Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Ox Bezoars and the Materiality of Heian-Period Therapeutics

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Ox Bezoars and the Materiality of Heian-Period Therapeutics

Article excerpt

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BEZOARS are concretions found in the stomach or intestines of animals, generally ruminants, and are formed due to the lack of proper metabolization of lumps of swallowed hair, seeds, vegetable fibers, and other substances. Taking the shape of stone-like objects and characterized by several layers of organic tissue enveloping undigested debris, bezoars can cause gastrointestinal blockages and much discomfort even when expelled by the hosting body. Yet, various Asian therapeutic traditions consider bezoars extremely valuable as both powerful medicinal remedies and as effective antidotes against poisons; the English word "bezoar" comes from the Persian badzar, which means "antidote" (Barroso 2013, 193).

In Buddhist contexts, bezoars are called in Sanskrit gorocanā, a term referring to the gallstones found in oxen but also indicating a yellow pigment extracted from the bile of cows. For these reasons, gorocanā translates in Chinese as nihuang ..., literally meaning "ox yellow" Consequently, we find two ways of using gorocanā in Buddhist sources: as a medicine and as a pigment, both carrying curative properties. When fashioned into pills or ointments they treat a variety of physical ailments, dispel demons, and enhance mental abilities. The therapeutic importance of this drug was so well-established that Japanese ritual manuals compiled between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries present it as one of five medicines (goyaku ...) that, together with five treasures, five types of incenses, and five grains, are offered during goma ... rites. As the substances included in this group changed according to the text and the context, ox bezoars can be found in combinations with roots such as ginseng, with mushrooms, with flowers, or with sage and other aromatic plants, all present on the altar during ritual practices. When used as pigment, ox yellow is employed to write dhāranīs on talismans and to stamp seals, either on paper or directly on the skin. These methods addressed an even wider array of concerns: warding off all kinds of evils, prolonging life, enhancing knowledge, granting fertility, and even helping women find a husband.

Despite such a broad spectrum of efficacy, Japanese ritual manuals of the Heian and Kamakura periods suggest that ox bezoar was primarily employed in rituals protecting from bodily harm, especially in contexts that targeted safe parturition (anzan ...). One such example is the rite called goo kaji ..., performed to prepare the ox bezoar used by wet nurses to help royal consorts during labor. Mixed with water and turned into an ointment, the ox bezoar was used to lubricate the vagina or massage the abdomen of the parturient, and eventually drank to facilitate an effortless childbirth.1

Why did Japanese Buddhist monks resort to such an unusual product to facilitate the birth of royal offspring? Although the Buddhist sources are not transparent on the matter, the goo kaji was briefly discussed in the work of Michel Strickmann (2002) in relation to a wide variety of practices entailing the wielding, stamping, or ingesting of talismans and other objects, which constituted the basis of Taoist, Buddhist, and medical therapeutics. In these contexts, Strickmann argues,

The power of the implement is wholly related to the power of the officiating monk or priest, his control of the vital breaths within and his mastery of complex techniques of visualization. The seal is thus a concentrated tool of his own highly trained and heavily charged body. Its potency not only derives from the noble lineage to which the officiant belongs by virtue of his formal initiation but also draws strength directly from those supramundane powers for which his body serves as a conduit or transceiver. (Strickmann 2002, 187)

Following this interpretation, the potency of the object is mediated by, if not entirely dependent on, that of the practitioner. This represents an established explanation of how talismans and other similar tools are said to work in ritual environments, which also finds its roots in Buddhist doctrinal texts. …

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