will tell you the story of linen, silk, and cotton,” and gave them the following lesson:

“Linen lets in the breeze go through freely and does not stick to the skin. Therefore, there is nothing cooler or better to wear during the summer. However, it is too cold to wear in the winter. It is just for the summer. After it is worn for about three years, it begins to discolor. If it becomes completely discolored, it is worthless. Even when it is dyed into a darker shade, the color is uneven. When it reaches this stage, it is as useless as waste paper.

“Silk, whether made into a formal coat or a kimono, is elegant. It is something everybody wants, even though it is very expensive. However, do not become a person like silk. It is nice while it is new, but when it gets a little old nothing can be done with it.

“Now, when it comes to cotton, it is ordinary but is used by everyone. There is nothing that is so handy nor so widely used as cotton. It keeps us warm in the winter and absorbs our perspiration during the summer. When it becomes dirty, it can be washed over and over again. When its color fades and it becomes so old that it cannot be worn anymore, it can be used as a diaper or as a cleaning rag or even as sandals. To be useful until its original form no longer remains: this is cotton. God desires people to have a mind like cotton.”

Anecdotes of Oyasama 26, “The Story of Linen, Silk, and Cotton”

Then, on the tenth morning of Her stay, when Ichibei and Haru came to greet Oyasama, She asked, “Would you like to have God enshrined?”

They agreed and asked, “Where would be the best place to have God enshrined?” Oyasama responded by pointing to where their Buddhist altar was located. It was the very room where the Matsuo household had the altar where their ancestors were enshrined for generations. Ichibei and Haru were astonished but exchanged glances and nodded in approval. They then asked Oyasama where they ought to move the Buddhist altar, and She replied:

“Your ancestors will not be angry, nor will they oppose the move. Set it in a similar place in the other room.”

“The other room” referred to what was once used as a guest room. Ichibei and Haru immediately sent for a carpenter and began preparations to relocate the Buddhist altar. The Buddhist priest who they had asked to perform the relocation ceremony was entirely against the move. But the Matsuos pressed him, unwillingly to chant the Buddha’s name and completed the relocation by nighttime. The next day four carpenters arrived and began building the altar for God’s enshrinement, which was completed by the evening of the next day.

The next morning, when Ichibei and Haru came to make their morning greetings as usual, they found Oyasama sitting still in front of the newly built altar. She said: “You did well. This will be fine, this will be fine.”

She then went to the room where Narazo was resting. Sitting beside him, She said, “Your head must itch.”

Oyasama then took out Her own comb and began slowly combing Narazo’s hair. Once She returned to the room She was staying in, She said with a smile:

“Today is a nice day, a happy day, because God is to be enshrined today.”

Just at that moment, Her son Shuji had arrived at the Matsuo residence. Oyasama told him to make a gohei. Once it was completed, She enshrined it in the altar Herself, made a prayer, and said:

“God is going to be here also from today. How wonderful! How truly wonderful!”

Anecdotes of Oyasama 27, “Happy Day”

Greatly overjoyed, Oyasama then returned to the Residence.

I believe we must pay close attention to the fact that in these related stories, Oyasama had Ichibei and Haru move the Buddhist altar dedicated to their ancestors to build an altar dedicated to God the Parent after instructing them to have a mind like cotton.

At the time, each household had a room where a Buddhist altar was placed, which served as the focal point of the house. There, daily prayers and occasional memorial services to one’s ancestors were conducted.

It would be not at all unusual for a priest to oppose the relocation of one’s Buddhist altar. It certainly must have been even more so when Ichibei requested this, since he married into the Matsuo family. One must also consider the relationship between one’s household and parish temple, which was bound by law.

To relocate one’s Buddhist altar was a potential source of conflict. Though it may seem but a mere play on words, I believed that we can understand that a mind of cotton (momen) refers to a soft (gentle) mind that does not come to conflict with others (momenai). It is not difficult to imagine that Ichibei and Haru settled this in their minds and was able to have the priest from their parish temple come to terms with their request.

Later, their son Narazo made a complete recovery. Ichibei and Haru carved the word cotton in their minds and wore nothing but cotton for the rest of their lives.

*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.


Oyasama’s statement that when cotton’s “color fades and it becomes so old that it cannot be worn anymore, it can be used as a diaper or as a cleaning rag or even as sandals” makes me wonder: Can used cotton really be turned into a sandal? The thong, maybe, but the whole sandal? The original Japanese is waraji, which brings to mind a sandal made of straw. Were there people creative and frugal enough to weave a sandal out of used cotton? I would love to see a picture of a sandal made in this way; that would really be an interesting discovery.

As for the Matsuos, I assume they wore nothing but cotton clothing for the rest of their lives. There is nothing in the original Japanese that suggests they went the distance and wore cotton footwear as well. A review of historical records from Heian Daikyokai would possibly clear this up, but I don’t have the time to spare to do such meticulous research.