25. Seventy-Five Days of Fasting
This episode occurred in 1872 when Oyasama was seventy-five years of age. During a period of seventy-five days of fasting, She visited the home of Ichibei Matsuo for the purpose of saving people in Higashiwakai Village, north of Tatsuta. Before leaving the Residence, She had three small cups of sweet rice wine and three round pieces of raw eggplant.
“Let us start on our trip,”
She said. “Please go on a litter,” someone pleaded. She replied:
“Remember that this is a test,”
and, so saying, began to walk briskly. When She arrived at the Matsuo residence, Ichibei and his wife were so overjoyed that they were close to tears. Assuming that Oyasama was tired and exhausted after walking about sixteen kilometers while fasting, they had a hearty feast prepared for Her.
“What a tempting dinner! Thank you very much. I accept your kind thoughtfulness, and it fills my stomach. Please take away the dishes now, and bring me water and salt instead,”
She said. Ichibei’s wife, Haru, thought that the dishes might not have been to Her liking, so she inquired about it.
“Each one of them is my favorite. They all look delicious,”
Oyasama replied. Whereupon Haru said, “But you haven’t touched anything. You ask for just water and salt, but I cannot do that.”
“I am now fasting in accordance with God’s will. My stomach is always full. I understand how you feel. Well, then why don’t you take those chopsticks and try to feed me?”
Haru was pleased and she moved the tray in front of Oyasama. Haru picked up the bowl of rice in one hand and, using chopsticks, took some rice from it. Just as she was about to move the chopsticks toward Oyasama, who was waiting to be served, Haru’s knees began to shake. The rice on the chopsticks, together with the bowl, suddenly dropped upon the tray. Bowing deeply before Oyasama, Haru humbly apologized. She withdrew the tray from in front of Oyasama, who was smiling, and brought another tray that she had prepared.
“Thank you very much for your trouble. Are you going to feed Me again?”
Oyasama said, opening Her mouth wide. Haru again picked up the bowl and took some rice with the chopsticks. As Haru moved her hand toward Oyasama’s mouth, Haru’s right thumb and index finger twitched painfully, and the chopsticks and rice fell on Oyasama’s lap. Feeling deeply ashamed, Haru apologized for her repeated carelessness.
“I am thankful for your kind thoughts, but it will be the same no matter how many times you try. God has stopped you. So please take away the tray of dishes quickly,”
Oyasama said tenderly to console her.
So Oyasama continued to fast during Her stay, and news of this reached the Residence. On the fifth day, three persons — daughter Kokan, Iburi, and Yohei of Ichieda — came from the Residence. Kokan asked Oyasama to have some food.
“You all think that I am not eating of my own accord, but it is not so. It is just that I cannot eat. If you think otherwise, try and feed me,”
Oyasama said. Kokan tried to feed Her, but the chopsticks jumped up and hung in the air. Witnessing this, everyone was convinced. So Oyasama’s fasting continued to the day of Her return.
Shuji came to take Oyasama home, and Ichibei decided to go with Shuji to borrow a litter from the Kohigashi family of Byodoji Village. They asked Oyasama to ride in the litter, and when they came to Tatsuta, Oyasama said:
“I feel dizzy.”
So they respected Her wish, and Oyasama began to walk. Oyasama explained:
“God has said, ‘Do not ride in a litter. Walk.’ “
Anecdotes of Oyasama, pp. 18–20
Translation of “Sawa’s note”
“[Based on] Haru Matsuo’s oral account in 1919. Ichibei Matsuo embraced the faith in 1866. He passed away for rebirth in 1879 at the age of 45. After a series of struggles, his son Yozo helped build the foundation of Heian Daikyokai. It is said that rickshaws began running in Nara from 1872.”
According to an article in Tenri jiho written by a fifth generation descendant of Matsuo Ichibei and Haru, the Matsuos were farmers who lived in Higashiwakai Village, located at the foot of the Jusan Pass that connected Osaka and Nara. For successive generations, the Matsuo family was not able to have their eldest son take over as the head of the family. Haru, as eldest daughter, married Ichisaburo Noguchi (later renamed Ichibei) on 5/10/1857.
Ichibei and Haru had two sons and one daughter. Then, in 1/1866 (lunar), Haru suffered from post-delivery complications after a difficult labor when giving birth to their daughter. Haru’s condition worsened; she was struck with a fever and swelling of the body.
In the fifth lunar month, her doctors declared her condition to be incurable. Just at that time, a merchant by the surname of Nakao visited the Matsuo residence and mentioned that there was a living goddess in Shoyashiki who wondrously cured women from all varieties of childbirth-related ailments.
Ichibei then rushed the 18 kilometers to the Residence and requested help from Oyasama, who informed him: “It’s as if you brought the fever with you here. If you go back, you will discover that your wife’s fever has subsided. There is no reason for concern, she will recover.”
After giving him some goku, she further said, “Have her partake one dose as soon as you go back, once again in the morning, and once more at night. Her condition will improve little by little.”
Ichibei then ran home and discovered that Haru’s fever had indeed subsided as soon as he headed toward the Residence. When he touched the towel that was wrapped around Haru’s forehead, it was cold.
Haru immediately partook some goku and once more the next morning. She was then able to recover to the point she was able to eat some rice gruel. The vivid blessings they had witnessed brought great joy to the couple, and they expressed their appreciation by taking sekihan to the Residence. Oyasama greeted Ichibei by saying: “Are you already here to give thanks? That you are here with Haru is a sign that God guided you here. How wonderful! You’ll come again once in a while, won’t you?”
Fast forward to 1872, when the Matsuos’ eldest son Narazo was struck with tuberculosis until his condition worsened to the point where he became bedridden.1 The Matsuos decided to rely on Oyasama for help. Yet the intermediaries who were a constant presence at the Residence2 initially declined their request for assistance out their concern for Oyasama since she was in the middle of a fast.
While the Matsuos returned home after being declined in this manner, they visited the Residence once again, requesting for an opportunity even just to hear a single instruction from Oyasama. When the Matsuos were given this chance to see Oyasama, she said to them, “Well, although I can’t say how things will turn out, I’ll go and pay a visit,” and went to their home in Higashiwakai.
My take / research
Now on to the content of Anecdotes 25.
The story is quite straightforward and I must say it has a fantastical and a difficult-to-believe description of a pair of chopsticks flying and floating in the air.
Before Oyasama departs for Higashiwakai Village, the people around her encourage her to ride a “litter” (Japanese: kago, which I would prefer to translate as “palanquin” instead). But she refuses, saying, “Remember that this is a test.”4 Her fast continues while she stays at the Matsuo residence, and when word of this reaches the Residence in Shoyashiki, Kokan and others also come by, understandably concerned for her health. This leads to the chopsticks flying incident. (Just a personal comment to add here: I always feel very sorry for Haru whenever I read this story. She comes across as a terribly clumsy person even though it is explained that God is stopping her from feeding Oyasama.)
Regarding the episodes being described in Anecdotes 25, Noriyoshi Matsuo sensei writes: “Of course, people around Oyasama believed that She was a living god. Be that as it may, they were still concerned for Oyasama’s well-being and greatly worried that She had nothing to eat. In regards to the anxiousness of those around Her, Oyasama clearly indicated that God was behind Her fasting.”
The religious significance of Oyasama’s fasts
Oyasama’s fast in 1872 was just one of several she went through during her physical existence. While the majority of theologians tend to assert these fasts serve as evidence affirming Oyasama’s position as Shrine of God, it is also possible to come away with the conclusion that each time she went through a fast, she was in the midst of instructing the people around her concerning something specific and highly significant.5
There was an instance sometime after she became the Shrine of God when God commanded that the main building of the Nakayama home be dismantled (the year and date is unspecified in The Life of Oyasama). When Zenbei refused, Oyasama is said to have been “confined to bed for 20 days, rejecting all food” (p. 20).
I would personally argue it is possible to see this 20-day period as a fast or even a hunger strike of sorts that demonstrates the importance of complying to and seriousness of God’s command to Oyasama and her family to “fall to the depths of poverty” (further details in my discussion on Anecdotes 4 and 5).
Regarding a fast that Oyasama began on 9/20/1865, she fasted for 30 days before heading to deal with a heresy that was being spread by someone she had helped (the heresy is now known as the “Sukezo incident,” partly described here). Concerning this, Tatsuzo Yamochi sensei, a former instructor at Tenri Seminary, writes: “Oyasama approached people from the general public with extreme kindness and warm parental love. Yet we see Her take an extremely strict stance in the Sukezo incident. She expressed this strict stance first of all when She undergoes a 30-day fast. This reflects Her stance against heresy” (p. 164).
I feel that it is also possible to interpret the 1865 fast as an act that symbolizes Oyasama ritually purifying herself and storing spiritual power through the ascetic practice of fasting before she goes to deal with the “defilement” associated with Sukezo’s heresy. Granted, I concede this is not necessarily an interpretation consistent with how fasts are generally perceived in the Tenrikyo tradition.
It also must be noted here that Oyasama is not abstaining from eating altogether in this fast. She is described having “a small portion of vegetables and some sweet rice wine” when followers pleaded her to eat (The Life of Oyasama, p. 51).
Oyasama undergoes a 38-day fast between the fourth and sixth lunar months of 1869, the same year in which she began writing the Ofudesaki (whose first two parts were written between the first and third lunar months.)6
Yamochi sensei writes about this specific fast as follows:
“We realize that Oyasama fasted for 38 days while She drafted the Ofudesaki. An ordinary human being would not be able to conduct such a long fast. She makes Her position as the Shrine of Tsukihi fully clear. One comes to the conclusion that we must not make light of this writing which was completed even in the darkness of night; that Oyasama made sure to convince those around Her the Ofudesaki, as a writing that was done during a 38-day fast, was not an ordinary piece of writing” (p. 238).
Finally, it is also noteworthy that Oyasama is said not to have touched any of the food that was presented to her when she was imprisoned (described in The Life of Oyasama, p. 180). That she was arrested can be attributed to the fact she was promoting a set of beliefs that conflicted with the so-called modernization movement undertaken by the Japanese government that happened to base their legitimacy on the emperor as a divine being.7
I speculate that Oyasama refused the prison food because her meals were to be cooked separately in a different fire and pot (a practice that began, most interestingly, not long after the 1872 fast; see ibid. p. 81).
Further, the prison food may have been considered “defiled,” i.e., prepared by people who did not sincerely consider Oyasama to be a living god or the Shrine of God. A less religious perspective may assert that Oyasama did not eat the prison food to avoid the possibility of being poisoned by the police. (Who knows? This must have been well within the realm of possibility.)
I know I have gone on somewhat of a tangent here in describing Oyasama’s fasts besides the 1872 fast that is described above in Anecdotes 25. While it would be ideal for me to go into a discussion of the significance of the 1872 fast here, I would like to save it for later in my discussion of Anecdotes 27 so I can present a fuller picture of its specific theological implications.8
- Next installment in this series: 26. The Story of Linen, Silk and Cotton
*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.
- Matsuo, Noriyoshi. 2008. “Itsuwa no kokoro tazunete: gendai ni ikiru Oyasama no oshie 6.” Tenri jihō No. 4095 (September 7, 2008), p. 3.
- Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. 1976. Anecdotes of Oyasama, the Foundress of Tenrikyo. Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
- _________. 1996 . The Life of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo (third edition). Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
- Tenrikyō Kyōkai Honbu, ed. 1999 . Ofudesaki chūshaku. Tenri: Tenri Jihōsha.
- Yamochi, Tatsuzō. 1984. Kōhon Tenrikyō Oyasama den nyūmon jikkō. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.
- Takano, Tomoji. Disciples of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo, pp. 33–36.
- According to Koji Sato sensei, “Narazo’s right leg had swollen to the point he was not able to move” (read the entire entry here). I am not sure if the swelling of joints is associated with tuberculosis at all. ↩
- There is no clue who these “intermediaries” could have been. (My Japanese source actually uses the word “sensei” instead of toritsugi, intermediaries.) These “senseis” may have included Oyasama’s children Shuji and Kokan, or one of her closest disciples such as Izo Iburi. ↩
- The Life of Oyasama briefly describes this visit as follows:
“In 1872, Oyasama became 75. Beginning in the early part of <the sixth lunar month>, She fasted for 75 days. She abstained from all cooked foods and cereals, taking only a little rice wine and raw vegetables in addition to water. After more than 30 days had passed from the beginning of Her fast, She proceeded to Ichibei Matsuo’s house in Wakai Village, walking the whole distance of about ten miles. Her steps were so light and quick that Her attendant found it difficult to keep up with Her. Even though She continued to fast while staying there for over ten days, She lost none of Her strength or energy. And when the long fast came to an end, She carried a 14-gallon cask filled with water with ease” (pp. 80–81).
- According to the Ofudesaki chushaku (a 1928 commentary on the Ofudesaki), the following verse is about Oyasama’s fast and subsequent visit to Higashiwakai:
This time, I begin the single-hearted salvation after having tested it on Myself.
- Concerning the religious significance of Oyasama’s fasts, Tatsuzo Yamochi sensei writes, “Oyasama fasted in instances in which She was instructing in a matter that can never be altered for eternity and all generations to come” (p. 237) and “We can conclude that Oyasama underwent this (1872) fast with a strict attitude towards Her physical self because this was what She did in cases where She needed to correct misunderstandings that could potentially become serious issues in the future” (pp. 240–241). ↩
- Regarding this fast, according to The Life of Oyasama, “Oyasama fasted for 38 days, during which She took only small quantities of sweet rice wine, abstaining from all cooked foods and cereals” (p. 79). ↩
- I have mentioned elsewhere that Oyasama’s teachings implicitly deny the divinity of the Japanese emperor. ↩
- To quote Yamochi sensei one last time, he assigns the 1872 fast with religious significance in the following way: “The act of walking to Higashiwakai Village to engage in salvation work while conducting a fast for 75 days is a matter of life and death from a human perspective. Oyasama had undergone such a test that was a matter of life and death before going to save a person who was too ill even to drink water…. if one maintains the mind of sincerity even when hanging between life and death, God will provide free and unlimited protection (pp. 95–96).” ↩