The art of spells

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2B_zenU of S professor shares is knowledge about Zen, and its practice

Kristen McEwen
News Writer

Contrary to popular belief, spells aren’t used to summon evil. In some religions, spells are used to ward off misfortune.

Dr. George Keyworth of the University of Saskatchewan visited the U of R campus on Friday, March 1 to speak on Zen and the Art of Spells.

Shay Semeniuk was one of the Japanese religion students who attended the lecture. While attending the lecture gave her a five per cent advantage on her next quiz, she learned a lot about the origins of Zen, or Ch’an. Zen is the term used in Japan, while Ch’an is used in China.

Ch’an is a form of Buddhism that began in sixth-century China. It eventually reached Japan in the seventh and eighth centuries, where it was called Zen.

“I guess there’s a lot more to [Zen] than you think,” she said. “And how far it goes back and just how intricate everything is.”

When spells are used in Zen, they are used as a community, Keyworth noted. Spells are used to worship deities, prevent death, earthquakes, locusts, illnesses and many different demons.


“It all has to do with poetry… It’s because the Zen tradition in China, in particular, Zen is the only religion that writes good poetry. So my advisors [in college] had me learning a lot of poetry. And eventually it kind of went into religious studies.” – Dr. George Keyworth


Keyworth also spoke about the differences in the pronunciations of spells between Japanese and Chinese.

“It all has to do with poetry,” he said. “It’s because the Zen tradition in China, in particular, Zen is the only religion that writes good poetry. So my advisors [in college] had me learning a lot of poetry. And eventually it kind of went into religious studies.”

Spells in the Japanese and Chinese Zen traditions come from poets.

“It’s poets that do really interesting things…But to have good poets you have to drink wine. You drink wine, you have hallucinations, and by the end of the evening that’s where it’s really scary. So that’s the connection, is that you see this on both sides of Japanese and Chinese Zen traditions.”

While an extra five per cent is a good motivation to attend a lecture, the room was completely packed and the audience was interested in what Keyworth had to say about Zen.

“The bottom line is that Westerners, for a long time, have had an interest in Zen,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the philosophical side, maybe it’s the intonation, those kinds of things. Generally, you say the word Zen and you get 10 [people’s attention].”

Keyworth said he tends to use the word Zen in lectures so more people will pay attention.

“If I’m talking explicitly about China, I’ll still use the word Zen because Westerners hear the word ‘C’han’ they’re like, ‘I don’t care,’ but if you throw in the word Zen. For example, ‘I do Zen studies of China.’ That’s so strange.”

Photo courtesy of Myongahn

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