In Mikawa City, Aichi Prefecture stands a temple named Muryoji 無量寺, which is said to have been established during the Heian Period (794-1185). It is widely known as a place that provides efficacy toward the act of fujiru 封じる (sealing, suppressing, blocking, throttling) against some negative aspect in our lives, for example, ending habits such as gambling or smoking. This temple is alternatively named ganfuji-no-tera (the “Cancer Stifling Temple”) because of the belief in its power to cure or control illness.
The temple priests can provide a religious service for those suffering from some ailment and/or proscribe the purchase of omamori お守り (religious charms). However, it appears that many of those suffering from cancer choose to offer a prayer on an ema (wooden votive prayer tablet, pronounced “eh-mah”). On the ema they write their name, age, address, and optionally a written prayer. Moreover, they indicate the place or places which are affected by marking a diagram of the body. Instruction from the temple suggests that they circle rather than blacken in the affected areas of the body. In the case where the illness (cancer) has spread throughout the body they are instructed to simply write “whole body”.
Looking through the ema on display at the temple I was unable to find any not mentioning cancer, although there may be some. The sheer number of ema offered at the temple attests to the fact that illness, in this case cancer, is not as uncommon as we might want to believe. And although many petitioners are older, being in their 60s, 70s or 80s, those in their 20s and 30s were also represented. Notwithstanding that the majority affected were adults, there were also prayers made by and on behalf of children. Cancer does not discriminate between men and women, the old and the young.
When I read through the prayers of all these people, I felt compelled to add my own silent prayer for their quick recovery. And although I was saddened to envision their suffering, I was also encouraged. And this is perhaps one message that might be conveyed through this folk custom of offering prayers to “stifle cancer”: a collective message of perseverance and hope.