Tales of Old Japan




"Sermons preached here on 8th, 18th, and 28th days of every month." Such was the purport of a placard, which used to tempt me daily, as I passed the temple Chô-ô-ji. Having ascertained that neither the preacher nor his congregation would have any objection to my hearing one of these sermons, I made arrangements to attend the service, accompanied by two friends, my artist, and a scribe to take notes.

We were shown into an apartment adjoining a small chapel—a room opening on to a tastily arranged garden, wealthy in stone lanterns and dwarfed trees. In the portion of the room reserved for the priest stood a high table, covered with a cloth of white and scarlet silk, richly embroidered with flowers and arabesques; upon this stood a bell, a tray containing the rolls of the sacred books, and a small incense-burner of ancient Chinese porcelain. Before the table was a hanging drum, and behind it was one of those high, back-breaking arm-chairs which adorn every Buddhist temple. In one corner of the space destined for the accommodation of the faithful was a low writing-desk, at which sat, or rather squatted, a lay clerk, armed with a huge pair of horn spectacles, through which he glared, goblin-like, at the people, as they came to have their names and the amount of their offerings to the temple registered. These latter must have been small things, for the congregation seemed poor enough. It was principally composed of old women, nuns with bald shiny pates and grotesque faces, a few petty tradesmen, and half-a-dozen chubby children, perfect little models of decorum and devoutness. One lady there was, indeed, who seemed a little better to do in the world than the rest; she was nicely dressed, and attended by a female servant; she came in with a certain little consequential rustle, and displayed some coquetry, and a very pretty bare foot, as she took her place, and, pulling out a dandy little pipe and tobacco-pouch, began to smoke. Fire-boxes and spittoons, I should mention, were freely handed about; so that half-an-hour which passed before the sermon began was agreeably spent. In the meanwhile, mass was being celebrated in the main hall of the temple, and the monotonous nasal drone of the plain chant was faintly heard in the distance. So soon as this was over, the lay clerk sat himself down by the hanging drum, and, to its accompaniment, began intoning the prayer, "Na Mu Miyô Hô Ren Go Kiyô," the congregation fervently joining in unison with him. These words, repeated over and over again, are the distinctive prayer of the Buddhist sect of Nichiren, to which the temple Chô-ô-ji is dedicated. They are approximations to Sanscrit sounds, and have no meaning in Japanese, nor do the worshippers in using them know their precise value.

Soon the preacher, gorgeous in red and white robes, made his appearance, following an acolyte, who carried the sacred book called Hokké (upon which the sect of Nichiren is founded) on a tray covered with scarlet and gold brocade. Having bowed to the sacred picture which hung over the tokonoma—that portion of the Japanese room which is raised a few inches above the rest of the floor, and which is regarded as the place of honour—his reverence took his seat at the table, and adjusted his robes; then, tying up the muscles of his face into a knot, expressive of utter abstraction, he struck the bell upon the table thrice, burnt a little incense, and read a passage from the sacred book, which he reverently lifted to his head. The congregation joined in chorus, devout but unintelligent; for the Word, written in ancient Chinese, is as obscure to the ordinary Japanese worshipper as are the Latin liturgies to a high-capped Norman peasant-woman. While his flock wrapped up copper cash in paper, and threw them before the table as offerings, the priest next recited a passage alone, and the lay clerk irreverently entered into a loud dispute with one of the congregation, touching some payment or other. The preliminary ceremonies ended, a small shaven-pated boy brought in a cup of tea, thrice afterwards to be replenished, for his reverence's refreshment; and he, having untied his face, gave a broad grin, cleared his throat, swallowed his tea, and beamed down upon us, as jolly, rosy a priest as ever donned stole or scarf. His discourse, which was delivered in the most familiar and easy manner, was an extempore dissertation on certain passages from the sacred books. Whenever he paused or made a point, the congregation broke in with a cry of "Nammiyô!" a corruption of the first three words of the prayer cited above, to which they always contrived to give an expression or intonation in harmony with the preacher's meaning.

"It is a matter of profound satisfaction to me," began his reverence Nichirin, smiling blandly at his audience, "to see so many gentlemen and ladies gathered together here this day, in the fidelity of their hearts, to do honour to the feast of Kishimojin."84

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" self-depreciatory, from the congregation.

"I feel certain that your piety cannot fail to find favour with Kishimojin. Kishimojin ever mourns over the tortures of mankind, who are dwelling in a house of fire, and she ever earnestly strives to find some means of delivering them.

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" grateful and reverential.

"Notwithstanding this, it is useless your worshipping Kishimojin, and professing to believe in her, unless you have truth in your hearts; for she will not receive your offerings. Man, from his very birth, is a creature of requirements; he is for ever seeking and praying. Both you who listen, and I who preach, have all of us our wants and wishes. If there be any person here who flatters himself that he has no wishes and no wants, let him reflect. Does not every one wish and pray that heaven and earth may stand for ever, that his country and family may prosper, that there may be plenty in the land, and that the people may be healthy and happy? The wishes of men, however, are various and many; and these wishes, numberless as they are, are all known to the gods from the beginning. It is no use praying, unless you have truth in your heart. For instance, the prayer Na Mu is a prayer committing your bodies to the care of the gods; if, when you utter it, your hearts are true and single, of a surety your request will be granted. Now, this is not a mere statement made by Nichiren, the holy founder of this sect; it is the sacred teaching of Buddha himself, and may not be doubted."

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" with profound conviction.

"The heart of man is, by nature, upright and true; but there are seven passions85 by which it is corrupted. Buddha is alarmed when he sees the fires by which the world is being consumed. These fires are the five lusts of this sinful world; and the five lusts are, the desire for fair sights, sweet sounds, fragrant smells, dainty meats, and rich trappings. Man is no sooner endowed with a body than he is possessed by these lusts, which become his very heart; and, it being a law that every man follows the dictates of his heart, in this way the body, the lusts of the flesh, the heart, and the dictates of the heart, blaze up in the consuming fire. 'Alas! for this miserable world!' said the divine Buddha."

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" mournful, and with much head-shaking.

"There is not so foul thing under heaven as the human body. The body exudes grease, the eyes distil gums, the nose is full of mucus, the mouth of slobbering spittle; nor are these the most impure secretions of the body. What a mistake it is to look upon this impure body as clean and perfect! Unless we listen to the teachings of Buddha, how shall we be washed and purified?"

"Nammiyô, nammiyô!" from an impure and very miserable sinner, under ten years of age.

"The lot of man is uncertain, and for ever running out of the beaten track. Why go to look at the flowers, and take delight in their beauty? When you return home, you will see the vanity of your pleasure. Why purchase fleeting joys of loose women? How long do you retain the delicious taste of the dainties you feast upon? For ever wishing to do this, wishing to see that, wishing to eat rare dishes, wishing to wear fine clothes, you pass a lifetime in fanning the flames which consume you. What terrible matter for thought is this! In the poems of the priest Saigiyo it is written, 'Verily I have been familiar with the flowers; yet are they withered and scattered, and we are parted. How sad!' The beauty of the convolvulus, how bright it is!—and yet in one short morning it closes its petals and fades. In the book called Rin Jo Bo Satsu86 we are told how a certain king once went to take his pleasure in his garden, and gladden his eyes with the beauty of his flowers. After a while he fell asleep; and as he slumbered, the women of his train began pulling the flowers to pieces. When the king awoke, of all the glory of his flowers there remained but a few torn and faded petals. Seeing this, the king said, 'The flowers pass away and die; so is it with mankind: we are born, we grow old, we sicken and die; we are as fleeting as the lightning's flash, as evanescent as the morning dew.' I know not whether any of you here present ever fix your thoughts upon death; yet it is a rare thing for a man to live for a hundred years. How piteous a thing it is that in this short and transient life men should consume themselves in a fire of lust! and if we think to escape from this fire, how shall we succeed save only by the teaching of the divine Buddha?"

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" meekly and entreatingly.

"Since Buddha himself escaped from the burning flames of the lusts of the flesh, his only thought has been for the salvation of mankind. Once upon a time there was a certain heretic, called Rokutsuponji, a reader of auguries, cunning in astrology and in the healing art. It happened, one day, that this heretic, being in company with Buddha, entered a forest, which was full of dead men's skulls. Buddha, taking up one of the skulls and tapping it thus" (here the preacher tapped the reading-desk with his fan), "said, 'What manner of man was this bone when alive?—and, now that he is dead, in what part of the world has he been born again?' The heretic, auguring from the sound which the skull, when struck, gave forth, began to tell its past history, and to prophesy the future. Then Buddha, tapping another skull, again asked the same question. The heretic answered—

"'Verily, as to this skull, whether it belonged to a man or a woman, whence its owner came or whither he has gone, I know not. What think you of it?"

"'Ask me not,' answered Buddha. But the heretic pressed him, and entreated him to answer; then Buddha said, 'Verily this is the skull of one of my disciples, who forsook the lusts of the flesh.'

"Then the heretic wondered, and said—

"'Of a truth, this is a thing the like of which no man has yet seen. Here am I, who know the manner of the life and of the death even of the ants that creep. Verily, I thought that no thing could escape my ken; yet here lies one of your disciples, than whom there lives no nobler thing, and I am at fault. From this day forth I will enter your sect, praying only that I may receive your teaching.'

"Thus did this learned heretic become a disciple of Buddha. If such an one as he was converted, how much the more should after-ages of ordinary men feel that it is through. Buddha alone that they can hope to overcome the sinful lusts of the flesh! These lusts are the desires which agitate our hearts: if we are free from these desires, our hearts will be bright and pure, and there is nothing, save the teaching of Buddha, which can ensure us this freedom. Following the commands of Buddha, and delivered by him from our desires, we may pass our lives in peace and happiness."

"Nammiyô! nammiyô!" with triumphant exultation.

"In the sacred books we read of conversion from a state of sin to a state of salvation. Now this salvation is not a million miles removed from us; nor need we die and be born again into another world in order to reach it. He who lays aside his carnal lusts and affections, at once and of a certainty becomes equal to Buddha. When we recite the prayer Na Mu Miyô Hô Ren Go Kiyô, we are praying to enter this state of peace and happiness. By what instruction, other than that of Nichiren, the holy founder of this sect, can we expect to attain this end? If we do attain it, there will be no difference between our state and that of Buddha and of Nichiren. With this view we have learnt from the pious founder of our sect that we must continually and thankfully repeat the prayer Na Mu Miyô Hô Ren Go Kiyô, turning our hearts away from lies, and embracing the truth."

Such were the heads of the sermon as they were taken down by my scribe. At its conclusion, the priest, looking about him smiling, as if the solemn truths he had been inculcating were nothing but a very good joke, was greeted by long and loud cries of "Nammiyô! nammiyô!" by all the congregation. Then the lay clerk sat himself down again by the hanging drum; and the service ended as it had begun, by prayer in chorus, during which the priest retired, the sacred book being carried out before him by his acolyte.

Although occasionally, as in the above instance, sermons are delivered as part of a service on special days of the month, they are more frequently preached in courses, the delivery occupying about a fortnight, during which two sermons are given each day. Frequently the preachers are itinerant priests, who go about the towns and villages lecturing in the main hall of some temple or in the guest-room of the resident priest.

There are many books of sermons published in Japan, all of which have some merit and much quaintness: none that I have seen are, however, to my taste, to be compared to the "Kiu-ô Dô-wa," of which the following three sermons compose the first volume. They are written by a priest belonging to the Shingaku sect—a sect professing to combine all that is excellent in the Buddhist, Confucian, and Shin Tô teaching. It maintains the original goodness of the human heart; and teaches that we have only to follow the dictates of the conscience implanted in us at our birth, in order to steer in the right path. The texts are taken from the Chinese classical books, in the same way as our preachers take theirs from the Bible. Jokes, stories which are sometimes untranslatable into our more fastidious tongue, and pointed applications to members of the congregation, enliven the discourses; it being a principle with the Japanese preacher that it is not necessary to bore his audience into virtue.

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