Monday, October 17, 2011

Making Wishes

One thing I've noticed in both Japan and Korea is that people are not shy about praying for their own personal happiness/wish-fulfilment. In any Buddhist or Shinto temple there will be some way for people to write down their wishes on tiles or wooden placards, which are then hung up for all the world to see. In Korea as well, people are fond of writing their wishes down at temples and even at non-religious sites.
Roof tiles with wishes written on them, at a temple on Kanghwado
At a neighborhood flea market I recently visited with Unni, there was a free "painting experience" booth where patrons could write their wishes on a big board in gold paint.

I'm generally wary of making wishes. I guess I've read "The Monkey's Paw" one too many times, and I'm always uneasy that even the most innocent wish might be twisted around to bite me on the ass. However, this seemed innocent enough; it wasn't like the paintboard was blessed by a priest or anything.




Most of the entries were for personal requests like "pass my entrance exam" or "get a new job" or "health for my family." I did see where one person had written "world peace." Unni wrote out the name and address of her shop. I pointed out that that technically wasn't a wish, so she scribbled 대박 ("big success") underneath. While Unni was busy bedazzling hers with gold stars and curlicues, I made several wishes for generic things like unification, equality and harmony, etc. I glanced down and noticed Kongi gazing up at me with her sad puppy-dog eyes, so I painted another wish for "No animal cruelty." 

I think cultures with traditionally polytheistic beliefs are more comfortable about making wishes of the Gods. It makes sense that if you have many different Gods, they seem smaller and more approachable, and you feel less guilty about asking them for help with your problems. In monotheistic cultures, God is in charge of everything and thus obviously very busy, and besides He is really freaking scary and wrathful, so people mostly just want to stay out of His way. Even though Christianity seems to be taking over in Korea nowadays, it seems that the polytheistic tradition of making wishes remains active.

On the other hand, Christians tend to assign a lot of responsibility to God after the fact for some pretty trivial things. One of my Japanese friends thinks it's hilarious that actors or musicians in America always thank God for their wins at awards shows. I'm inclined to agree.

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