A-Yokai-A-Day: Kazenbo

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Kazenbō
火前坊
かぜんぼう
“monk in the flames”

Toriyama Sekien’s kazenbō

There is a mountain in Kyoto called Toribeyama. During the Heian period, it was an important burial/cremation ground for royalty and nobility. During major epidemics, it was said that the smoke rising from mountain from all the burning bodies was unending.

Towards the end of the 10th century, a number of priests decided to offer themselves up in ritual sacrifice by fire, in hopes to achieve enlightenment. The ceremony was open to the public, and a large number of people came to witness the event.

A number of these priests did not actually achieve enlightenment due to their improper attachments to the material world. Instead, they still haunt Toribeyama, appearing in ghostly flames as beggar-monks wreathed in the fires of ignorance and sin.

Honestly, this yokai creeps me out more than many of the other ones we’ve seen this month. The idea of death by fire, and particularly self-immolation is so horrifying to me. They say burning is among the most painful ways to die. The super-heated air makes your lungs burn and blister while you are still conscious, causing you to simultaneously suffocate and drown in your own blood. Meanwhile every pain receptor in your burning skin is firing at maximum power. And then to have the entire purpose of your death be rendered meaningless because of some “worldly attachment” (a.k.a. “you didn’t want to die in a fire”), causing you to remain forever as a vengeful onryō; never dying, always burning… That’s pretty awful.

Kazenbō, for The Book of the Hakutaku

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