The Quiet Life

Hi all,

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the 13th century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness or tsuredzuregusa (徒然草). There is a lot of silly or idle talk in the book, but there are also things I like in there. I found this passage today:

124) The priest Zehō [poet and contemporary of the author] ranks second to none as a scholar of the Pure Land Sect, but instead of making a show of his learning, he recites the nembutsu day and night, a quiet way of life I find most admirable.

It reminds me of something Benchō (弁長, 1162–1238) said generations earlier:

People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.

This is the ideal life for me too. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Literature | 2 Comments

Honoring the Buddha

From chapter 5 of the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN16 of the Pali Canon):

Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, & sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky… Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage.

The Maha-Parinibbana Sutta is thought to be the last teaching of the Buddha before he died. Here, he’s telling followers that if they really want to worship and honor the Buddha, they should practice what he taught.

I don’t think it matters how much. It matters if one keeps trying. :)

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Lafcadio Hearn’s “Of A Mirror And A Bell”

This is the last story in our Halloween week here at the ol’ blog from Lafcadio Hearn’s famous book Kwaidan, which contains weird, old tales from 19th century Japanese culture. Some of these stories are well-known today, and I see them in my daughter’s books sometimes (e.g. “Yuki Onna”). Others are more obscure.

This is a great tale that I read for the first time this week and wanted to share. Thanks to Project Gutenberg for providing the book for free. The tale is called “Of A Mirror And A Bell” or kagami to kane (鏡と鐘) in Japanese. I added a couple links to Wikipedia in this, but all the [ ] notes are from Hearn himself. I left them intact.

Eight centuries ago, the priests of Mugenyama, in the province of Totomi, wanted a big bell for their temple; and they asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.

[Even to-day, in the courts of certain Japanese temples, you may see heaps of old bronze mirrors contributed for such a purpose. The largest collection of this kind that I ever saw was in the court of a temple of the Jodo sect, at Hakata, in Kyushu: the mirrors had been given for the making of a bronze statue of Amida, thirty-three feet high.]

There was at that time a young woman, a farmer’s wife, living at Mugenyama, who presented her mirror to the temple, to be used for bell-metal. But afterwards she much regretted her mirror. She remembered things that her mother had told her about it; and she remembered that it had belonged, not only to her mother but to her mother’s mother and grandmother; and she remembered some happy smiles which it had reflected. Of course, if she could have offered the priests a certain sum of money in place of the mirror, she could have asked them to give back her heirloom. But she had not the money necessary. Whenever she went to the temple, she saw her mirror lying in the court-yard, behind a railing, among hundreds of other mirrors heaped there together. She knew it by the Sho-Chiku-Bai in relief on the back of it,—those three fortunate emblems of Pine, Bamboo, and Plumflower, which delighted her baby-eyes when her mother first showed her the mirror. She longed for some chance to steal the mirror, and hide it,—that she might thereafter treasure it always. But the chance did not come; and she became very unhappy,—felt as if she had foolishly given away a part of her life. She thought about the old saying that a mirror is the Soul of a Woman—(a saying mystically expressed, by the Chinese character for Soul, upon the backs of many bronze mirrors),—and she feared that it was true in weirder ways than she had before imagined. But she could not dare to speak of her pain to anybody.

Now, when all the mirrors contributed for the Mugenyama bell had been sent to the foundry, the bell-founders discovered that there was one mirror among them which would not melt. Again and again they tried to melt it; but it resisted all their efforts. Evidently the woman who had given that mirror to the temple must have regretted the giving. She had not presented her offering with all her heart; and therefore her selfish soul, remaining attached to the mirror, kept it hard and cold in the midst of the furnace.

Of course everybody heard of the matter, and everybody soon knew whose mirror it was that would not melt. And because of this public exposure of her secret fault, the poor woman became very much ashamed and very angry. And as she could not bear the shame, she drowned herself, after having written a farewell letter containing these words:—

“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.”

—You must know that the last wish or promise of anybody who dies in anger, or performs suicide in anger, is generally supposed to possess a supernatural force. After the dead woman’s mirror had been melted, and the bell had been successfully cast, people remembered the words of that letter. They felt sure that the spirit of the writer would give wealth to the breaker of the bell; and, as soon as the bell had been suspended in the court of the temple, they went in multitude to ring it. With all their might and main they swung the ringing-beam; but the bell proved to be a good bell, and it bravely withstood their assaults. Nevertheless, the people were not easily discouraged. Day after day, at all hours, they continued to ring the bell furiously,—caring nothing whatever for the protests of the priests. So the ringing became an affliction; and the priests could not endure it; and they got rid of the bell by rolling it down the hill into a swamp. The swamp was deep, and swallowed it up,—and that was the end of the bell. Only its legend remains; and in that legend it is called the Mugen-Kane, or Bell of Mugen.

Now there are queer old Japanese beliefs in the magical efficacy of a certain mental operation implied, though not described, by the verb nazoraeru. The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith. Common meanings of nazoraeru, according to dictionaries, are “to imitate,” “to compare,” “to liken;” but the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result.

For example:—you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha, with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple… You cannot read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes of the Buddhist texts; but you can make a revolving library, containing them, turn round, by pushing it like a windlass. And if you push with an earnest wish that you could read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes, you will acquire the same merit as the reading of them would enable you to gain… So much will perhaps suffice to explain the religious meanings of nazoraeru.

The magical meanings could not all be explained without a great variety of examples; but, for present purposes, the following will serve. If you should make a little man of straw, for the same reason that Sister Helen made a little man of wax,—and nail it, with nails not less than five inches long, to some tree in a temple-grove at the Hour of the Ox,—and if the person, imaginatively represented by that little straw man, should die thereafter in atrocious agony,—that would illustrate one signification of nazoraeru… Or, let us suppose that a robber has entered your house during the night, and carried away your valuables. If you can discover the footprints of that robber in your garden, and then promptly burn a very large moxa on each of them, the soles of the feet of the robber will become inflamed, and will allow him no rest until he returns, of his own accord, to put himself at your mercy. That is another kind of mimetic magic expressed by the term nazoraeru. And a third kind is illustrated by various legends of the Mugen-Kane.

After the bell had been rolled into the swamp, there was, of course, no more chance of ringing it in such wise as to break it. But persons who regretted this loss of opportunity would strike and break objects imaginatively substituted for the bell,—thus hoping to please the spirit of the owner of the mirror that had made so much trouble. One of these persons was a woman called Umegae,—famed in Japanese legend because of her relation to Kajiwara Kagesue, a warrior of the Heike clan. While the pair were traveling together, Kajiwara one day found himself in great straits for want of money; and Umegae, remembering the tradition of the Bell of Mugen, took a basin of bronze, and, mentally representing it to be the bell, beat upon it until she broke it,—crying out, at the same time, for three hundred pieces of gold. A guest of the inn where the pair were stopping made inquiry as to the cause of the banging and the crying, and, on learning the story of the trouble, actually presented Umegae with three hundred ryo in gold. Afterwards a song was made about Umegae’s basin of bronze; and that song is sung by dancing girls even to this day:—

Umegae no chozubachi tataite
O-kane ga deru naraba
Mina San mi-uke wo
Sore tanomimasu

["If, by striking upon the wash-basin of Umegae, I could make honorable money come to me, then would I negotiate for the freedom of all my girl-comrades."]

After this happening, the fame of the Mugen-Kane became great; and many people followed the example of Umegae,—thereby hoping to emulate her luck. Among these folk was a dissolute farmer who lived near Mugenyama, on the bank of the Oigawa. Having wasted his substance in riotous living, this farmer made for himself, out of the mud in his garden, a clay-model of the Mugen-Kane; and he beat the clay-bell, and broke it,—crying out the while for great wealth.

Then, out of the ground before him, rose up the figure of a white-robed woman, with long loose-flowing hair, holding a covered jar. And the woman said: “I have come to answer your fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered. Take, therefore, this jar.” So saying, she put the jar into his hands, and disappeared.

Into his house the happy man rushed, to tell his wife the good news. He set down in front of her the covered jar,—which was heavy,—and they opened it together. And they found that it was filled, up to the very brim, with…

But no!—I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.

Happy Halloween!

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Lafcadio Hearn’s “A Dead Secret”

Hello,

As mentioned in my last post, this week’s posts are themed for Halloween with a Japanese twist. I am posting old stories from Kwaidan, a famous book of Japanese weird tales by Greco-Irish author, Lafcadio Hearn. In Japan he is known as Koizumi Yakumo (小泉八雲). Today’s story was something I posted before, but not in entirety. It is one of my favorite stories by Hearn, and today I am posting in entirety thanks to Project Gutenberg. I’ve added additional links and clarifications in [ ] too. Also, for reference, the title is called Hōmurareta-himitsu (葬られた秘密) in Japanese.

A long time ago, in the province of Tamba, there lived a rich merchant named Inamuraya Gensuke. He had a daughter called O-Sono. As she was very clever and pretty, he thought it would be a pity to let her grow up with only such teaching as the country-teachers could give her: so he sent her, in care of some trusty attendants, to Kyoto, that she might be trained in the polite accomplishments taught to the ladies of the capital. After she had thus been educated, she was married to a friend of her father’s family—a merchant named Nagaraya;—and she lived happily with him for nearly four years. They had one child,—a boy. But O-Sono fell ill and died, in the fourth year after her marriage.

On the night after the funeral of O-Sono, her little son said that his mamma had come back, and was in the room upstairs. She had smiled at him, but would not talk to him: so he became afraid, and ran away. Then some of the family went upstairs to the room which had been O-Sono’s; and they were startled to see, by the light of a small lamp which had been kindled before a shrine in that room, the figure of the dead mother. She appeared as if standing in front of a tansu, or chest of drawers, that still contained her ornaments and her wearing-apparel. Her head and shoulders could be very distinctly seen; but from the waist downwards the figure thinned into invisibility;—it was like an imperfect reflection of her, and transparent as a shadow on water.

Then the folk were afraid, and left the room. Below they consulted together; and the mother of O-Sono’s husband said: “A woman is fond of her small things; and O-Sono was much attached to her belongings. Perhaps she has come back to look at them. Many dead persons will do that,—unless the things be given to the parish-temple. If we present O-Sono’s robes and girdles to the temple, her spirit will probably find rest.”

It was agreed that this should be done as soon as possible. So on the following morning the drawers were emptied; and all of O-Sono’s ornaments and dresses were taken to the temple. But she came back the next night, and looked at the tansu as before. And she came back also on the night following, and the night after that, and every night;—and the house became a house of fear.

The mother of O-Sono’s husband then went to the parish-temple, and told the chief priest all that had happened, and asked for ghostly counsel. The temple was a Zen temple; and the head-priest was a learned old man, known as Daigen Osho. He said: “There must be something about which she is anxious, in or near that tansu.”—”But we emptied all the drawers,” replied the woman;—”there is nothing in the tansu.”—”Well,” said Daigen Osho, “to-night I shall go to your house, and keep watch in that room, and see what can be done. You must give orders that no person shall enter the room while I am watching, unless I call.”

After sundown, Daigen Osho went to the house, and found the room made ready for him. He remained there alone, reading the sutras; and nothing appeared until after the Hour of the Rat. Then the figure of O-Sono suddenly outlined itself in front of the tansu. Her face had a wistful look; and she kept her eyes fixed upon the tansu.

The priest uttered the holy formula prescribed in such cases, and then, addressing the figure by the kaimyo [posthumous Buddhist name in Japan 戒名] of O-Sono, said:—”I have come here in order to help you. Perhaps in that tansu there is something about which you have reason to feel anxious. Shall I try to find it for you?” The shadow appeared to give assent by a slight motion of the head; and the priest, rising, opened the top drawer. It was empty. Successively he opened the second, the third, and the fourth drawer;—he searched carefully behind them and beneath them;—he carefully examined the interior of the chest. He found nothing. But the figure remained gazing as wistfully as before. “What can she want?” thought the priest. Suddenly it occurred to him that there might be something hidden under the paper with which the drawers were lined. He removed the lining of the first drawer:—nothing! He removed the lining of the second and third drawers:—still nothing. But under the lining of the lowermost drawer he found—a letter. “Is this the thing about which you have been troubled?” he asked. The shadow of the woman turned toward him,—her faint gaze fixed upon the letter. “Shall I burn it for you?” he asked. She bowed before him. “It shall be burned in the temple this very morning,” he promised;—”and no one shall read it, except myself.” The figure smiled and vanished.

Dawn was breaking as the priest descended the stairs, to find the family waiting anxiously below. “Do not be anxious,” he said to them: “She will not appear again.” And she never did.

The letter was burned. It was a love-letter written to O-Sono in the time of her studies at Kyoto. But the priest alone knew what was in it; and the secret died with him.

Happy Halloween!

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Lafcadio Hearn’s “Rokuro-Kubi”

Hi everyone,

Halloween is coming soon, so for the blog, I thought it would be fun to post stories by Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo 小泉八雲) from his famous book Kwaidan, which in modern Japanese is “Kaidan” (怪談). In the past, I’ve posted some stories, or just summaries of stories because I was worried about copyright violations. However, it turns out that Kwaidan is so old, it’s freely available at Project Gutenberg and Sacred Texts. So, this week, I’ll be posting a couple of my favorite stories.

Today’s story is a famous one called Rokuro-kubi. Rokuro-kubi are well-known monsters, or yōkai, in Japanese culture. Sometimes, my daughter’s books have cute and funny versions of yokai and I often see the long-necked rokuro-kubi. They also appear in tales I’ve mentioned before such as Shojoji.

Anyhow, Hearn’s story below is about Rokuro-kubi. I’ve added a few links to Wikipedia or clarifications in a couple places using brackets [ ]. Enjoy!

Hokusai’s famous painting of rokuro-kubi. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nearly five hundred years ago there was a samurai, named Isogai Heidazaemon Taketsura, in the service of the Lord Kikuji, of Kyushu. This Isogai had inherited, from many warlike ancestors, a natural aptitude for military exercises, and extraordinary strength. While yet a boy he had surpassed his teachers in the art of swordsmanship, in archery, and in the use of the spear, and had displayed all the capacities of a daring and skillful soldier. Afterwards, in the time of the Eikyo war [永享の乱 Eikyō-no-ran, in 1438], he so distinguished himself that high honors were bestowed upon him. But when the house of Kikuji came to ruin, Isogai found himself without a master. He might then easily have obtained service under another daimyo; but as he had never sought distinction for his own sake alone, and as his heart remained true to his former lord, he preferred to give up the world. so he cut off his hair, and became a traveling priest,–taking the Buddhist name of Kwairyo.

But always, under the koromo [just means 'clothes' 衣] of the priest, Kwairyo kept warm within him the heart of the samurai. As in other years he had laughed at peril, so now also he scorned danger; and in all weathers and all seasons he journeyed to preach the good Law in places where no other priest would have dared to go. For that age was an age of violence and disorder; and upon the highways there was no security for the solitary traveler, even if he happened to be a priest.

In the course of his first long journey, Kwairyo had occasion to visit the province of Kai. One evening, as he was traveling through the mountains of that province, darkness overcame him in a very lonesome district, leagues away from any village. So he resigned himself to pass the night under the stars; and having found a suitable grassy spot, by the roadside, he lay down there, and prepared to sleep. He had always welcomed discomfort; and even a bare rock was for him a good bed, when nothing better could be found, and the root of a pine-tree an excellent pillow. His body was iron; and he never troubled himself about dews or rain or frost or snow.

Scarcely had he lain down when a man came along the road, carrying an axe and a great bundle of chopped wood. This woodcutter halted on seeing Kwairyo lying down, and, after a moment of silent observation, said to him in a tone of great surprise:–

“What kind of a man can you be, good Sir, that you dare to lie down alone in such a place as this?… There are haunters about here,–many of them. are you not afraid of Hairy Things?”

“My friend,” cheerfully answered Kwairyo, “I am only a wandering priest,–a ‘Cloud-and-Water-Guest,’ as folks call it: Unsui-no-ryokaku [means novice/itinerant Zen priest 雲水]. And I am not in the least afraid of Hairy Things,–if you mean goblin-foxes, or goblin-badgers, or any creatures of that kind. As for lonesome places, I like them: they are suitable for meditation. I am accustomed to sleeping in the open air: and I have learned never to be anxious aboutmy life.”

“You must be indeed a brave man, Sir Priest,” the peasant responded, “to lie down here! This place has a bad name,–a very bad name. But, as the proverb has it, Kunshi ayayuki ni chikayorazu ['The superior man does not needlessly expose himself to peril']; and I must assure you, Sir, that it is very dangerous to sleep here. Therefore, although my house is only a wretched thatched hut, let me beg of you to come home with me at once. In the way of food, I have nothing to offer you; but there is a roof at least, and you can sleep under it without risk.”

He spoke earnestly; and Kwairyo, liking the kindly tone of the man, accepted this modest offer. The woodcutter guided him along a narrow path, leading up from the main road through mountain-forest. It was a rough and dangerous path,–sometimes skirting precipices,–sometimes offering nothing but a network of slippery roots for the foot to rest upon,–sometimes winding over or between masses of jagged rock. But at last Kwairyo found himself upon a cleared space at the top of a hill, with a full moon shining overhead; and he saw before him a small thatched cottage, cheerfully lighted from within. The woodcutter led him to a shed at the back of the house, whither water had been conducted, through bamboo-pipes, from some neighboring stream; and the two men washed their feet. Beyond the shed was a vegetable garden, and a grove of cedars and bamboos; and beyond the trees appeared the glimmer of a cascade, pouring from some loftier height, and swaying in the moonshine like a long white robe.

As Kwairyo entered the cottage with his guide, he perceived four persons–men and women–warming their hands at a little fire kindled in the ro [炉, hearth] of the principle apartment. They bowed low to the priest, and greeted him in the most respectful manner. Kwairyo wondered that persons so poor, and dwelling in such a solitude, should be aware of the polite forms of greeting. “These are good people,” he thought to himself; “and they must have been taught by some one well acquainted with the rules of propriety.” Then turning to his host,–the aruji, or house-master, as the others called him,–Kwairyo said:–

“From the kindness of your speech, and from the very polite welcome given me by your household, I imagine that you have not always been a woodcutter. Perhaps you formerly belonged to one of the upper classes?”

Smiling, the woodcutter answered:–

“Sir, you are not mistaken. Though now living as you find me, I was once a person of some distinction. My story is the story of a ruined life–ruined by my own fault. I used to be in the service of a daimyo; and my rank in that service was not inconsiderable. But I loved women and wine too well; and under the influence of passion I acted wickedly. My selfishness brought about the ruin of our house, and caused the death of many persons. Retribution followed me; and I long remained a fugitive in the land. Now I often pray that I may be able to make some atonement for the evil which I did, and to reestablish the ancestral home. But I fear that I shall never find any way of so doing. Nevertheless, I try to overcome the karma of my errors by sincere repentance, and by helping as afar as I can, those who are unfortunate.”

Kwairyo was pleased by this announcement of good resolve; and he said to the aruji:–

“My friend, I have had occasion to observe that man, prone to folly in their youth, may in after years become very earnest in right living. In the holy sutras it is written that those strongest in wrong-doing can become, by power of good resolve, the strongest in right-doing. I do not doubt that you have a good heart; and I hope that better fortune will come to you. To-night I shall recite the sutras for your sake, and pray that you may obtain the force to overcome the karma of any past errors.”

With these assurances, Kwairyo bade the aruji good-night; and his host showed him to a very small side-room, where a bed had been made ready. Then all went to sleep except the priest, who began to read the sutras by the light of a paper lantern. Until a late hour he continued to read and pray: then he opened a little window in his little sleeping-room, to take a last look at the landscape before lying down. The night was beautiful: there was no cloud in the sky: there was no wind; and the strong moonlight threw down sharp black shadows of foliage, and glittered on the dews of the garden. Shrillings of crickets and bell-insects [suzumushi 鈴虫 or bell-crickets] made a musical tumult; and the sound of the neighboring cascade deepened with the night. Kwairyo felt thirsty as he listened to the noise of the water; and, remembering the bamboo aqueduct at the rear of the house, he thought that he could go there and get a drink without disturbing the sleeping household. Very gently he pushed apart the sliding-screens that separated his room from the main apartment; and he saw, by the light of the lantern, five recumbent bodies–without heads!

For one instant he stood bewildered,–imagining a crime. But in another moment he perceived that there was no blood, and that the headless necks did not look as if they had been cut. Then he thought to himself:–”Either this is an illusion made by goblins, or I have been lured into the dwelling of a Rokuro-Kubi… In the [Chinese] book Soshinki it is written that if one find the body of a Rokuro-Kubi without its head, and remove the body to another place, the head will never be able to join itself again to the neck. And the book further says that when the head comes back and finds that its body has been moved, it will strike itself upon the floor three times,–bounding like a ball,–and will pant as in great fear, and presently die. Now, if these be Rokuro-Kubi, they mean me no good;–so I shall be justified in following the instructions of the book.”…

He seized the body of the aruji by the feet, pulled it to the window, and pushed it out. Then he went to the back-door, which he found barred; and he surmised that the heads had made their exit through the smoke-hole in the roof, which had been left open. Gently unbarring the door, he made his way to the garden, and proceeded with all possible caution to the grove beyond it. He heard voices talking in the grove; and he went in the direction of the voices,–stealing from shadow to shadow, until he reached a good hiding-place. Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads,–all five of them,–flitting about, and chatting as they flitted. They were eating worms and insects which they found on the ground or among the trees. Presently the head of the aruji stopped eating and said:–

“Ah, that traveling priest who came to-night!–how fat all his body is! When we shall have eaten him, our bellies will be well filled… I was foolish to talk to him as I did;–it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul! To go near him while he is reciting would be difficult; and we cannot touch him so long as he is praying. But as it is now nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep… Some one of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing.”

Another head–the head of a young woman–immediately rose up and flitted to the house, lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out huskily, in a tone of great alarm:–

“That traveling priest is not in the house;–he is gone! But that is not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our aruji; and I do not know where he has put it.”

At this announcement the head of the aruji–distinctly visible in the moonlight–assumed a frightful aspect: its eyes opened monstrously; its hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and–weeping tears of rage–it exclaimed:–

“Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible! Then I must die!… And all through the work of that priest! Before I die I will get at that priest!–I will tear him!–I will devour him!… AND THERE HE IS–behind that tree!–hiding behind that tree! See him !–the fat coward!”…

In the same moment the head of the aruji, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the strong priest had already armed himself by plucking up a young tree; and with that tree he struck the heads as they came,–knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the aruji, though battered again and again, desperately continued to bound at the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, as quickly gripped the head by its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan, and thereafter ceased to struggle. It was dead. But its teeth still held the sleeve; and, for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.

With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi squatting together, with their bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they perceived him at the back-door all screamed, “The priest! the priest!”–and fled, through the other doorway, out into the woods.

Eastward the sky was brightening; day was about to dawn; and Kwairyo knew that the power of the goblins was limited to the hours of darkness. He looked at the head clinging to his sleeve,–its face all fouled with blood and foam and clay; and he laughed aloud as he thought to himself: “What a miyage! [omiyage お土産, a souvenir]–the head of a goblin!” After which he gathered together his few belongings, and leisurely descended the mountain to continue his journey.

Right on he journeyed, until he came to Suwa in Shinano; and into the main street of Suwa he solemnly strode, with the head dangling at his elbow. Then woman fainted, and children screamed and ran away; and there was a great crowding and clamoring until the torite (as the police in those days were called) seized the priest, and took him to jail. For they supposed the head to be the head of a murdered man who, in the moment of being killed, had caught the murderer’s sleeve in his teeth. As the Kwairyo, he only smiled and said nothing when they questioned him. So, after having passed a night in prison, he was brought before the magistrates of the district. Then he was ordered to explain how he, a priest, had been found with the head of a man fastened to his sleeve, and why he had dared thus shamelessly to parade his crime in the sight of people.

Kwairyo laughed long and loudly at these questions; and then he said:–

“Sirs, I did not fasten the head to my sleeve: it fastened itself there–much against my will. And I have not committed any crime. For this is not the head of a man; it is the head of a goblin;–and, if I caused the death of the goblin, I did not do so by any shedding of blood, but simply by taking the precautions necessary to assure my own safety.”… And he proceeded to relate the whole of the adventure,–bursting into another hearty laugh as he told of his encounter with the five heads.

But the magistrates did not laugh. They judged him to be a hardened criminal, and his story an insult to their intelligence. Therefore, without further questioning, they decided to order his immediate execution,–all of them except one, a very old man. This aged officer had made no remark during the trial; but, after having heard the opinion of his colleagues, he rose up, and said:–

“Let us first examine the head carefully; for this, I think, has not yet been done. If the priest has spoken truth, the head itself should bear witness for him… Bring the head here!”

So the head, still holding in its teeth the koromo that had been stripped from Kwairyo’s shoulders, was put before the judges. The old man turned it round and round, carefully examined it, and discovered, on the nape of its neck, several strange red characters. He called the attention of his colleagues to these, and also bad them observe that the edges of the neck nowhere presented the appearance of having been cut by any weapon. On the contrary, the line of leverance was smooth as the line at which a falling leaf detaches itself from the stem… Then said the elder:–

“I am quite sure that the priest told us nothing but the truth. This is the head of a Rokuro-Kubi. In the book Nan-ho-i-butsu-shi it is written that certain red characters can always be found upon the nape of the neck of a real Rokuro-Kubi. There are the characters: you can see for yourselves that they have not been painted. Moreover, it is well known that such goblins have been dwelling in the mountains of the province of Kai from very ancient time… But you, Sir,” he exclaimed, turning to Kwairyo,–”what sort of sturdy priest may you be? Certainly you have given proof of a courage that few priests possess; and you have the air of a soldier rather than a priest. Perhaps you once belonged to the samurai-class?”

“You have guessed rightly, Sir,” Kwairyo responded. “Before becoming a priest, I long followed the profession of arms; and in those days I never feared man or devil. My name then was Isogai Heidazaemon Taketsura of Kyushu: there may be some among you who remember it.” At the mention of that name, a murmur of admiration filled the court-room.; for there were many present who remembered it. And Kwairyo immediately found himself among friends instead of judges,–friends anxious to prove their admiration by fraternal kindness. With honor they escorted him to the residence of the daimyo, who welcomed him, and feasted him, and made him a handsome present before allowing him to depart. When Kwairyo left Suwa, he was as happy as any priest is permitted to be in this transitory world. As for the head, he took it with him,–jocosely insisting that he intended it for a miyage.

And now it only remains to tell what became of the head.

A day or two after leaving Suwa, Kwairyo met with a robber, who stopped him in a lonesome place, and bade him strip. Kwairyo at once removed his koromo, and offered it to the robber, who then first perceived what was hanging to the sleeve. Though brave, the highwayman was startled: he dropped the garment, and sprang back. Then he cried out:–”You!–what kind of a priest are you? Why, you are a worse man than I am! It is true that I have killed people; but I never walked about with anybody’s head fastened to my sleeve… Well, Sir priest, I suppose we are of the same calling; and I must say that I admire you!… Now that head would be of use to me: I could frighten people with it. Will you sell it? You can have my robe in exchange for your koromo; and I will give you five ryo for the head.”

Kwairyo answered:–”I shall let you have the head and the robe if you insist; but I must tell you that this is not the head of a man. It is a goblin’s head. So, if you buy it, and have any trouble in consequence, please to remember that you were not deceived by me.” “What a nice priest you are!” exclaimed the robber. “You kill men, and jest about it!… But I am really in earnest. Here is my robe; and here is the money;–and let me have the head… What is the use of joking?”

“Take the thing,” said Kwairyo. “I was not joking. The only joke–if there be any joke at all–is that you are fool enough to pay good money for a goblin’s head.” And Kwairyo, loudly laughing, went upon his way.

Thus the robber got the head and the koromo; and for some time he played goblin-priest upon the highways. But, reaching the neighborhood of Suwa, he there leaned the true story of the head; and he then became afraid that the spirit of the Rokuro-Kubi might give him trouble. So he made up his mind to take back the head to the place from which it had come, and to bury it with its body. He found his way to the lonely cottage in the mountains of Kai; but nobody was there, and he could not discover the body. Therefore he buried the head by itself, in the grove behind the cottage; and he had a tombstone set up over the grave; and he caused a Segaki-service to be performed on behalf of the spirit of the Rokuro-Kubi. And that tombstone–known as the Tombstone of the Rokuro-Kubi–may be seen (at least so the Japanese story-teller declares) even unto this day.

More stories coming soon, Happy Halloween!

Posted in Japan, Literature | Tagged | Leave a comment

Burning the Candle At Both Ends

Hi Everyone,

In the past month or so, I’ve been participating in two Buddhist groups: one Jodo Shinshu (the temple in Seattle) and an online Zen sangha that’s pretty well-known.

I talked about going to the local Jodo Shinshu temple a while back when I talked about ordination. Both my kids attend the Dharma School there (like Sunday School but with a Buddhist context) and my wife likes Jodo Shinshu, so it works well for all of us. Plus, I’ve made some progress toward ordination (though it will take 3-4 years at this rate), and I am happy about that. I feel more confident about it than my struggles in the past.

Meanwhile, I’ve started exploring Soto Zen (曹洞宗, sōtō-shū) as well. It started around the time I wrote this post. I wanted to attend the nearby Rinzai temple I visited before, but as a father of two kids, the times and the membership fees just wouldn’t work. So, I almost gave up, but then I found a certain online Zen sangha that is well-known. I was cautious at first, but after registering, I found that the community there is well-organized and supportive.

Soto Zen uses an meditation approach called shikantaza (只管打坐) which in English just means something like “do nothing but sitting”. The idea is that instead of focusing your meditation on breathing, or a visual image, just sit.

I’ve been trying this for about 4 weeks, meditating for about 15 minutes a day. I miss a few days, but so far I’ve done pretty well in staying diligent. In addition, I still recite the nembutsu and some sutra (often the Lotus Sutra or Amitabha Sutra) too.

So, as they say in English, I am burning the candle at both ends.1 ;)

So, I might post more Zen-related posts going forward in addition to other things. I don’t know if I will be able to stick with it, or even if I intend to get ordained in Soto Zen, but time will tell.

Thanks!

P.S. Accidentally posted this too early, so I guess it’s another double-post day. ;p

1 Actually the phrase “burning the candle at both ends” means working all night and day (not getting much sleep). It just sounds nice here. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Zen | 4 Comments

The Science of Kanji Part 7: Reading Compound Words

Most people who learn Japanese kanji, or Chinese characters, tend to learn them in isolation: one character at a time. But in reality. They are often used as compound words. So learning individual characters isn’t enough: you have to learn to read compound words effectively. Someday you might even see something like this:

京都大学野生動物研究センター

How are you expected to read so many kanji?

Thankfully it’s easier than it looks once you understand some basics:

  • Most compound words usually come in two, maybe three kanji at most. Even the famous 4-character phrases in Japanese (yojijukugo), are just 2 pairs of 2-kanji compound words.
  • Longer words can usually be broken down into pairs of kanji.

Let’s start with a simple example:

Untitled

The words in orange are 警告 keikoku, which means “warning” or “caution”. The kanji means to warn or admonish and means to inform or proclaim. One kanji might be enough, but it feels like something’s missing. It looks much better when you have two kanji together in a compound word. This allows for all kinds of nuances that are hard to do in English:

  • 社長 – shachō a CEO or head of a business.
  • 園長 – enchō head of a zoo or park.
  • 店長 – tenchō owner or head of a small business.
  • 婦長 – fuchō head nurse

You get the idea, right? By combining two kanji together, you can express a lot more ideas. So, it’s very common to see compound words using two kanji.

You calso see words with three kanji though:

Untitled

This a single word, 消火栓 shōkasen, which as you can see means ‘fire hydrant’. The word 消火 means to extinguish a fire, but 栓 means a plug, cork or stopper, so it modifies the word a little. It implies that material (water, fire-retardent, etc) is stored there (literally, “stopped up”) for extinguishing fires. Another example would be 消費税 shōhizei, where 消費 is consumption (i.e. shopping) and 税 means tax. So, this is a tax for sales and consumption: a sales tax.

This is about as complicated as words get.

Now, here is a four-character word:

Untitled

This is 非常電話, hijōdenwa, which just means emergency phone (or intercom). It is one word, but actually is made up of two smaller words: 非常 (emergency) and 電話 (phone). Pretty easy.

So what about this example?

京都大学野生動物研究センター

You can break it down into pairs:

  • 京都 – kyōto, the city of Kyoto
  • 大学 – daigaku, university
  • 野性 – yasei, wild
  • 動物 – dōbutsu, animal
  • 研究 – kenkyū, research
  • センター – sentā, center (this is katakana, not Chinese characters)

If you put it together, you get the Kyoto University Wild Animal Research Center.

If you’re new to Japanese language, it looks intimidating, but once you know how to break down longer words into smaller ones, it’s actually pretty easy to read.

Posted in Chinese, Japanese, Language | 4 Comments