Today was my day off for the Veterans Day holiday, and I managed to come down with bronchitis. What a waste of a holiday. I’m ill enough that I can’t do anything fun, but not so ill that I can sleep all day. By mid-afternoon, I got so bored that I was reduced to watching sports.
I’m generally not much of a sports fan. But I watched the entire hour-long Asia-Oceanic guts final. And you know what? — It took my mind off my hacking cough, it took my mind off all the wars in the world, it took my mind off the growing effects of climate change. It was like meditation, only better (for me, anyway). Maybe that’s one reason why sports is now bigger than religion in the U.S. (or, more precisely, sports is now the biggest religion in the U.S.).
I get most of my online news from BBC.com. I’m also a regular online reader of Religion News Service, which covers the news beat I’m most interested in, the role of religion in culture.
But I’ve put off subscribing to other online news outlets. If I want local news, I’ll go out and buy a print copy of the Boston Globe and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. But an online subscription? No thanks. The Globe and Patriot-Ledger websites are ugly, riddled with ads that hold no interest for me, and the stories I actually want to read are too hard to find.
Then today, just by chance, I stumbled across the Christian Science Monitor website. The old days when the Monitor was a daily are long gone — it’s at best a weekly now — but I quickly discovered some great journalism on their website. The story that grabbed my attention, and made me want to subscribe, was titled “Americans have a right to guns. How about to public peace?” Rather than framing the story as a partisan issue of Democratic gun control advocates vs. Republican gun rights advocates, the Monitor frames this as a story about peace: how do we achieve peace in our neighborhoods? As a pacifist, I found this refreshing.
Maybe Amazon has the lowest online prices (maybe), but odds are that if you shop from Amazon you’ll pay more than you should.
Legal scholars from Boston University have been researching Amazon’s anti-competitive practices. They have documented how Amazon manipulates buyers into paying 29% more, on average, than they should be paying:
“As one of many examples, we present the first evidence that Amazon’s search results systematically bury the lowest priced items even if they have high ratings.(18) We find, for instance, that the best deal on the first page—factoring in ratings and price—was on average located in the seventeenth slot, where few consumers look.(19) Moreover, consumers who chose the first relevant item returned in the search results would have paid on average 29% more than if they had located the best deal.(20) One of the reasons these findings are important is that more than half of Amazon’s regular customers always purchase the top result provided.(21) And filtering the search results by ‘Price: Low to High’ does not solve these problems on most searches, particularly since this feature still ignores unit price and shipping costs.” Rory Van Loo & Nikita Aggarwal, Amazon’s Pricing Paradox (Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, 2023), pp. 4-5.
Footnotes 18 and 21 in this paragraph give essential information to help understand how Amazon manipulates your behvior to get you to pay more:
“(18) Our findings, posted to SSRN in May of 2023, build on previous research showing that Amazon and other online companies also manipulate consumers and engage in behavioral pricing by not displaying shipping costs or by preferencing their own items. See, e.g., Glenn Ellison & Sara Fisher Ellison, Search, Obfuscation, and Price Elasticities on the Internet, 77 ECONOMETRICA 427, 449 (2009) (using purchase data to show that online third-party sellers of computer parts can raise prices by 6% to 9% through obfuscation strategies, such as hiding the shipping costs); Julia Angwin & Surya Mattu, Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, PROPUBLICA (Sept. 20, 2016, 8:00 AM), https://www.propublica.org/article/amazon-says-it-puts-customers-first-but-its-pricing-algorithm-doesn’t (analyzing 250 items, each with multiple options for which vendor sells it, and finding that Amazon’s product pages push items fulfilled by Amazon to the “buy box,” even though once shipping costs are added that item would be on average 20% more expensive than the cheapest alternative); Adrianne Jeffries & Leon Yin, Amazon Puts Its Own “Brands” First Above Better-Rated Products, THE MARKUP (Oct. 14, 2021), https://themarkup.org/amazons-advantage/2021/10/14/amazon-puts-its-own-brands-first-above-better-rated-products (finding that Amazon systematically puts its own products at the top of search results, without looking at the price impact). Unlike our research, Ellison and Ellison were focused on behavior by the end seller rather than the platform and did not empirically study Amazon, Angwin and Mattu focused on obfuscation in a specific item’s product page rather than in Amazon search results, and Jeffries and Yin do not measure the extent of burying or higher prices paid as a result of self-preferencing…. (19) See infra Part I.B. (20) Id. (21) FEEDVISOR, THE 2019 AMAZON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR REPORT 14, 16 (2019) (‘For those who buy products on Amazon daily or almost everyday, more than half [54%] always buy the first product listed on Amazon’s search engine results page [SERP].’)”
Not to put too fine a point on it, Amazon is deliberately misleading its customers in order to squeeze more money out of them. Buying from Amazon is a sucker’s game, where in the long run the consumer always loses. (If you don’t want to read the entire scholarly article, Cory Doctorow summarizes some of the key points here.)
Yet another reason why friends don’t let friends buy from Amazon.
Over at Caute, Andrew James Brown commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Tokyo Kiitsu Kyokai, or Tokyo Unitarian Church, by translating an early document about the history of the congregation. One sentence that caught my eye: “The Unitarian movement in Japan had been quite active during the Meiji and Taisho eras but gradually declined due to various circumstances, although it didn’t completely vanish.”
Japanese Unitarianism (or more accurately free religion) died out in the late twentieth century. Brown’s post is a fascinating look into the history of this now-gone movement.
A key finding, in my opinion: Gen Z are quite willing to find and define sacred moments outside of traditional religion. Tricia Bruce, executive director of Springtide Research, told Religion New Service:
“‘Certainly, we might expect young people to tell us, “Yes, I’ve experienced the sacred when I attended a religious service or in prayer,” and they do, but they also told us “I experienced the sacred in nature,” “I experienced the sacred when I got into college,” “I experienced the sacred in a virtual connection,”‘ Bruce told Religion News Service in an interview. ‘Creative spaces that we may not think of as sacred themselves, or as religious, or we may not materially construct as such, young people are telling us that, in fact, that’s where the sacred lives for them.'”
Actually, some of us do in fact view “creative spaces” as sacred. (1) I’m one of those people, and I’m not even in Gen Z. I’ve had some of my most intense sacred experiences through the arts — in my case, through things like the visual arts, making music with others, poetry, and so on. (2)
Apparently, the survey also found that 69% of people in Gen Z have experienced a sacred moment in nature. Here again, although I’m not in Gen Z, I’m one of those people who experiences the sacred in nature.
Honestly, I don’t often experience the sacred in a worship service. (When I do, it mostly comes through music or group singing.) For me, the point of a worship service is not to experience transcendent experiences, but to provide a community where I can make sense of the transcendent experiences I have in the rest of my life. And then, once I make sense of those experiences, I want to figure out a way to use them to make the world a better place.In my opinion, transcendent experiences can be justified only if they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice (otherwise they’re just self-indulgent), and if you want to make justice happen you’re going want to be part of a community.
(1) I actually don’t like the term “sacred experiences.” It sounds too Christian-centric to me, and not in a good way. I prefer to talk about mystical experiences, or better yet transcendent experiences.
(2) I’ve always taken this for granted, but I guess it’s not obvious to others. Maybe I need to write more about how I have transcendent experiences through the arts.
Ardoksho (also spelled Ardochsho) was a deity who is best known for her appearances on gold coins of the Kushan (also spelled Kusana) Empire roughly two thousand years ago. The Kushan Empire included parts of today’s nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the northern part of India. Contemporary empires included the Han Empire in what is now China, the Roman Empire, and the Parthian Empire between the Kushans and the Romans.
It may be that Ardoksho had never been represented visually prior to her appearance on Kushan gold coins:
“…Taken collectively, the coins of the Kusana include twenty-three (and possibly as many as thirty) confirmed different-named deities, most of whom seem to have been drawn from Iranian, indian, and Greek pantheons. Zeymal has argued that the vast majority of these have no known anthropomorphic form before their appearance on Kusana coins. He asserts that only three of the religious figures depicted on Kusana coins draw from preexistent figural forms, and one of these is the Buddha. However, the rest of the deities, such as Miiro, Mao, Ardochsho, Athsho, and Pharro, are unkonw in figural art before the intervention of the Kusana die cutters. While the exact motivation for this explosion in iconographic innovation is unknown, it is conceivably a by-product of Kusana cultural borrowing. In other words, after the tradition of minting coins with images of deities on the reverse was adopted, such practice was expected, and the coin makers were compelled to create forms for those gods that had no prior iconography….” (1)
Ardoksho was a fixture on Kushan coins for something like five hundred years. As a goddess of prosperity, she would have been a likely candidate for inclusion on a coin. Her origins are not entirely clear: she may be related to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, or perhaps the ancient Greek goddess Tyche or the Roman goddess Fortuna; or she may have been her origins in a local goddess of eastern Iran known as Ardvi Sura Anahita, a goddess of water and moisture; and she is said by some sources to be the daughter of Ahuramazda. But Ardoksho’s iconography is fairly stable, always relating to prosperity and plenty: she was typically depicted holding a cornucopia or horn of plenty; a cornucopia and a wreath; a flower in her right hand and a wheat-stem in her left hand (not unlike Demeter); or a cornucopia in her right hand and a fillet in her left hand. (2)
Empires tend to bring different cultures together, which can lead to cross-cultural fertilization. Over the centuries she appeared on Kushan Empire coins, Ardoksho is one of the deities who engaged in cross-fertilization:
“…If Greeks were converted to Vaishnavism or came to accept the presence of Bhagavata and Shaiva deities, Indians began to worship deities from across the borders, some of which entered the Indian pantheon, such as the goddess Ardochso in the form of Shri….” (3)
Indeed, the Kushan Empire was quite tolerant of local deities and religious practices:
“Although the Kushans had a favored style of military architecture, it is clear they did not attempt to impose a single religious tradition on their empire but rather patronized key regional cults. Vima Kadphises’ son, Kanishka (127-147), thus dedicated a major ceremonial complex at Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan which combined dynastic statues with a [Zoroastrian] fire-temple but also established a major Buddhist stupa at Shahji-Dheri, in Peshawar to the south. His coinage demonstrates similar plurality, and he was equally happy to be portrayed with the Hellenistic deity Helios, the Iranian deity Adsho, and the Buddha, whose identities were confirmed in Greek script.” (4)
On the coin shown above, Ardoksho appears in the center, with her name written at left. I don’t think she’s holding a cornucopia; I believe on this coin she’s holding a flower in her right hand and what might be a wheat stem in her left hand.
(1) Robert Daniel DeCaroli, Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (University of Washington Press, 2015).
(2) Prashant Srivastava, A Dictionary of Divinities and Their Symbols on Ancient Indians Coins (WebGuruCool, 2022), pp. 10-11; excerpts from the earlier publication by Srivastava, Encyclopaedia of Indian Coins: Ancient Coins of Northern India up to c 650 AD, 2 vols. (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 2012). See also: British Museum website, “Ardochsho,” https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG132101 accessed 3 Nov. 2023; this web page references J. Rosenfield, Dynastic Art of the Kushans (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 74-75.
(3) Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, p. 223.
(4) Robin Coningham and Mark Manuel, “The Early Empires of South Asia,” in The Great Empires of the Ancient World (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009/2021), pp. 187-188.
Updated to add more info about Kushan religious plurality.
Beacon Press has published a pamphlet about banned books. You can download a PDF here. I picked up a hard copy at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. — presumably when bookstores buy books from Beacon, they receive some hard copies of the pamphlet.
The best thing about this pamphlet is not the infographics or text — it’s the QR code that links to some Beacon Press ebooks. These ebooks are free for people who have any difficulty obtaining them, which presumably means schoolkids.
If you’re not familiar with Beacon Press, it started as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) publishing house, got spun off as an independent publisher, but still retains its UU connections.
This isn’t humble-bragging, this is outright bragging. My photo of the Cohasset Meeting House is in the latest issue of Classicist (no. 20), the peer-reviewed journal of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. Not that my photo was peer-reviewed; the photos in this issue are merely illustrations for the peer-reviewed material. Still, I guess all my hours in art classes weren’t totally wasted.
Doumu, a Daoist deity, is sometimes called “Dipper Mother” in English because she’s the goddess of the of the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. Her name is variously rendered Doumu, Tou Mu, Dou Mu Yuan Jun, etc. The illustration above shows a Qing dynasty sculpture of her in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Doumu has nine pairs of arms. She also has three eyes. In the sculpture on the cover, the third eye is hard to see, but it’s there — between her other two eyes, in a vertical orientation in the middle of her forehead.
Back in 1912, E. T. C. Werner gave a summary of Doumu’s attributes and powers in his book Myths and Legends of China:
“Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jen Huang or Hu-man Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns.
“She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative posi-tion as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yu, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yuan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.
“Tou Mu wears the Buddhist crown, is seated on a lotus throne, has three eyes, eighteen arms, and holds various precious objects in her numerous hands, such as a bow, spear, sword, flag, dragon’s head, pagoda, five chariots, sun’s disk, moon’s disk, etc. She has control of the books of life and death, and all who wish to prolong their days worship at her shrine. Her devotees abstain from animal food on the third and twenty-seventh day of every month.
“Of her sons, two are the Northern and Southern Bushels; the latter, dressed in red, rules birth; the former, in white, rules death.”
Unfortunately, Werner doesn’t tell us his sources. I’d love to know the date of his sources, because all deities have a tendency to change over time. Furthermore, Chinese culture is not monolithic, and I’d love to know the regional origins of Werner’s information. Nor does Werner tell us much about how Doumu’s devotees venerated her — all he says is that they abstain from eating meat two days a month, but what were her festivals, and how did devotees show their devotion on a daily or weekly basis?
Werner also neglects to tell us anything about the temples dedicated to, or named after, Doumu. For that information, we have to turn to other sources. An English language guidebook from 1912 briefly mentions one of Doumu’s temples on Tai Shan mountain:
“After a quarter hour’s climb (6 hrs. 50 min. [from the town of T’ai Fu]), the Toumu-kung ‘Temple of the Goddess of the Great Bear’ on the E. of the road. This temple, within whose walls are to be found a singular mixture of Taoist and Buddhist divinities, was inhabited up to 1906 by Taoist nuns.”
Tai Shan was one of the most sacred sites in China, and served as the home for other temples and sacred sites, as shown in the map below, from this 1912 guidebook. Doumu’s temple, labeled “Tou-Mu Kung,” appears almost in the exact center of the map.
It would be interesting to know if there were any relationships between the various temples. It would also be interesting to know something about the lives of the nuns who lived in the temple up to 1906. Doubtless there are Chinese language sources that could provide some or all of this information, but I was unable to find anything written in English.
Doumu’s temple on Tai Shan is still in existence. Wikimedia Commons has several photographs of the temple, taken by “Zhanzhugang” on 12 August 2015. Here’s Zhanzhuguang’s photograph of one of the entrances:
Other temples dedicated to Doumu exist today. For example, Doumu has a temple named for her at 779A Upper Serangoon Road, Singapore. A Singapore government website gives some more information about this temple:
“The Hokkien community refer to Tou Mu Kung as Kiu Ong Yah or Kau Ong Yah Temple (‘Temple of the Ninth Emperor’), which accurately reflects the main Taoist deity worshipped in the temple. While the temple is dedicated to Jiu Huang Ye, it is officially named in honour of another deity, Dou Mu Yuan Jun (‘Mother of the Big Dipper’), who is the mother of Jiu Huang Ye. Believed to be holding the Register of Life and Death, she is venerated by devotees in hope of prolonging one’s life and avoiding calamities. One version of the legend tells of Jiu Huang Ye as comprising nine stars: seven stars constituting the Big Dipper and two assistant stars that are invisible to the naked eye.
“Another legend describes Jiu Huang Ye as a single entity, often represented by an incense burner instead of a statue. This form of Jiu Huang Ye is adopted by Tou Mu Kung which enshrines the sacred incense burner on the upper floor of the two-storey pagoda behind the temple. Access to the pagoda is restricted to males.”
Although Jiu Huang Ye is still venerated by annual rites at the Singapore temple, there is no mention of any rites performed for Doumu.
But there is an annual festival in Singapore for her children, the Nine Emperor Gods. A Youtube video from 23 October 2023 shows scenes from this festival, including people lighting incense, leaving offerings, watching performances, etc. Electronic keyboards play side by side with traditional instruments for the Hokkien opera; flashing lights outline the ceremonial palanquins; devotees dressed all in white line engage in various activities. At one point someone drives a bright orange Lamborghini sports car into the festival. While this festival doesn’t directly involve Doumu, it takes place in her temple. It looks like a fun mixture of contemporary pop culture and folk religion.
Doumu entered the Daoist pantheon in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as an adaptation of the the Hindu goddess Marici (Despeux, 2000). Having similarities to Guanyin, she sometimes became associated with that deity. She then traveled beyond China to Southeast Asia, where she became associated with the Nine Emperor Gods.
According to Hock-Tong Cheu (2021), for ethnic Chinese people living in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, veneration of the Nine Emperor Gods takes the form of veneration of Doumu. In Southeast Asia, she may be represented as either a Daoist or a Buddhist deity. Contemporary sculptures in these countries most often depict Doumu with nine pairs of hands. There are nine pairs to represent the Nine Emperor Gods. In sculptures, these eighteen hands hold precious objects “such as the sun’s disk, the moon’s disk, bow, arrow, spear, sword, flag, rosary, book, ruler, scissors, dragon’s head, gourd, fan, pagoda, chariots, precious gem” and other objects. Each of these objects provides insight into Doumu’s abilities:
“Informants reveal that each of these precious objects signifies Doumu’s power. The sun and moon disks, for example, portray her power in controlling the universe, through the manifestation of day and night, brightness and darkness, heat and cold, health and disease, life and death, etc.; the bow and arrow demonstrate Doumu’s power in protecting humankind against war and pestilence, and in maintaining peace and harmony; the flag is used as an emblem to signify her power in preserving human integrity and territorial sovereignty; the rosary acts as a medium through which Doumu inculcates devotion, piety, and asceticism as channels through which salvation [sic] may be attained; and so forth.”
But more than anything else, contemporary devotees of Doumu understand her as the deity of “Lovingkindness and Mercy.” Devotees perform rituals during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, which is held each year for the first nine days and nights of the ninth lunar month, so that these offspring of Doumu will give them blessings of “fu lu shou,” or fortune, prosperity, and longevity.
Doumu hasn’t made much of an impact on Western society; a few practitioners of Westernized Daoism might know who she is, but New Age practitioners don’t seem to pay much attention to her, and she hasn’t made the ultimate leap forward in status by being included in a video game. But she is still widely venerated in east Asia.
Hock-Tong Cheu, entry on Doumu in Chinese Beliefs and Practices in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Partridge Publishing, 2021).
Catherine Despeux, “Women in Daoism,” in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2000), pp. 393 ff.
David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey, Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Claudius Madrolle, Northern China: The Valley of the Blue River, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern China and Korea, in the Madrolle’s Guide Books series (London: Hachette & Co., 1912), p. 163.
A Simple Video Youtube channel, “Tou Mu Kung Temple Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2023,” video from 23 October 2023, accessed 30 October 2023, https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=tZ7U67il2qY
Singapore National Heritage Board, “Tou Mu Kung,” webpage accessed 30 October 2023, https://www.roots.gov.sg/places/places-landing/Places/national-monuments/tou-mu-kung
E. T. C. Werner, entry on Doumu in Myths and Legends of China (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922), pp. 144-145.