Some Notes on Mushrooms


Konjaku monogatarishu vol. 5 pp. 96-97: (from James H. Sanford, Japan’s “Laughing Mushrooms”)

Long, long ago, some woodcutters from Kyoto went into the Kitayama mountains and lost their way. Not knowing which way to go, four or five of them were lamenting their condition when they heard a group of people coming from the depths of the mountains. The woodcutters were wondering suspiciously what sort of people it might be when four or five Buddhist nuns came out dancing and singing. Seeing them, the woodcutters became fearful, thinking things like, “Dancing, singing nuns are certainly not human beings but must be goblins or demons.” And when the nuns saw the men and started straight toward them, the woodcutters became very frightened and wondered, “How is it that nuns come thus out of the very depths of the mountains dancing and singing?”
The nuns then said, “Our appearance dancing and singing has no doubt frightened you. But we are simply nuns who live nearby. We came to pick flowers as offerings to Buddha, but after we had all entered the hills together we lost our way and couldn’t remember how to get out. Then we came upon some mushrooms, and although we wondered whether we might not be poisoned if we ate them, we were hungry and decided it was better to pick them than to starve to death. But after we had picked and roasted them we found they were quite delicious, and thinking, “Aren’t they fine!” we ate them. But then as we finished the mushrooms we found we couldn’t keep from dancing. Even as we were thinking, “How strange!” strangely enough we…” The woodcutters were no end surprised at this unusual story.
Now the woodcutters were very hungry so they thought, “Better than dying let’s ask for some too.” And they ate some of the numerous mushrooms that the nuns had picked, whereupon they also were compelled to dance. In that condition the nuns and the woodcutters laughed and danced round and round together. After a while the intoxication seemed to wear off and somehow they all found their separate ways home. After this the mushrooms came to be called maitake, dancing mushrooms.
When we think about it this is a striking story. For even though we still have this kind of mushroom, people who eat them do not dance. Thus this exceedingly strange story has been handed down.

People who eat this mushroom get drunk. They may become extremely excited and dance and sing or see various hallucinations.

Needham Science and Civilization in China:

Thus all in all there is much reason for thinking that the ancient Taoists experimented systematically with hallucinogenic smokes, using techniques which arose directly out of liturgical observance. … At all events the incense-burner remained the centre of changes and transformations associated with worship, sacrifice, ascending perfume of sweet savour, fire, combustion, disintegration, transformation, vision, communication with spiritual beings, and assurances of immortality. Wai tan and nei tan met around the incense-burner. Might one not indeed think of it as their point of origin?[ 

Wu tsa tsu (Five-fold Miscellany) 1619:

There is also the ‘laughing fungus’: those who eat it laugh uncontrollably.

Pi-shu lu-hua  by compiler Yeh Ment-te (1077-1148):

The valleys of Wen-tai about Mount Ssu-ming produce many mushrooms. However they are not all alike and some of those that are eaten prove to be poisonous. It is said that there was a Buddhist priest who taught [that when people ate such mushrooms if they would] dig up some dirt and mix it with cold water until it became muddy and then, after waiting a bit, drink the mixture, they would be restored to perfect health. I have seen this recipe myself. In the pharmacopeia of the hermit T’ao it is noted that this is called an “earth infusion” and that it will cure the effects of the maple-tree mushroom, which when eaten causes one to laugh uncontrollably and which is therefore known as the laughing fungus.


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