Category Archives: Literature

The Trouble with Anime

 

People, both Japanese and Westerners, are often surprised when I tell them I am not interested in anime. Usually when I bring up Japan to other Westerners, the first thing they want to talk about is anime (“Oh man, I love watching anime!”). Also, Japanese people assume that all foreigners are anime-fans.

But for some reason, I just never really liked it. There were specific series that I watched and enjoyed in my youth. Akira comes to mind. for example. Yet, by the time I was a college student, I remember meeting other Japanophiles, and all they could talk about was their favorite anime. I even watched a few, but I was bored to death. The stories were flat and predictable, and the characters were mostly just the same tropes over and over. Even now, with my kids, when they talk about their favorite comics and anime, things haven’t changed at all.

So, it puts me in an awkward category sometimes.

I even tried a couple years ago, before Little Guy was born, to watch more anime to improve my Japanese listening. I found some that were pretty good such as Natsume no Yujincho,1 but others such as Attack on Titan were just bizarre and weird. I could only watch 4-5 episodes of that before I finally deleted it from my video queue. Even the ones I liked weren’t that great. They were fun, but I couldn’t really say I was a fan.

And yes, I’ve watched Studio Ghibli too. The films are lovely, and I like Totoro in particular, but I just never really understood what the hype was about. I have only seen two movies total (Totoro and Spirited Away), and I liked them, but I also enjoy movies from the Marvel Comic Universe, 5 out of 6 of the original Star Trek movies, as well as various other random films. Studio Ghibli films are fun, but I guess I’m just not interested in Japanese fantasy things like yōkai (ghosts and monsters) very much.2

On the other hand, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy any Japanese media.3 I have always liked the Final Fantasy series of games a lot, especially Final Fantasy VII and XIII, but I like the stories because they’re deep and meaningful, but also told with excellent Japanese aesthetics. A character like Cloud Strife or Lightning Farron just wouldn’t look the same in an American medium, and the topics regarding religion, mythology and such would be harder to express in politically/religiously charged environment like the US.

I’m sure there’s anime series that are of similar topic and quality, but frankly I don’t care. I don’t have the time or interest to take up another series.

In short, I just never really liked anime as a whole, and I refuse to stereotyped as a fan either.

I guess I am kind of ranting, but I wanted to get this off my chest.:)

Since I am going to Japan shortly, people might assume I will go hang out in Akihabara, but truth is, I’ve never been there. I like contemporary Japanese culture in a lot of ways, both the good and the ugly,4 and of course I like visiting Buddhist temples. Hopefully I’ll have some time to do both. We’ll see.

P.S. Double-post today.

1 I liked this one because it wasn’t overly violent, and usually had a happy, though sometimes bittersweet ending.

2 It’s not just Westerners that are interested in yokai; they’re hugely popular among Japanese kids too.

3 Don’t get me started on Japanese pop music though. sigh Kyary pyamu-pyamu is definitely, definitely not my thing.

4 Truth is, I’ve been to Japan so many times over the years, it doesn’t really excite me the way it used to. It’s just sort of become part of my life, and so the exoticness is just gone. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, but rather it’s become familiar like a well-worn shoe. You’re glad it’s there, but you don’t really think about it much. When my wife and I were younger, we seriously thought about moving to Japan, but we’ve become happy and settled with our life here that we’ve decided to stay instead, especially now that we have two kids.

The Price of Fame

I wanted to share a quote from the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, which I had talked about recently.  This is a postscript to the 1795 memoirs where she warns her younger relative about the rise and fall of the Pungsan Hong clan:

Our family has enjoyed power and fame for generations.  Father reached the highest official posts.  My two uncles and my three brothers, one after another, entered officialdom.  The power and prestige that our family enjoyed for a time was truly immense.  We did feel a certain trepidation, but, as affinal relatives, we did not think it possible to separate ourselves from the throne.  Yet because we did not reckon upon the jealousy of the world, our family fortunes reversed.1 The root of the calamity was that we were infected by power and wealth. What a fearful thing the holding of office is!

…Now none of my nephews holds even the low degree granted to successful candidates in the preliminary examinations. Living in obscurity, you are not usefully employed [in the government]. While this occasionally brings pangs of regret, I most emphatically do not wish members of our family ever to hold high office again.

In some ways, this reminds me of the infamous rise and fall of the Heike family in 12th century Japan. The Heike, under Taira no Kiyomori, let power to go their heads and brought about their own ruin when the rival Genji opposed them.

However, unlike the Heike if Lady Hyegyeong’s account is accurate and her family was indeed innocent, their fall was due more to bitter rivalries in the Joseon Court, but their fall was no less tragic.

It also kind of reminds me of a quote from the book Dune Messiah:

Here lies a toppled god.
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.

The greater one’s rise, the greater the fall. 

1 Lady Hyegyeong’s father, Hong Ponghan, was executed after false charges were repeatedly brought to the court by rival factions over the death of Prince Sado. Her third brother, Hong Nagim, was similarly executed on separate charges of becoming a Catholic (illegal at the time in Joseon Dynasty Korea). In both cases, they were exonerated after death, but the damage had been done.

Life As A Princess in Joseon Korea

There is no tree that does not fall after ten blows. 

–Korean proverb,
Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong 

Hi Guys,

Lately, in addition to the usual Buddhist stuff, I’ve also been delving into a book I bought a while back, but had no opportunity to read until now: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. This book is a fascinating collection of memories by Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816) who was the wife of the infamous Prince Sado, son King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. I wrote about King Yeongjo in a previous post, but I didn’t delve much into the tragedy and madness of his son, the designated heir of the throne.

The Memoirs is divided into four memoirs at different stages in Lady Hyegyeong’s twilight years: 1795, 1801, 1802 and 1805. The first three focus on the innocence of the Hong family amidst the conspiracies in Court that led to the wrongful execution of her father and brother. They are pretty circumspect about Prince Sado’s madness and death. The prince was compelled by his father the King to climb into a tiny rice chest to die from suffocation and heat Confucian norms at the time for id any bloodshed of the Prince. Lady Hyegyeong was very attached to her husband, even after the tragic events, and evidentially didn’t stop caring for him long after he died. The 1805 memoir though goes into much more detail about the curcumstances leading up to Prince Sado’s demise. Decades after his death, it was still a taboo subject at court, so few other records from the time are available.  

The Memoirs are also interesting becausethey show life in the Joseon court, which was highly regulated by Neo-Confucian norms to the point that Court life became very rigid. It’s amazing the number of social rules, and how strict the rules of filial piety were. Even the calendar years were carefully organized along the sexagenary cycle imported from China, while advancement in Court often hinged on the Confucian civil service exams and intimate knowledge of the ancient Chinese classics.  

Finally, it’s fascinating to see how difficult life at the court was. Lady Hyegyeong had many obligations as a noble woman in the Confucian Joseon court, but to make matters worse, the throne was being torn apart by obnoxious infighting and factionalism. It’s amazing the lengths the different factions would go to undermine one another by manipulating the Confucian bureaucracy for revenge or gain.1  The factions themselves were often based on hair-splitting differences in interpretation of Neo-Confucianism and details about who should inherit the throne. Further there were power plays against Lady Hyegyeong by Prince Sado’s power-hungry sister Princess Hwawan and also from the rival Gyeongju Kim clan under one Kim Kwiju who sought to undermine Lady Hyegyeong’s venerable Pungsan Hong clan. Other, more obscure clans occasionally had vendettas against the Hong clan as well due to grievances in generations past. 

The proverb above was frequently quoted by Lady Hyegyeong to describe the relentless assault on her family.  Rivals in the Court would often fabricate charges of sedition against Lady Hyegyeong’s father and third brother which would tie up the legal system and cast their loyalty in doubt, even if proven innocent. Over the years, as the charges mounted, it was harder for King Jeongjo (Lady Hyegyeong’s son) to protect them from a hostile Confucian bureaucracy until they were eventually executed.   

As a 9 year old girl, who had to marry into Joseon Court and adjust to life there, it was a great shock and adjustment for her, and the Memoirs have her looking back on the frustrations, plots against her family and trauma she and those around here frequently underwent. It’s a fascinating, though frequently tragic read.

1 For reference, the Hong family was part of the “Noron” faction by Lady Hyegyeong’s admission in the 1801 memoir.

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kaidan” in 3 Minutes

Hello,

Obon season is coming again in Japan, and this is a good time for ghost stories. Unlike the US, where Halloween and October are a popular time for ghost-stories, such stories are popular around late summer In Japan because Obon is a time when people pay respects to dead ancestors, etc.

In the past, I’ve told ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, the famous Greco-Irish author who lived in Japan 120 years ago. Many, though not all, are from Hearn’s novel “Kwaidan”, which in modern Japanese is spelled as “Kaidan” (怪談). However, this year I am doing a bit of a twist. The YouTube videos below are stories from Kaidan, told in 3 minutes or less, by the Japan Internet comedy show Eagle Talon (鷹の爪).

These videos are only in Japanese, sorry, but they’re hilarious to watch. I’ve linked the original English-versions of the story too.

The first story is Rokuro-kubi, which I posted here. You can also click on the video here.

And here’s another story, Earless Hoichi, which I posted here. You can click on the video:

Enjoy!

On Mosquitoes

Aedes aegypti.jpg
Aedes aegypti” by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook YoutubeOwn work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s summer, and as you know, mosquitoes become a big nuisance. A couple years ago, I was in Japan during the summer, and one morning, I decided to go for a walk at the nearby park. It was a nice, warm morning, so I sat down at a bench, and decided to read a book. While there, I felt something tickling my legs, and I thought it was a breeze, but when I got home, I had 16 mosquito-bites! I was miserable for the next 3 days. ;-p

Anyhow, I wanted to share this essay from Lafcadio Hearn‘s (小泉八雲) famous book Kwaidan (1903) which can be found here:

MOSQUITOES

With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard’s book, “Mosquitoes.” I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,–a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,–much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. I find that this mosquito much resembles the creature which Dr. Howard calls Stegomyia fasciata, or Culex fasciatus: and that its habits are the same as those of the Stegomyia. For example, it is diurnal rather than nocturnal and becomes most troublesome in the afternoon. And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,–a very old cemetery,–in the rear of my garden.

Dr. Howard’s book declares that, in order to rid a neighborhood of mosquitoes, it is only necessary to pour a little petroleum, or kerosene oil, into the stagnant water where they breed. Once a week the oil should be used, “at the rate of once ounce for every fifteen square feet of water-surface, and a proportionate quantity for any less surface.” …But please to consider the conditions in my neighborhood!

I have said that my tormentors come from the Buddhist cemetery. Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutame. In the majority of cases this mizutame is simply an oblong cavity chiseled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument; but before tombs of a costly kind, having no pedestal-tank, a larger separate tank is placed, cut out of a single block of stone, and decorated with a family crest, or with symbolic carvings. In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutame, water is placed in cups or other vessels,–for the dead must have water. Flowers also must be offered to them; and before every tomb you will find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower-vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to supply water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutame, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels the water in all of these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous. The deeper tanks seldom get dry;–the rainfall at Tokyo being heavy enough to keep them partly filled during nine months out of the twelve.

Well, it is in these tanks and flower-vessels that mine enemies are born: they rise by millions from the water of the dead;–and, according to Buddhist doctrine, some of them may be reincarnations of those very dead, condemned by the error of former lives to the condition of Jiki-ketsu-gaki, or blood-drinking pretas… Anyhow the malevolence of the Culex fasciatus would justify the suspicion that some wicked human soul had been compressed into that wailing speck of a body…

Now, to return to the subject of kerosene-oil, you can exterminate the mosquitoes of any locality by covering with a film of kerosene all stagnant water surfaces therein. The larvae die on rising to breathe; and the adult females perish when they approach the water to launch their rafts of eggs. And I read, in Dr. Howard’s book, that the actual cost of freeing from mosquitoes one American town of fifty thousand inhabitants, does not exceed three hundred dollars!…

I wonder what would be said if the city-government of Tokyo–which is aggressively scientific and progressive–were suddenly to command that all water-surfaces in the Buddhist cemeteries should be covered, at regular intervals, with a film of kerosene oil! How could the religion which prohibits the taking of any life–even of invisible life–yield to such a mandate? Would filial piety even dream of consenting to obey such an order? And then to think of the cost, in labor and time, of putting kerosene oil, every seven days, into the millions of mizutame, and the tens of millions of bamboo flower-cups, in the Tokyo graveyards!… Impossible! To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards;–and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them;–and that would mean the disparition of so many charming gardens, with their lotus-ponds and Sanscrit-lettered monuments and humpy bridges and holy groves and weirdly-smiling Buddhas! So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult,–surely too great a price to pay!…

Besides, I should like, when my time comes, to be laid away in some Buddhist graveyard of the ancient kind,–so that my ghostly company should be ancient, caring nothing for the fashions and the changes and the disintegrations of Meiji. That old cemetery behind my garden would be a suitable place. Everything there is beautiful with a beauty of exceeding and startling queerness; each tree and stone has been shaped by some old, old ideal which no longer exists in any living brain; even the shadows are not of this time and sun, but of a world forgotten, that never knew steam or electricity or magnetism or–kerosene oil! Also in the boom of the big bell there is a quaintness of tone which wakens feelings, so strangely far-away from all the nineteenth-century part of me, that the faint blind stirrings of them make me afraid,–deliciously afraid. Never do I hear that billowing peal but I become aware of a striving and a fluttering in the abyssal part of my ghost,–a sensation as of memories struggling to reach the light beyond the obscurations of a million million deaths and births. I hope to remain within hearing of that bell… And, considering the possibility of being doomed to the state of a Jiki-ketsu-gaki, I want to have my chance of being reborn in some bamboo flower-cup, or mizutame, whence I might issue softly, singing my thin and pungent song, to bite some people that I know.

Enjoy!

P.S. Interesting fact: most mosquitoes do not drink blood at all. Only certain species need blood to make eggs.

Meiji Shrine Fortune-Poem

Hello,

My wife and I like to visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo often. Last year, my wife was having Yakudoshi right now (maeyaku, yakudoshi, atoyaku), so she went there to get purified and avoid potential calamity. I like going just because it’s a very nice Shinto shrine.

Normally, when you visit Shinto Shrines in Japan1 you can get your fortune for the year told. This is called omikuji and I’ve posted about it before.

However, Meiji Shrine is somewhat unusual because the fortunes you receive are not really fortunes. This is the “fortune” I received:

IMG_9014

This is actually a poem written by Empress Shoken (shōken kōtaigō 昭憲皇太后) who was the wife of Emperor Meiji. In fact all the omikuji fortunes are written by either the Emperor or Empress.

The shrine’s website explains why: Before the war (WWII?), Meiji Shrine only sold ofuda, the sacred tablets used in Shinto. They did not have omikuji at all. However, after the war, the shrine wanted to provide more religious teachings, and decided to make a unique form of omikuji that would distinguish them from mundane temples and shrines. A professor of religious studies from the Shinto-based Kokugakuin University named Miyaji Naokazu came up with the idea to get rid of omikuji based on good or bad fortunes, and provide something with deeper meaning.

The Emperor and Empress wrote tens of thousands of poems each, but the shrine selected 15 poems each that were felt to have deeper meaning and these became the omikuji used today. Additionally, because there are more foreign visitors than before, there are now omikuji available in English too. These are from 20 poems selected, 10 from the Emperor and 10 from the Empress.

As for the poem I got, here it is:

人知れず Hito shirezu
思ふこころの Omou kokoro no
よしあしも Yoshi ashi mo
照し分くらむ Terashi wakaran
天地のかみ Tenchi no kami

I looked it up in Japanese (no translations in English, as far as I know), and it seems to be about how humans cannot know what is in each other’s hearts. We think these are private thoughts. However the heavenly gods know.

I might be wrong though. If anyone has information, please feel free to share.

Anyhow, I think it’s a cool idea to use poetry, not fortunes, for the omikuji at Meiji Shrine. If you go sometime, definitely spend the money on omikuji. Based on personal experience, some temples or shrines seem to “rig” their omikuji, so that people rarely have bad luck, or often have really good fortunes. The Meiji Shrine’s approach seems more genuine, which I think is cool. :)

1 I think Buddhist temples sometimes do this, depending on the sect. Shingon, esoteric Buddhism, is particularly eclectic, so you can see it there, for example.

Introducing the Kokinshu

A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.
A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.

Hi Everyone,

Some readers might remember that I am a fan of Japanese waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry, is an older form of poetry that came before haikus. When people think of Japanese poetry, they often think of haikus, but haikus are relatively new, so there’s lots and lots of poetry written as waka, not haiku, that Westerns don’t know about. The main difference is that haikus are 5-7-5 syllables, while waka are 5-7-5-7-7, so there’s two extra lines of 7 syllables.

Waka poetry was very popular in the “golden age” of Japanese culture, the Heian Period. Noble men and woman, and their attendants, wrote poetry to one another all the time as a way of communicating their thoughts. Poetry could be a path to success too.

But also, poetry was so popular, that there were official anthologies too. There were 21 anthologies total, and some were better than others. I wrote about the 21 anthologies in greater detail on my other blog. The most famous of these anthologies is probably the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or just Kokinshū for short. It’s name literally means “A Collection of Poems, Old and New”.

The Kokinshu anthology was completed in 914, but start 15-20 years earlier. It took the committee, led by one Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) a long time to compile all the poems and then organize into an anthology. It is not as famous to Westerners as the Hyakunin Isshu, which I made an entire blog for, but the Isshu is a private collection. Althought it is very famous and influential, it was not an official, Imperial anthology.

The Kokinshu is far larger than the Hyakunin Isshu too. It has hundreds of poems. Instead of reading specific poems, Ki no Tsurayuki and the committee organized the anthology by “books”. There are 20 books, with different topics like “Autumn”, “Love” and “Miscellaneous”. What’s clever about the anthology is that the poems within each book are carefully organized too.

For example, in the “Autumn” book, the first poems talk about early fall, and tend to sound similar to each other. However, as you progress through the book, the poetry topics subtly move into other subjects, and then into late autumn. So as the reader progress, the season of Autumn progresses too. The trick is to not focus on one poem, but the progression of poems together. It creates a seamless progression through different subjects within the same book.

There are very few translations of the Kokinshu, but thankfully I found a good one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius. This book does a nice job translating the poems, and providing useful footnotes, but also translates Ki no Tsurayuki’s originally forward. Ki no Tsurayuki walks the reader through a brief history of Japanese poetry (relative to his time) and critiques famous poets of the past, namely the Six Immortals of Poetry. His criticism is pretty harsh, but I think this was typical of the era.

I haven’t through the entire book, but I tend to jump around and find a section worth reading.

There’s a lot of good poems in there, and I hope to share some soon. I don’t know if I could make a blog devoted to the Kokinshu, like I did with the Hyakunin Isshu, but instead I hope to post here and maybe the other blog from time to time. I hope to also read the Shinkokin Wakashū someday. This was a later anthology, and was intended as a kind of “sequel” to the Kokinshu.

But if you do like Japanese poetry, especially Waka poetry, the Kokinshu is among the best of the 21 Imperial Anthologies.

Getting To The Bottom Of Ferguson, Cutting Through the Madness

Two young, black men who have tragically lost their lives recently.
Two young, black men who have tragically lost their lives recently.

I was sad to hear about the verdict in the trial for police officer Darren Wilson. I felt bad for Mike Brown’s parents who lost their son, and for all those frustrated with life in Ferguson, MO.

But then I read another article by the BBC which shows how there are many, different eye-witness stories about what happened. Many people saw what happened, but they gave different versions and different viewpoints. So it was hard for the jury to find any concrete evidence.

"Rashomon poster 2" by Daiei, (c) 1950 - http://entertainment.webshots.com/photo/2011951000055228984dXleQp accessed 01-March-2008. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Rashomon poster 2” by Daiei, (c) 1950. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Reading this reminded me of a famous old Japanese movie called Rashomon, which was originally a short story by the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. The story and the movie take place at the famous Rashomon Gate (羅生門) in Kyoto where three men talk about a murder that recently happened.

The murder is told from four different viewpoints. The first three (the thief, the samurai’s wife and the samurai through medium) all contradict each other. It’s clear each person is telling their version of the story out of self-interest.

Only the final version of the story seems objective but not completely.

So, the film (and novel) teaches a lesson that people are frequently motivated by self-interest and will distort the truth to suit their own beliefs or desires. Oftentimes people do this without realizing it because most of the things we do in life are motivated by self-interest anyway.

But it’s because of this distortion that we are unable to see the truth. We see what we want to see even if it is not accurate.

I guess this is partly why so many witnesses at the scene of Mike Brown’s death are so contradictory. Everyone brings their personal “baggage” and judgments. But it’s even worse on social-media. Many people who did not witness the death of Mike Brown still give their opinions. Some say Darren Wilson is a racist cop, some say Mike Brown is a thug. Some say Mike Brown is a saint, others say Darren Wilson was performing his duty in a stressful environment. Maybe all these opinions are true. Maybe none of them are true.

To me, it seems like people’s opinions on social media tell us more about that person’s “personal baggage” and views than what actually happened.

Unfortunately, we may never know the whole story.

As a Buddhist, I see the loss of life, any life,1 as tragic. Thus, regardless of why or how it happened Mike Brown’s death still affects us all. People are angry, scared, frustrated, confused and now rioting in the streets. So, regardless of what actually happened, a violent death still degrades society that much more. If we continue to act in self-interest though, the cycle will repeat and more lives will be lost.

As I wrote in a previous post, we may not always be able to help incidents like this directly, but there things we can in our own lives, and our own community that will still benefit people in places like Ferguson and others.

The Buddha gave some help advice on this, as taught in the Dhammapada:

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

And elsewhere in the Metta Sutta:

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

Until people learn to talk face to face and listen, respect one another as fellow humans, misunderstandings will continue and violence will repeat itself. We will have to cut through the madness sooner or later or perish as a society.

P.S. More on differing viewpoints in American culture and Buddhism.

1 This is why Buddhist uses the term ‘all sentient beings’. Buddhism sees all beings equally, because the individual forms are temporary. One day a frog, the next day a banker, etc.

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. :)

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!