28 October 2010

Book Review: The Haunting Fetus

Marc Moskowitz is an anthropology professor in the United States. He engaged in field work to study the cultural phenomenon of fetus ghosts and fetus demons in Taiwan.

The only disappointment I had with this book was Moskowitz's preoccupation with the possibility of swindling by religious masters. And just perhaps, his failure to really look comparatively at the literature of the entire aboriginal area.

His central claim is that the practice of praying to and appeasing fetus ghosts is generally a new phenomenon in Taiwan that likely was imported from Japan. And that it took hold at a time when the nature of sexuality and family in Taiwanese society was very radically shifting -- culminating in the legalization of abortion in the early 1980s. He even cites to an informant that even goes so far as to say that fetus ghost appeasement was imported from Japan.

I found the symbolism as told in the stories of his informants -- together with what little affect he described -- to be highly rich. A richness that Moskowitz doesn't really mine. He got caught up in the materiality of the whole thing and was unable to fully differentiate the symbolic value from the literal value and it ended up as an echoing concern over religious masters simply hoodwinking emotionally vulnerable people out of money. He remains conflicted and uncommitted about this through out.

Naturally, this book got me to think more about the nature of ghosts and transmigration -- since I'm always correcting people on what karma is and isn't. On one level, Buddhists say that the realms of existence that consciousness transmigrates through are real places. When you die, you will be reborn in a real place like a hell, a hungry ghost realm, as an animal, as a human, as a demigod/demon, or as a god -- and you will suffer your karma there until you transcend it. On another level, however, we also say that the Buddha told us not to speculate about what happens after death and to focus really on this life that we presently have and that the realms of existence are just symbolic or metaphorical ways of describing present states.

A hell being suffers from anger and so what a human would see as water, a hell being sees as rotting pus and shit or molten copper or iron. A hungry ghost suffers from avarice and so what a human would see as water, a hungry ghost sees as liquid fire. Animals suffer from stupidity and are constantly exploited -- even if reborn among gods. Demigods and demons suffer from jealousy and would see water more valuable than we do and would suffer from fighting and quarreling over who exactly has the right to the water, etc.,. Gods suffer from pride and see water like a golden elixir. I wrote this poem several years ago about the tragic transmigration of a god, when he or she is confronted with death:

His lei wilted. The freshness that attended to him throughout his long life had dissipated into his old friend, the gentle wind. But now, this gentleness was a bit cold and slightly uncomfortable. He suddenly was overcome with fear.

His friends no longer came near. From a distance, they threw flowers at him and praised him.

'May you be born in the human realms, gather merit and return.' They said. In their expression there was not the slightest sadness or anger. There was a sense of loathing wafting subtly in the air. They carried on, without him.

In his last moments, he recollected his long life. Then, he turned to his mind's eye and would recollect his lives to come. His eyes welled up with tears. For eons he had sat in this sweet place, embracing beautiful gods and goddesses. He feasted on the most flavorful and pleasant dishes. Perfectly satiated, sedated.

He does not take birth again in this realm. He descends into the world of men and will never ascend again to this lonely place for all his lives.

But where do fetus ghosts, fetus demons, tiyanak, etc., play into this configuration? Moskowitz seems to presume that they do not exist, they are only an image of the psyche or the convergence of social change. But let's look a little more broadly at the issue. When someone meets an untimely death, throughout the world, there is always a tremendous concern that a ghost that will haunt the living will appear. If we take it on a psychological level, there is some energy from the psyche that was projected outside the psyche that is unable to be reintegrated into the psyche. Moskowitz describes this phenomenon with extreme clarity but not consciously. Most people who have had an abortion that he interviews feel tremendous guilt about it and when they meet with some misfortune, they ascribe it to the abortion (via the guilty feelings). And, you see now how karma works, it's a vicious cycle. Guilty feelings cause misfortune cause reactive action cause more guilty feelings cause misfortune, etc., etc.,.

I suspect, although I can't find any scriptural or commentary authority for it at the moment, that the answer is that the apparitions are clouds of karma that have formed below the clear light of the mind-sky of the individual. When one kills, the moralists say that one is reborn in the hell realms. But it has also been said by the liberals that one can rely upon the Dharma and transcend one's karma in this life time.

On another level, fetus ghosts and even tiyanak, in the Philippines, are a remainder between two belief systems involved in a process of social change where the synthesis requires extensive abstraction to resolve an apparent conflict between the two while also trying to balance this issue of untimely death and the potential consequences for psychic energy that is not reintegrated into the psyche.

There has been a two millennium dispute in Catholicism over the status of children not baptized and the belief in the limbo infantium. However, this contested belief has continued until present day among Catholic theologians and the most updated catechism of the Catholic church enigmatically says that baptism is necessary for salvation as a rule (caveat) but this is a rule of man and God is not bound to it as such. It almost sounds like a mystery is being born. Very complicated and unresolved. And, in the Philippines, this comes out as tiyanak -- from the pre-Catholic beliefs of demons caused by miscarriages, abortions, etc., -- untimely death. However, I am not aware of a ritual or practice that releases the tiyanak from their state -- only methods of returning them to the forest temporarily. I suspect that before Catholicism there were rituals which could heal these souls to the same level as people who died properly and in their right time.

If I had done the research, I would have turned in the direction of, why do Taiwanese go to these spiritual masters to perform incantations and prayer rituals as opposed to donating to an orphanage, etc., as one Moskowitz' informants had thought about doing. Why the rituals?

The version I read was a 216 page paperback published by University of Hawai'i Press (June 5, 2001), ISBN-13: 978-0824824280. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at abebooks.

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