The Fires

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Tanuki Tales

Tanuki-san was sleeping soundly when he was rudely shaken awake.  He looked up through sleepy eyes to discover that he was being awakened by an angel.  Not one of those cherubic little putti that you see around the borders of Renaissance paintings – this was what the Old Testament calls “an Angel of the Lord” – big, powerful, and very scary.  His wings appeared to be about 40 feet high, and were shooting off sparks of power that looked like small lightning bolts.

The Fires | Shimenawa | The Fires“Wh …, Wh …, What do you want?” stammered Tanuki.  “Well,” replied the angel, “it’s come to our attention that you’ve been curious about the difference between purgatory and hell.  So I’m here to show you.  Are you coming?  Grab onto the hem of my robe.”

First the angel took Tanuki to hell.  The sky was dark as night, but the whole place was brightly lit by the light of bonfires.  People were running everywhere in a chaotic frenzy, throwing their enemies on the flames, and sometimes their friends, and sometimes even their own family.  Everywhere there were fresh piles of wood.  When one of the bonfires started to die down, people would just grab more wood off a nearby pile to replenish the flames.

Then the angel took Tanuki to purgatory.  It looked exactly the same.  Same dark sky, same bright bonfires, same chaotic frenzy.  The only difference was that the piles of wood were missing.  Horrified, Tanuki discovered where the wood was coming from – people were stripping their own houses to get wood for the burning.

In confusion he turned to the angel and asked, “Things are even worse in purgatory than in hell, because people are stripping their own houses to fuel the bonfires!”  The angel fixed Tanuki-san with a penetrating stare and replied “It does seem that way at first.  But that’s exactly the difference.  In hell, the wood never runs out so the fires never die.  Nobody in hell ever stops to think about what they are doing.”

Not one of those cherubic little putti that you see around the borders of Renaissance paintings – this was what the Old Testament calls “an Angel of the Lord” – big, powerful, and very scary.

“But in purgatory, there comes a time when the wood runs out.  The houses have all been stripped.   The fires die down.  All that is left is a charred and smoking ruin.  And as the people shiver in the cold, they are overcome with a sense of loss, and a sense of shame at where they have allowed their passions to carry them.  And that’s where the long, slow, painful road out of purgatory, which requires them to rebuild what they destroyed, alongside the enemies they tried to destroy, begins.”

The angel vanished, but Tanuki could not get back to sleep that night.

About Mike Freiling

Mike’s interest in the connections between different cultures and their philosophies began during his year as a Luce Scholar (1977-1978) at Kyoto University, when he first learned the meaning of the shimenawa and translated the Heian Period poems of the Hyaku Nin Isshu into English. In 2020, he founded Shimenawa no Michi to leverage his experience as an investment advisor into a broader initiative to help people navigate the challenges of life, love, and the search for transcendence. Mike also holds a PhD in artificial intelligence from MIT and a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®) designation from the CFA Institute.

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