by Richard W. Amero
Disturbed by the thought of death, Murasaki, a leading character in The Tale of Genji writes to the Lady of Akashi:
The Lady of Akashi responds:
The letters provide no earthshaking revelations. Murasaki does not relish dying and the Lady of Akashi reminds her that the Buddha served a hermit for a thousand years before he obtained The Scripture of the Lotus Flower, the sacred scripture of the Tendai Sect. Murasaki might not be so lucky, but, at least, both writers have demonstrated their command of literary allusion. Paradoxically, a good Buddhist, like a good Christian, should not find death objectionable, for life to a Buddhist is a source of suffering and to a Christian a time of trial.
Characters in The Tale of Genji, an eleventh century Japanese novel by Lady Murasaki, are afraid of death, not only because the body dies, but because the spirit survives in a wheel of birth and death encompassing six stages with hell at one end and paradise at the other. Paradise, desirable though it may be, is not nirvana as it exists within an endless wheel of causation. In pre-Buddhist times, inhabitants of Japan regarded nature deities and clan gods as alone immortal. Imported Chinese cults added ancestors to the spirit world. Buddhism, which came to Japan from India by way of China, focused man's thoughts on his own afterlife. Those who do not gain release from attachment to worldly things during their lifetimes live on as ghosts enduring agonizing experiences until their spirits are reborn in one of the six stages of the transmigration of spirits: paradise, human, animal, mayhem, starving demons and hell. Dependent upon the living for succor, ghosts, if neglected, retaliate by possessing and destroying the bodies of mortals.
The most frightening scenes in The Tale of Genji are those of ghostly possession. Rokujo, in life a domineering woman forsaken by Genji, returns in death, a jealous and horrifying specter. Gentle and submissive, Murasaki is an easy target for the dead woman's rage. When, as a result of Rokujo's presence, Murasaki dies, the sudden appearance of evil in this discreet novel of manners and romance has an impact as unsettling as the appearance of the snake in the Christian paradise.
Reverence, rather than fear, shapes the most appealing forms which religious superstition assumes in The Tale of Genji. Commoners and nobles adore stones, streams, trees and flowers as manifestations of benign Shinto spirits and as symbols of the universal Buddha, a key concept of the Tendai Sect prominent in Kyoto, capitol city of Japan, during the Heian Period. On special occasions, nobles, seeking the solace of nature, leave Kyoto to visit mountain retreats. There, reassured that their performance conforms to the latest fashions in contemplation, they cleanse themselves and seek enlightenment through ritualistic exercises.
Religious desires supplement other human desires. In moments of sorrow, people realize the steps they must take to assuage their anguish. They build temples (to collect good karma); however, they never extinguish their discomfit. To avoid the perils of love, many women enter nunneries. After the death of Murasaki, Genji seeks consolation in a religious retreat. Since his importance stems from human failings rather than religious virtues, this period is not described.
Grieving over the death of Murasaki, Genji ponders entering a Buddhist order to seek escape from his sorrows:
Here Genji shows his fear of creating an unseemly impression outweighed the strength of his self-recriminations and of whatever desire he may have had to achieve detached equanimity.
Genji's ambivalent feeling toward religion testifies to the effort at compromise that ran through the lives of the nobles: a compromise which included attempts to harmonize secular life and religious aspiration, Confucian ethics and Buddhist mysteries, political effort and poetical sentiment, Shintoism and Buddhism, and --- in the esoteric tenets of Shingon Buddhism --- the universal world of Buddha and the particular world of man through the symbolism of the mandala. (Masaharu Anesaki, History of Japanese Religion, Kegan Paul, 1930)
The nobles show the effort at compromise in their wish to avoid extremes and to preserve appearances. Even though the Shingon Sect held that satori, or enlightenment, was possible in one's present life, religion meant external ceremony, not internal revelation. Devotees of elaborate Shingon ceremonies turned their religion into an esoteric system of magical sounds (mantras) and gestures (mudras) which conveyed cryptic meanings.
At one point, Genji visits the Shinto shrine at Sumiyoshi. There he thanks the god in residence for protecting him, makes his vows and turns to the attractions of the area, god and duties neatly served. Impressed by Genji's casual display of piety, his retainers remark that for certain kinds of religious observance there was much to be said. This observation shows some of the simpler people preferred the practicality and beauty of the native Shinto worship to the more complicated and cerebral Buddhism rituals imported from China.
The discrepancy in holding two faiths was not only obvious to simple people, it was also a vexation to the more refined. Because of this difficulty, Asagao feels she must become a nun to atone for the sin she had committed against one of her religions through her service as an attendant at a Shinto shrine.
Aristocratic partiality to Buddhism exacted a cost. When Fujitsubo and Ukifune become nuns, they do so in sorrow rather than joy. Sorrow also follows the death of Prince Hachi no Miya. The monk who handles the arrangements for the prince's funeral refuses to let his daughters see their father's body.
One of the most edifying of Heian Buddhist ceremonies, the Sadaparibhuta, is performed to save the sick from evil influences. Itinerant monks go from place to place doing homage to those they meet in reverence for the Buddha nature in man. Unlike the monks, lords and ladies were not willing to mingle with anybody, though their religion allowed them to do so. They made fun of wandering monks who went about saying "nembutsu" ("Homage to the Amida Buddha") because of their provincial origins.
The many leaves of the flowering lotus show that every living thing strives for enlightenment. As with the lotus, so people can achieve enlightenment by purifying their tastes and feelings. Even if they cannot, Buddha will condescend to help them.
Characters in The Tale of Genji and people in Heian society sought for a religion that was satisfying and painless. This quest led them to the worship of the Amida of Boundless Light, the bodhisattva, or condescending Buddha, who during the Heian Period supplemented but did not do away with the rituals and speculations of the Tendai and Shingon Sects. The repetition of "nembutsu" was heard frequently at the Tendai monasteries on Mount Hei and on the paths and streets of Kyoto. Revelatory of the easy-going attitude of the times, the worshipers did not worry about a contradiction between the chanting of The Lotus Scripture and of "nembutsu." In fact, they combined the two. (George B. Sansom, Japan, A Short Cultural History, D. Appleton-Century Comany, 1943, 245)
Amida granted an easy immortality to his believers. All they had to do was ask for salvation. A gentle and classless faith, it allowed its adherents to enjoy life, surrounded by the light of a compassionate and forgiving divinity.
More familiar than the women of her time with Tendai interpretations of Buddhist sutras, with Shingon symbolism, and with Amida's generous blessings, Lady Murasaki put these elements in her novel. These elements convey the impression of her era in the same way the universe of the engineer-physicist is conveyed by the novels of Emile Zola or the universe of the mathematical-physicist by the novels of James Joyce. (W. Tyndall, Forces in Modern British Literature, Alfred A. Knopf, 181-184) Without the Buddhist background, the unique tone of The Tale of Genji would not exist.
The conflict between secular and religious concerns in The Tale of Genji is a conflict between action and passivity. People want to fulfill themselves through sensual experience, but they also want to experience an enlightenment sensuality cannot provide. The conflict penetrates to the heart of Buddhism. Herbert J. Muller has written, "the dominant theme of Indian religious thought has unmistakably been life negation. The goal of Buddha was a kingdom of no world." (Herbert J. Muller, The Uses of the Past, A Mentor Book, 1952, 351) In Japan, Buddhism could not remain as pessimistic as it was in India because of the softening influences of the environment and of Shintoism. Yet the conflict between otherworldly and worldly attitudes was not to be evaded. Eventually it was Buddhism that gave.
Characters in Lady Murasaki's novel and characters in novels by Henry James and Marcel Proust seem similar. People depicted by these authors are seeking to find out who they are. Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, Marcel in Remembrances of Things Past and Genji and Kaoru in The Tale of Genji lack a sense of themselves as separate, autonomous individuals. The Occidental views of James and Proust regarding the relativity of human experience and the stream of consciousness that overruns men's minds are so closely foreshadowed by the Oriental views of Lady Murasaki that reading her book elicits "a shock of recognition."
Bertrand Russell has propounded the question of individuality in an un-individual way. "The ego has disappeared as an ultimate conception and the unity of personality has become a causal nexus linked together by peculiar causal laws." (Bertrand Russell, Outline of Philosophy, W. W. Norton, 1927, 254, 258) This view coincides with Buddhist conceptions of karma as a succession of diverse states of consciousness and of Dharmakaya as a unifying and interpenetrating essence.
Dharmakaya, represented in Tendai and Shingon Buddhism as the Vairocana or cosmic Buddha, is the organizing principle behind man's states of consciousness. To perceive this principle is to go from a state of becoming to a state of being or Buddhahood; however, since these are "esoteric" doctrines there are, alas, degrees of Buddhahood. Even the Buddha, in a manner reminiscent of the Christian Trinity, has a Threefold Body . . . Essential or Enjoyment, Transformation and Spiritual. (Hisatoyo Ishida, Esoteric Buddhist Painting, Kodansha International, 1987, 17) The transformation body, comparable to the Christian Son, is the historic Siddhartha Guatama or, possibly, a series of historic --- not to say mythological --- Buddhas. In Hinayana, or Southern Buddhism, the person who comprehends Buddha 's essence is an arhat and his method involves discipline and meditation. In Mahayana, or Northern Buddhism, an enlightened being, or bodhisattva, similar to saints in the Christian hagiography, saves others from the succession of karma, thus freeing them from the arhat's more strenuous pursuits. It was the Mahayana type, as taught by the dominant sects of her day, with which Lady Murasaki was familiar.
In so far as Hinayana and Mahayana maintain all knowledge must emerge from sensual experience, they agree with Bertrand Russell's epistemological theories. The difference lies in their allegiance to contrary goals. Russell's ideas regarding the derivation of knowledge lead to a possibility of control within the world of man's existence. Buddhist concepts of karma and Dharmakaya proceed to the metaphysical acceptance of a state of being removed from the world of appearances.
Karma --- real or imagined --- weighs heavily on Lady Murasaki's characters. They are absorbed in the karma from which they seek release. Their passive dispositions blunt their control of their impulses and their command of their environment. In this respect, Lady Murasaki's leading figures are similar to the leading character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, a drama of doubt and questioning which anticipates the probing of characters in novels by Henry James and Marcel Proust. As Francis Fergusson has pointed out, "Hamlet is predominantly in the passive mode --- the suffering of forces not controlled or understood rather than the consistent drive of an intelligible purpose." (Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater,Princeton University Press, 1949, 134)
Leading characters in The Tale of Genji, like Hamlet, do not understand themselves. They watch, wander, doubt, and try to balance their thoughts and emotions with those of others and with ideas of pomp and circumstance and of life and death.
The transient beauty in the world, the slow progress of time, the rise and setting of the sun, the change of seasons and years, these elements provide the scenic background of The Tale of Genji. Everything in objective and subjective existence is karma evolving from a past that predetermines a present which, in turn, predetermines a future. The author of Ecclesiastes was resigned, albeit bitterly, to nature's cycles: "The sun riseth and the wind goeth toward the south, and turneth unto the north, it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth according to his circuit." To nature lovers, the inevitability of sun and moon, spring and fall, high and low tide is not a cause of bewilderment, but of rejoicing. In The Tale of Genji, however, the nostalgia and sorrow for the inevitable change, which is not change, is reflected in the experience of the people, located in a time and place, but lost in a state of confusion and insubstantiality.
Genji, Murasaki, Kaoru and Fujitsubo want to find the reverse side of their worlds while staying on the side to which they are born: the worlds of karma and phenomenal appearances versus the absolute and noumenal. Yet these characters are unable to accomplish their spiritual aspirations because they are enslaved by their human natures. They are as weary of the world as Western Romantic poets, but they lack the discontent which made the state of stasis so intolerable to a Byron or a Shelly. The figures know flux veils oneness; but they lack the positive assurance of Siddhartha Guatama. Failing to renounce their karma, they succeed in perpetuating their pain.
Granted the difficulties of getting beyond the fleshly pull of one's self or selves, why, nonetheless, do the people in The Tale of Genji have about them an atmosphere of poignancy rather than high tragedy? Why are they soothed by their agony, their mood of gentle suffering, their fluctuations among numerous possibilities? The reader pities these people who desirous of being released from karma, yet feel this release can never be.
To understand why karma should lead to an acceptance of life's stream of conflicts and temptations rather than an attempt to surmount them, one would have to know more about the life of the pleasure-loving court. It was in this court that the elaborate codes of esthetic and sensual behavior of a hedonistic group of nobles, operating with ennui and with religion, produced a psychological and cultural complex of pathos and splendor. Donald Keene has called the Heian society of Lady Murasaki's time "the most elegant ever known." (Donald Keene, Japanese Literature, Grove Press, 1955, 78) In this same society, James Pratt informs us, Japanese Buddhism reached one of its lowest levels, an assertion that does not seem creditable to those of have seen Buddhist paintings and sculptures from the Heian Period. (James Pratt, Pilgrimage of Japanese Buddhism, Macmillan, 1928, 428)
The next major development of Buddhism in Japan occurred in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries during the feudal period that followed the collapse of Heian civilization. At this time, Zen Buddhism, "the Spiritual Cult of Steel," was established. Unlike the debonair ideology of the Kyoto nobility, the new creed was austere. It regarded the metaphysical speculations and the exacting ceremonials of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism and the mechanical repetitions of "nembutsu" as debilitating and declared people can experience satori through their own unfettered cognition. Because it encouraged self-reliance and inner discipline, Zen became the creed of the succeeding warrior class. The contrast between Zen warrior and Heian courtier resembles that between Puritan and Cavalier in seventeenth century England. While Zen evolved in a different political context, for a time these two movements shared the same distaste for the ostentation and frivolity of the highest ranks in society.
The stream of artistic expression may be diverted, it cannot be stopped. With the Puritan, art became increasingly somber and didactic. Zen art, on the other hand, was as vigorous and concise as a knife. But its gains in simplicity were counterbalanced by the loss of the exquisite qualities of the aristocratic art which it feared as corrupting. Similarly, Puritan literature, with its intense dedication to an inner light, was insensitive to the graceful and amusing lights of the Cavaliers.
Fortunately neither Puritan intolerance nor Zen frugality could stifle the artistic appeals of aristocratic license. Roundhead abstemiousness gave way to the gaiety of the Restoration and Zen has become increasingly a practice of esthetic recognition, an appreciation of the "suchness of things"; therefore, logically at least, unconfined.
To appreciate the polish of Heian society and to understand, perhaps regretfully, its defects, the reading of The Tale of Genji and the history of the Heian Period are both necessary. Ultimately, the book, even more than the history, contains the human experience in its indecisions and achievements, but both history and book furnish us with materials for understanding.
NOTE: The above paper is a revision of the first chapter of a thesis written in 1950 toward the award of a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.