Blogging Anecdotes of Oyasama 4 and 5

4. I Will Return Ten Thousandfold

“Fall to the depths of poverty. Unless you fall to the depths of poverty, you cannot understand what sufferers feel. Even water, once fallen to the bottom, will rise again. I will return ten thousandfold.”

5. The Same as Flowing Water

Among the words that Oyasama told Shirobei Umetani were these:

“When I was in a trance, the divine voice said within me, ‘It is the same as flowing water. Fall to a low place. Fall to the bottom. You cannot save others if you live in a mansion with a stately gate. Live in poverty. Live in poverty.'”

Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 2

Anecdotes 4 and 5 may be better described as God’s instructions to Oyasama rather than actual “anecdotes,” but let’s not get too picky here. I decided to discuss these two selections from Anecdotes together since they both deal with the same subject matter.

First, I’d like to get a few notes and comments (in translation) from other sources out of the way before I begin my own commentary.

Translation of “Sawa’s note” (4)

“[Source is] the first Shinbashira‘s Oyasama gyoden.”1

Translation of “Sawa’s comment” (4)

“I once asked my Shuyoka instructor for an explanation for the words ‘Even water, once fallen to the bottom, will rise again,’ but I don’t remember what his answer was. If water, as rain, flows to a river and to the sea, it will evaporate [as water vapor] and return to the heavens, but I can’t imagine Oyasama meaning this in what She said….”

Translation of Yoshinaru Ueda sensei’s commentary (4)

“If you take water in a bucket and throw it out of a third or fourth floor window, the water will jump back up in the form of a spray. If you draw tap water from a source in the mountains, it will have enough pressure to rise to the same height it had at its source” (p. 32).

Translation of “Sawa’s comment” (5)

“Shirobei Umetani is the first head minister of Senba Daikyokai.”

My take

God could have given the above instructions to Oyasama at any time between 10/26/1838 to 10/1841 (lunar), or immediately after she is said to have ended her three-year “confinement” in the storehouse (which is described in Anecdotes 3).

The second Shinbashira, Shozen Nakayama, has commented that we ultimately have no clear documentation on whether or not Oyasama began to give away her possessions and those belonging to the Nakayama family immediately after becoming the Shrine of God (p. 144).

It is entirely possible that she did not begin giving away family possessions until she ended her three-year confinement, but no one is conclusively sure. (If one were to get truly scrutinizing, it is possible to argue that we have no actual documentation of Oyasama giving away her possessions other than what we are told in Tenrikyo literature.

It may have been equally possible that the Nakayamas fell to misfortune resulting from the economic burden that accompanied the elaborate rituals conducted by shugenja Ichibei Nakano. But I will just assume that what is related here and elsewhere is historically accurate, because if I don’t, I might as well end my blogs on Anecdotes of Oyasama right here. And there’s no fun in that!)

In any case, the significance of Oyasama actively taking the steps to “fall to the depths of poverty” cannot be overemphasized in the Tenrikyo tradition. Yet I find the reason(s) for its significance to be open to debate. But before I get into that, I must briefly mention that I question that “When I was in a trance” is the best translation for “muchū ni natte imashitara.”

The Japanese phrase “muchū ni natte/muchū ni naru” has a wide range of meanings, and I find its use in the original Itsuwa-hen quite problematic because of this. If I were to retranslate the above phrase, it would probably come out to something like “When I was immersed/absorbed in contemplation” instead.

“Depths of Poverty”

Okay, on to the significance of Oyasama “falling to the depths of poverty”: I could research and write on the topic to unfathomable depths (no pun intended) since I found at least eight different articles that are specifically on this subject. While I’ve decided to save the task of reading them and presenting/summarizing their views another time (I’ll do it for my commentary on The Life of Oyasama I’ve been meaning to do), I will attempt here to bring up a number of significant points.

First of all, we need to consider the action of falling to the depths of poverty in the framework of the 19th century value-system in Japan. Surely, even if we were to imitate Oyasama’s action today, people would certainly question and possibly criticize us, even though other religious traditions have precedents of taking vows of poverty. (I would, however, argue that Oyasama was doing much more than taking a vow of poverty, as I will elaborate below.)

The Confucian-inspired value-system of 19th century Japan would dictate that giving away one’s family possessions and dismantling the family home was an act of supreme disrespect to one’s ancestors who worked hard to accumulate this wealth. This is especially so in the case of Oyasama.

As the woman of the household who was not born in the Nakayama family, she was ultimately considered an outsider by this value-system. And to think she very likely gave away family treasures to members of the so-called “untouchable” class! With all this in mind, it was not unreasonable for members of her family and fellow villagers, from their narrow, culturally-based perspective, to have ostracized her and refuse all contact with her at one point.

Next, let us consider one particular sentence from Anecdotes 4: “Unless you fall to the depths of poverty, you cannot understand what sufferers feel.” There is a problem here if we are to seriously consider this as God’s instruction to Oyasama. For Scripture repeats that Oyasama’s mind was not that of a human’s, but that of God’s, that there was not the slightest hint of a human thought mixed in her thoughts (see Ofudesaki 7:52–54; 9:2–3; 12:68–70, 181; 15:3–4).

The question then naturally arises: If Oyasama’s mind was truly that of God’s, why was it necessary for her to fall to the depths of poverty to “understand what sufferers feel”? The suggestion that Oyasama had to fall to the depths of poverty in order to “understand what sufferers feel” ultimately falls short of being a satisfying explanation for me.

Apparently I am not alone in sharing this sentiment; in my readings I found someone bringing up the same question, but I can’t for the life of me remember who it was or even the name of the periodical it appeared in. I do remember that the writer suggested that there must be more to meets the eye in this simple statement from Anecdotes 4.2

Theologian Yoshinaru Ueda has written that one of the reasons Oyasama fell to the depths of poverty was to open the path so it could be followed by anyone and not only by those who were well-off like the Nakayamas originally were (1976, p. 31).3 Such is hinted in the words “Fall to a low place…. You cannot save others if you live in a mansion with a stately gate.”

What possibly amounts to the safest and the most orthodox attempt to explain the importance of Oyasama falling to the depths of poverty is actually written in the pages of The Life of Oyasama: “She taught that by giving generously to the needy and renouncing attachment to material things, one will surely become brightened in mind and, once the mind has become brightened, the path to the Joyous Life will open up by itself.”4

Tatsuzo Yamochi elaborates on this by writing: “[T]he purpose of falling to the depths of poverty is not to rid oneself of material possessions. By renouncing attachment and love of material possessions, one can savor a cheerful mind and the Joyous Life. Its purpose is to sweep one’s heart clean. The second Shinbashira compared this to when we take off our clothes to take a bath: taking off our clothes is not the goal, the goal is instead for us to take a bath and feel good” (p. 89).

This metaphor of a bath is an interesting one. But this insistence that removing material possessions from the Nakayama household by giving it away to those in need was not ultimately Oyasama’s goal takes me in a different direction, toward speculations for further possible reasons behind Oyasama’s action of falling to depths of poverty (or what I prefer to call “emptying the Residence “) that may or may not have precedence in Tenrikyo theological writings so far. Here’s some more other explanations I have come up with:

  1. Oyasama emptied the Residence in order to break down people’s preconceptions surrounding the Jiba, the place of human conception according to Tenrikyo’s Story of Creation. The people around Oyasama naturally did not immediately accept the Jiba as the homeland of humanity as how it is dictated in Tenrikyo doctrine. They simply considered the area surrounding the Jiba as property belonging to the Nakayama household. Oyasama emptied the Residence to shed its secular identity so it would no longer merely be viewed as “Nakayama family property” and to better allow people to accept and understand that the Residence was a sacred place connected to human creation.5
  2. There was a pragmatic reason for emptying the Residence of family possessions and dismantling the main family home: the Jiba was located within the main home itself. The main home had to be torn down at some point in order to put in the Kanrodai, the stand marking the spot of human conception and the center of the Kagura Service, in order to have the Residence become aligned with God’s vision.
  3. By emptying the Residence — especially the dismantling of the main house — Oyasama removed everything that was constructed in the name of the secular pursuit of accumulating wealth and instead prepared for the construction of Oyasato (“the Home of the Parent”), which was to be constructed in the name of religious devotion, through expressions of followers’ gratitude for God’s blessings (otherwise known as hinokishin and go-onhoji), of which the construction of the Place for the Service in 1864 was the first step. This is an extension of the idea that the Residence is a place to “sow seeds” of devotion as presented in Song Seven of the Mikagura-uta.6
  4. Emptying the Residence allowed Oyasama to cast off the identity society had imposed on her (i.e., the housewife of a peasant landowner) so she could begin transforming herself until she could be regarded as a legitimate religious figure by the people around her. By being a married woman in 19th century Japan, the option of undergoing religious training of any kind was not open to her. “Falling to the depths of poverty” was the closest action available to Oyasama in short of becoming a religious ascetic, one of the main avenues open to a person (exclusively male) who wished to establish himself as an independent religious figure at the time. (This explanation is informed by a cultural studies/religious studies approach rather than a theological one.)

Although there may be more than one explanation behind Oyasama’s emptying of the Residence, what is most important for anyone who considers him or herself a Tenrikyo follower is to look past what Oyasama may have actually did but to contemplate and discover the religious meaning of her actions. This applies to all the other things she did as the “Shrine of God” as well.

A follower who is inspired to follow Oyasama’s example to give to those in need must be careful, for Oyasama’s giving to others does not amount to a “vow of poverty” that are sometimes taken by devotees of various religious faiths. I would also argue that her giving neither even amounted to a genuine act “saving” or “helping” (tasuke) others.

Out of the many individuals who went on to found Tenrikyo’s first kyokai (churches) were either saved from illness, problems, or were merely inspired by her godly presence; I am aware of no one who was a recipient of her so-called charity who also went on to found a kyokai. I have not come across a single person in Tenrikyo history who said, “I became a follower because Oyasama gave me something when I was in need.”

I am quite confident that any further search for such a person will come up empty. This historical fact alone must make us think. My take on this is that if you wish to give to those in need, go for it. But don’t expect anything in return or for any of the people you help to become Tenrikyo followers. For someone to become a genuine Tenrikyo follower, a person must cast away the mindset that seeks handouts and replace it with the mindset that desires to give to others instead. By giving to the needy, one may argue that this merely perpetuates in others a mindset that seeks handouts. This may be the main reason why, despite Oyasama’s act of “giving to the poor,” the Tenrikyo organization generally does not indulge in similar acts of charity.

Although I also wish take some time to contemplate the expression “ichiryu manbai” (translated above as “(I will return) ten thousandfold”), I will probably save it for later since the phrase also appears in Anecdotes 30.

For those who can’t wait that long, there is always Yoshikazu Fukaya sensei’s explanation to turn to for the time being.

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


  • Nakayama Shōzen. 1999. Dai jūrokkai kōgikōshū-kai dai-ichiji kōshūroku bassui. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.
  • Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. 1996 [1967]. The Life of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo (third edition). Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
  • Ueda Yoshinaru. 1976. “Kōhon Tenrikyō Oyasama-den itsuwa-hen ni tsuite.” Michi no dai 65 (May 1976), pp. 26–43.
  • Yamochi Tatsuzō. Kōhon Tenrikyō Oyasama den nyūmon jikkō. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.


  1. Yoshinaru Ueda confirms this in an article (1976, p. 31).
  2. The present Shinbashira, Zenji Nakayama, seems to suggest this is more an instruction to followers than one to Oyasama herself: “Although <Oyasama> may partly have been trying to help the poor and needy through charity, She was also teaching that falling to the depths of poverty helps us understand the feelings of those who suffer. From this perspective, we see that Oyasama is saying that we should be careful not to assume an attitude of superiority toward those we are trying to help but rather that we ought to bring ourselves down to the level where they are so that we can lead them by the hand. What this means, I believe, is that the important thing in helping people overcome anxieties and sufferings is to try to understand their feelings and work with them with loving care and a sense of humbleness” (from 2005 Autumn Grand Service Sermon. Also see the 2006 Autumn Service, esp. part two, for more of his thoughts on Anecdotes 4.)
  3. Zenji Nakayama has similarly stated that: “Oyasama could have saved people without changing Her family circumstances at all. I believe, however, that, for the benefit of those who would aspire to single-hearted salvation, She was trying to show that anyone, even those in the lowest economic and social strata, could help others be saved. In fact, I think She was teaching that being caught up in material wealth and social status would make it difficult to implement the true salvation work that God the Parent envisioned” (from 2005 Autumn Grand Service Sermon).
  4. I personally would translate “brightened” (akarusa) here as “cheered” since a “bright mind” in English suggests a smart person, and this is definitely not what the Japanese is referring to. Also, I would argue that “giving generously to the needy” is going a stretch too far as a translation; “mono o hodokoshite” just means “giving things” to anyone, not necessarily to the needy.
  5. I largely owe this idea to Sean Wagner’s Tenrikyo: The Establishment and Legitimization of Sacred Space in Tenri City, Japan (M.A. thesis, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, 1997). The main difference is that I have given a religious spin to what is essentially a geography theory.
  6. Tatsuzo Yamochi sensei actually writes something quite similar in Kōhon Tenrikyō Oyasama den nyūmon jikkō, pp. 89–91.