Read Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan Online

Authors: Lafcadio Hearn

Tags: #General Fiction

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (6 page)

Not less unfamiliar in their forms, but far more interesting, are the
monuments of stone. One shape I know represents five of the Buddhist
elements: a cube supporting a sphere which upholds a pyramid on which
rests a shallow square cup with four crescent edges and tilted corners,
and in the cup a pyriform body poised with the point upwards. These
successively typify Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Ether, the five substances
wherefrom the body is shapen, and into which it is resolved by death;
the absence of any emblem for the Sixth element, Knowledge, touches more
than any imagery conceivable could do. And nevertheless, in the purpose
of the symbolism, this omission was never planned with the same idea
that it suggests to the Occidental mind.

Very numerous also among the monuments are low, square, flat-topped
shafts, with a Japanese inscription in black or gold, or merely cut into
the stone itself. Then there are upright slabs of various shapes and
heights, mostly rounded at the top, usually bearing sculptures in
relief. Finally, there are many curiously angled stones, or natural
rocks, dressed on one side only, with designs etched upon the smoothed
surface. There would appear to be some meaning even in the irregularity
of the shape of these slabs; the rock always seems to have been broken
out of its bed at five angles, and the manner in which it remains
balanced perpendicularly upon its pedestal is a secret that the first
hasty examination fails to reveal.

The pedestals themselves vary in construction; most have three orifices
in the projecting surface in front of the monument supported by them,
usually one large oval cavity, with two small round holes flanking it.
These smaller holes serve for the burning of incense-rods; the larger
cavity is filled with water. I do not know exactly why. Only my Japanese
companion tells me 'it is an ancient custom in Japan thus to pour out
water for the dead.' There are also bamboo cups on either side of the
monument in which to place flowers.

Many of the sculptures represent Buddha in meditation, or in the
attitude of exhorting; a few represent him asleep, with the placid,
dreaming face of a child, a Japanese child; this means Nirvana. A common
design upon many tombs also seems to be two lotus-blossoms with stalks
intertwined.

In one place I see a stone with an English name upon it, and above that
name a rudely chiselled cross. Verily the priests of Buddha have blessed
tolerance; for this is a Christian tomb!

And all is chipped and mouldered and mossed; and the grey stones stand
closely in hosts of ranks, only one or two inches apart, ranks of
thousands upon thousands, always in the shadow of the great trees.
Overhead innumerable birds sweeten the air with their trilling; and far
below, down the steps behind us, I still hear the melancholy chant of
the priests, faintly, like a humming of bees.

Akira leads the way in silence to where other steps descend into a
darker and older part of the cemetery; and at the head of the steps, to
the right, I see a group of colossal monuments, very tall, massive,
mossed by time, with characters cut more than two inches deep into the
grey rock of them. And behind them, in lieu of laths, are planted large
sotoba, twelve to fourteen feet high, and thick as the beams of a temple
roof. These are graves of priests.

Sec. 5

Descending the shadowed steps, I find myself face to face with six
little statues about three feet high, standing in a row upon one long
pedestal. The first holds a Buddhist incense-box; the second, a lotus;
the third, a pilgrim's staff (tsue); the fourth is telling the beads of
a Buddhist rosary; the fifth stands in the attitude of prayer, with
hands joined; the sixth bears in one hand the shakujo or mendicant
priest's staff, having six rings attached to the top of it and in the
other hand the mystic jewel, Nio-i ho-jiu, by virtue whereof all desires
may be accomplished. But the faces of the Six are the same: each figure
differs from the other by the attitude only and emblematic attribute;
and all are smiling the like faint smile. About the neck of each figure
a white cotton bag is suspended; and all the bags are filled with
pebbles; and pebbles have been piled high also about the feet of the
statues, and upon their knees, and upon their shoulders; and even upon
their aureoles of stone, little pebbles are balanced. Archaic,
mysterious, but inexplicably touching, all these soft childish faces
are.

Roku Jizo—'The Six Jizo'—these images are called in the speech of
the people; and such groups may be seen in many a Japanese cemetery.
They are representations of the most beautiful and tender figure in
Japanese popular faith, that charming divinity who cares for the souls
of little children, and consoles them in the place of unrest, and saves
them from the demons. 'But why are those little stones piled about the
statues?' I ask.

Well, it is because some say the child-ghosts must build little towers
of stones for penance in the Sai-no-Kawara, which is the place to which
all children after death must go. And the Oni, who are demons, come to
throw down the little stone-piles as fast as the children build; and
these demons frighten the children, and torment them. But the little
souls run to Jizo, who hides them in his great sleeves, and comforts
them, and makes the demons go away. And every stone one lays upon the
knees or at the feet of Jizo, with a prayer from the heart, helps some
child-soul in the Sai-no-Kawara to perform its long penance.
[9]

'All little children,' says the young Buddhist student who tells all
this, with a smile as gentle as Jizo's own, 'must go to the Sai-no-
Kawara when they die. And there they play with Jizo. The Sai-no-Kawara
is beneath us, below the ground.
[10]

'And Jizo has long sleeves to his robe; and they pull him by the sleeves
in their play; and they pile up little stones before him to amuse
themselves. And those stones you see heaped about the statues are put
there by people for the sake of the little ones, most often by mothers
of dead children who pray to Jizo. But grown people do not go to the
Sai-no-Kawara when they die.'
[11]

And the young student, leaving the Roku-Jizo, leads the way to other
strange surprises, guiding me among the tombs, showing me the sculptured
divinities.

Some of them are quaintly touching; all are interesting; a few are
positively beautiful.

The greater number have nimbi. Many are represented kneeling, with hands
joined exactly like the figures of saints in old Christian art. Others,
holding lotus-flowers, appear to dream the dreams that are meditations.
One figure reposes on the coils of a great serpent. Another, coiffed
with something resembling a tiara, has six hands, one pair joined in
prayer, the rest, extended, holding out various objects; and this figure
stands upon a prostrate demon, crouching face downwards. Yet another
image, cut in low relief, has arms innumerable. The first pair of hands
are joined, with the palms together; while from behind the line of the
shoulders, as if shadowily emanating therefrom, multitudinous arms reach
out in all directions, vapoury, spiritual, holding forth all kinds of
objects as in answer to supplication, and symbolising, perhaps, the
omnipotence of love. This is but one of the many forms of Kwannon, the
goddess of mercy, the gentle divinity who refused the rest of Nirvana to
save the souls of men, and who is most frequently pictured as a
beautiful Japanese girl. But here she appears as Senjiu-Kwannon
(Kwannon-of-the-Thousand-Hands). Close by stands a great slab bearing
upon the upper portion of its chiselled surface an image in relief of
Buddha, meditating upon a lotus; and below are carven three weird little
figures, one with hands upon its eyes, one with hands upon its ears, one
with hands upon its mouth; these are Apes. 'What do they signify?' I
inquire. My friend answers vaguely, mimicking each gesture of the three
sculptured shapes:-'I see no bad thing; I hear no bad thing; I speak no
bad thing.'

Gradually, by dint of reiterated explanations, I myself learn to
recognise some of the gods at sight. The figure seated upon a lotus,
holding a sword in its hand, and surrounded by bickering fire, is Fudo-
Sama—Buddha as the Unmoved, the Immutable: the Sword signifies
Intellect; the Fire, Power. Here is a meditating divinity, holding in
one hand a coil of ropes: the divinity is Buddha; those are the ropes
which bind the passions and desires. Here also is Buddha slumbering,
with the gentlest, softest Japanese face—a child face—and eyes
closed, and hand pillowing the cheek, in Nirvana. Here is a beautiful
virgin-figure, standing upon a lily: Kwannon-Sama, the Japanese Madonna.
Here is a solemn seated figure, holding in one hand a vase, and lifting
the other with the gesture of a teacher: Yakushi-Sama, Buddha the All-
Healer, Physician of Souls.

Also, I see figures of animals. The Deer of Buddhist birth-stories
stands, all grace, in snowy stone, upon the summit of toro, or votive
lamps. On one tomb I see, superbly chiselled, the image of a fish, or
rather the Idea of a fish, made beautifully grotesque for sculptural
purposes, like the dolphin of Greek art. It crowns the top of a memorial
column; the broad open jaws, showing serrated teeth, rest on the summit
of the block bearing the dead man's name; the dorsal fin and elevated
tail are elaborated into decorative impossibilities. 'Mokugyo,' says
Akira. It is the same Buddhist emblem as that hollow wooden object,
lacquered scarlet-and-gold, on which the priests beat with a padded
mallet while chanting the Sutra. And, finally, in one place I perceive
a pair of sitting animals, of some mythological species, supple of
figure as greyhounds. 'Kitsune,' says Akira—'foxes.' So they are, now
that I look upon them with knowledge of their purpose; idealised foxes,
foxes spiritualised, impossibly graceful foxes. They are chiselled in
some grey stone. They have long, narrow, sinister, glittering eyes; they
seem to snarl; they are weird, very weird creatures, the servants of the
Rice-God, retainers of Inari-Sama, and properly belong, not to Buddhist
iconography, but the imagery of Shinto.

No inscriptions upon these tombs corresponding to our epitaphs. Only
family names—the names of the dead and their relatives and a
sculptured crest, usually a flower. On the sotoba, only Sanscrit words.

Farther on, I find other figures of Jizo, single reliefs, sculptured
upon tombs. But one of these is a work of art so charming that I feel a
pain at being obliged to pass it by. More sweet, assuredly, than any
imaged Christ, this dream in white stone of the playfellow of dead
children, like a beautiful young boy, with gracious eyelids half closed,
and face made heavenly by such a smile as only Buddhist art could have
imagined, the smile of infinite lovingness and supremest gentleness.
Indeed, so charming the ideal of Jizo is that in the speech of the
people a beautiful face is always likened to his—'Jizo-kao,' as the
face of Jizo.

Sec. 6

And we come to the end of the cemetery, to the verge of the great grove.

Beyond the trees, what caressing sun, what spiritual loveliness in the
tender day! A tropic sky always seemed to me to hang so low that one
could almost bathe one's fingers in its lukewarm liquid blue by reaching
upward from any dwelling-roof. But this sky, softer, fainter, arches so
vastly as to suggest the heaven of a larger planet. And the very clouds
are not clouds, but only dreams of clouds, so filmy they are; ghosts of
clouds, diaphanous spectres, illusions!

All at once I become aware of a child standing before me, a very young
girl who looks up wonderingly at my face; so light her approach that the
joy of the birds and whispering of the leaves quite drowned the soft
sound of her feet. Her ragged garb is Japanese; but her gaze, her loose
fair hair, are not of Nippon only; the ghost of another race—perhaps
my own-watches me through her flower-blue eyes. A strange playground
surely is this for thee, my child; I wonder if all these shapes about
thee do not seem very weird, very strange, to that little soul of thine.
But no; 'tis only I who seem strange to thee; thou hast forgotten the
Other Birth, and thy father's world.

Half-caste and poor and pretty, in this foreign port! Better thou wert
with the dead about thee, child! better than the splendour of this soft
blue light the unknown darkness for thee. There the gentle Jizo would
care for thee, and hide thee in his great sleeves, and keep all evil
from thee, and play shadowy play with thee; and this thy forsaken
mother, who now comes to ask an alms for thy sake, dumbly pointing to
thy strange beauty with her patient Japanese smile, would put little
stones upon the knees of the dear god that thou mightest find rest.

Sec. 7

'Oh, Akira! you must tell me something more about Jizo, and the ghosts
of the children in the Sai-no-Kawara.' 'I cannot tell you much more,'
answers Akira, smiling at my interest in this charming divinity; 'but if
you will come with me now to Kuboyama, I will show you, in one of the
temples there, pictures of the Sai-no-Kawara and of Jizo, and the
Judgment of Souls.'

So we take our way in two jinricksha to the Temple Rinko-ji, on
Kuboyama. We roll swiftly through a mile of many-coloured narrow
Japanese streets; then through a half-mile of pretty suburban ways,
lined with gardens, behind whose clipped hedges are homes light and
dainty as cages of wicker-work; and then, leaving our vehicles, we
ascend green hills on foot by winding paths, and traverse a region of
fields and farms. After a long walk in the hot sun we reach a village
almost wholly composed of shrines and temples.

The outlying sacred place—three buildings in one enclosure of bamboo
fences—belongs to the Shingon sect. A small open shrine, to the left
of the entrance, first attracts us. It is a dead-house: a Japanese bier
is there. But almost opposite the doorway is an altar covered with
startling images.

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