Demon : Potential Buddha Oct13


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Demon : Potential Buddha

Japan Adventures (5) : Lure of the Demon Mask

The above is a picture of a Hannya mask. Having seen and photographed many magnificent Buddha and Bodhisattva images, there was an inexplicable lure to this mask, which is sold in many shops in various sizes and styles of carving and colouring as souvenirs. They can even be found in temples’ souvenir corners. They are not so much for wearing but for hanging on walls as decorative artworks. The expression on the mask is a direct contrast with that portrayed on serene images of the enlightened. It seems to be the epitome of ‘demon-nature’; the other far-flung extreme away from Buddha-nature. When I asked a friend who knew Japanese what the name of the mask meant, I was surprised that it meant ‘Prajna’ (般若 ) or ‘wisdom that leads to spiritual liberation’. The mask seemed to personify the opposite – the sum of all strong defilements, that impede one from enlightenment. I initially thought that it represented Mara, who is ‘the evil one’ in Buddhist culture, who stands for the embodiment of the three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion. In a sense, I was not very wrong about Hannya being like Mara – as you will see from the interesting paraphrased factoids about the mask gathered from the net below. The key defilement it represents is jealousy, which is a combined mix of greed, hate and ignorance (alternative terms for the three poisons). My first impression of the mask was that it was an expression of great existential uneasiness, of both intense and subtle unspoken or even unspeakable Dukkha (dissatisfaction). The mask is not the face of some ‘handsome devil’ or a seductive demoness. Yes, defilements make one ugly… eventually, even if not instantly. It also reminds us that being evil is to suffer, that even the very evil, whom we might resent are suffering much. Surprisingly, the mask is supposed to be female, though it looks more masculine (to me at least). Well, human defilements are of unisex nature! Come to think of it, the attraction to the mask is probably because I identified with it to some extent due to the presence of similar defilements in myself, albeit to different degrees. It is a spiritual mirror of sorts? This could be why the mask is quite universally popular… even seen as ‘cool’ by some hipsters and gangsters – who might have the same defilements, only stronger?

I had a most probably wrong theory of why the mask was called Hannya, when it obviously was so non-Hannya (Prajna). Our defilements are the very raw undistilled materials which can be refined away to reveal our Hannya. Even Mara and Hannya can become Buddhas with the right efforts in practising the Dharma. The mask can then become a powerful reminder not to be Hannya-like (as in Mara-like), but to embody genuine Hannya (Prajna). That would be the reason I would display the mask anywhere – as a stark reminder to work towards the proper Hannya!

Zly mentioned there is a Buddhist saying that teaches the truth of non-duality, that ‘Affliction (suffering) itself is Bodhi (enlightenment; freedom from suffering)’ (烦恼即菩提 ). To a good Dharma practitioner, every affliction can be transformed into realisation of truth, without being affected adversely. To a poor practitioner, only when afflictions are experienced fully, can one be truly urged to realise Bodhi.

As the Buddha put it, he only teaches the truth of suffering (the First Noble Truth) and the end of suffering (the Third Noble Truth). The realisation of the end of suffering is interdependent on knowing and seeing suffering itself. Of course, the Buddha also taught the Second and Fourth Noble Truths too (the cause of suffering and the cause of the end of suffering; the Noble Eightfold Path). Depending on how you wish to look at it, the Hannya could indeed be a multi-faceted metaphor…

More Hannya Stuff (which might not be true):

  • The Hannya mask is the most famous of those used in Japan’s Noh theatre to convey characters’ identities and their moods. The studio name of its creator was called ‘Hannya’. It is also said to be created by a person named Hannyabô, who was active in the late 15th or early 16th century. The origins of Hannya masks may have come from early snake masks. But most likely, the image was taken from painted hand scrolls of stories and legends of the Muromachi period. One of the oldest Hannya masks is dated 1558.
  • Hannyas were especially jealous women or who died of injustice when human, who would return to exact vengeance on an unfaithful lover or on men in general. Before fighting, a Hannya screams at her enemy, and attacks with her claws and horns. Hannya are a female type of demon or ‘oni’.
  • Hannya possesses two sharp bull-like horns, metallic glaring eyes of hate with scowling brows, and a leering mouth split from ear to ear with fang-like gold teeth. The hair is painted in disarrayed strands. The mask is usually made of painted and lacquered wood. Some people get tattoos of Hannya and there are books showing art focused on Hannya masks. In Japan, the Hannya mask is ironically also a popular good luck motif. Like other terrifying icons, it is believed to ward off evil spirits from the home.
  • When you view a genuine Hannya mask from various angles, you will find different expressions. The woman depicted by the Hannya mask was a once beautiful woman. She was so hideously jealous that she became a monster. The suffering and passion of this victim of unrequited love is revealed in the details of the mask, especially around the eyes. An good artist will pay attention to this human aspect of the demon. Despite having become a demon, Hannya has traces of humanity left. The hair, which indicate passionate emotion are thrown into disorder.
  • The flesh tone of the face varies depending on the social rank of the woman portrayed, with a lighter complexion (shiro hannya) indicating aristocratic status, light on top and red below indicating lower-class humans, and totally red (nikushiki hannya) for true demons. The deeper and more extreme the coloring of the face, the deeper and more violent run the emotions of the character.
  • One legend of the Hannya tells of a woman who fell in love with a priest. Some folk tales say she was rejected outright, while others have the priest returning her love, yet he was forbidden by his vows to touch her. Her tragic painful longing and desperation turned her into a monster consumed with rage, jealousy and revenge. In Japan, a hand gesture of two index fingers sticking up from a man’s forehead is an indication that his wife is mad at him or jealous.
  • In the Edo Period of Japan, there was a demon who haunted the gates of Rashomon at night, the entry point to Kyoto (Japan’s capital city then). All who passed were tormented by the fierce spirit until a samurai named Watanabe No Tsuna vowed to slay her. He spent several hours waiting for the Hannya. Time was passing on and fewer and fewer came through until a young woman approached. She asked him to escort her through the city. He courteously accepted and led the way. As they walked, he noticed in the corner of his eye that the girl behind was changing. He quickly drew his sword and slashed at the nearest thing. The Hannya let out a piercing scream and fled, leaving a severed arm on the floor. Watanabe was shocked but took the arm as a trophy and hid it in a chest at home. When he became an old man and was famous for ridding Rashomon of the Hannya, many asked to see the trophy, but he always refused. One day, an elderly woman came to him to see it. He allowed her to see it as she explained that her son had been a victim of the Hannya and that she needed closure. As soon as he retrieved the trophy, the old woman transformed into the hideous Hannya and grabbed it, racing off into the streets with it.

Related Article:

Sympathy for the Devil?

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