Adventures : Japan Tales (19)

Burning Our Environmental Blessings Away?

In many of the temples I visited in Japan, there is a custom of writing your name on a chopstick-length (but broader) stick of wood with calligraphic ink. But nowadays, a black marker pen will do! This stick is then left with the temple, while you offer a small token as a donation for it. Monks would do chanting to dedicate merits for those whose names are written on the sticks, while burning the wood strips. This burning is a not custom started by the Buddha; it’s probably indigenous. It might have come from the idea that burning with prayers is a respectful way of ‘dissolving’ that item into the elements while disposing them. But why not just write the names in a book register for record and reading? The whole register can be recycled later.

If I remember correctly, the name of the temple is ‘pre-printed’ on the strip too. As such, I thought the wood strips make pretty neat souvenirs. I thought of writing my name on one, or even writing ‘for all beings’, before making a donation and taking it home – instead of letting it be burnt. But second thoughts came to mind… If I were to increase the demand for these wood sticks, wouldn’t more trees have to be sacrificed? I settled with bowing at the temples… it’s deforestation and pollution free! How can we safely say there should be less burning? Simple… If we wouldn’t like the idea of every human in the world burning a stick with their names on it, as this would cause massive problems, why should we as individuals even ask for a single stick with our names to be burnt?

I think there should be less customary burning of any kind in the light of the climate crisis. Traditions are only as relevant as the contexts they are practised in. Practices should change if there is a need – without loss of the spirit of the teachings involved. Incidentally, it is also a common practice for visitors to write a copy of the Heart Sutra in Japanese temples, on a thin sheet of calligraphic paper – also with marker pens! Yup, it gets burnt too. But once again, why not take it home as a souvenir… and use it to remind ourselves of its teachings?

Related Article:
Burn After Reading?

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