Pilgrims, Ghosts, Suicides

Posted on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, under ,

In Kamakura (1920)

In Kamakura, near the great Daibutsu,
When I had sat a long time on the ground
And been gathered up, forgetful of my face and form,
Into the face and form of endless dream,
I found among the booths a little pendant Buddha
With the steel of a round mirror for His halo . . .
So that a brooding head still intervenes in bronze
Between my face and the image of my face,
And I cannot see myself and not see Him.

This poem, which so lovingly captures what looks like a moment of approaching a religious ecstasy, was penned by Witter Bynner, US poet (1881-1968). Bynner and Harvard friend Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945), were the last American poets of note to visit Japan from 1917 until after the Second World War. Which leads us to Lafcadio Hearn (see my earlier post ‘Kiri sute gomen’) for Bynner was among the earliest pilgrims to Hearn’s house in Matsue (thousands have followed). Here is the poem which recounts this particular visit:

In the House of Lafcadio Hearn (1917)

I left my name today
Before him and Buddha,
And knelt among his books,
And had tea with his wife and two children
And bowed low to them . . .
And then in his garden,
When his wife picked for me the petals I wished,
His son said,
“But he liked the maple best,”
And brought me a spray of young leaves.

Compare this rather conventional poem to Bynner’s prose relation of the same visit, in his letter of May 1917 to Haniel Long:

A Japanese house. A barefoot boy of nineteen with three or four strong hairs on his chin and strong goggles on his eyes. The Hearn nose. Otherwise, Japanese. Shy, shining, abrupt manners. Little English—none at first. His mother, out but sent for. I was led past two or three simple purely Japanese rooms, then stockinged my way across the oil-cloth floor of a small room with a few pieces of European furniture, table and chairs, into a study lined with bookcases but otherwise Japanese. My card was laid before Hearn’s picture in the little Buddhist shrine. Mother came. No English. Little sister. Next to no eyes. Bows. Smiles. Tea. I seemed to be the first pilgrim. They didn’t even know that the house was mentioned in the guidebook. Their name is Koizumi. They were pleased. I asked for a blossom from the garden. She gave it to me. But Kazuo Koizumi crossed and brought me a spray of little leaves, saying, “Father liked best the maples.” And of that I made a poem.

Sometimes prose can be more ‘poetic’ than poetry. More affecting, more vivid, in this instance.

Let’s turn to the man himself, Lafcadio Hearn, about whom I’ve been meaning to write for more than a month now. My apologies to folks out there expecting the report from Meiji Mura, where I did visit in early March, two days before the tsunami hit Japan in fact. The Meiji village is an open air museum, and is a period building visitor’s delight: 67 historical edifices from the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods. Each building – and we are talking major architecture here – would be at first dismantled, then moved over from its original location to the village (situated in Gifu prefecture), where it would be finally reconstructed – brick by brick, plank by plank, nail by nail – to its original glory. Since 1965 various buildings have been strategically dotted over the 250 acres of rolling hills, overlooking the lake Iruka.

Surrounded by churches, hotels, theatres, opulent residences, Hearn’s summer house looked hardly imposing. That I didn’t mind. Yet, disappointing that the upper floor, where Hearn would stay while visiting a fishmonger Yamaguchi-san (‘the most amiable Japanese [Hearn] had ever known’), was off-limits. Instead, various house objects have been moved to the ground level and squeezed inside this tiny room. I rather liked those amateurish drawings, possibly done by Hearn, hanging from the ceiling giving the whole room a casual, life-like atmosphere (someone, remove those damn tablets!). 

Lafcadio is largely renowned for his ghost stories, the most famous collection being Kwaidan (stories were later used as the basis for Masaki Kobayashi’s eponymous, wonderfully expressionistic film from 1965). Hearn’s interest, even infatuation, with the supernatural and the macabre dates back to his Cincinnati days of 1870s (and quite possibly earlier), the period when he became known for his florid journalistic accounts of local murders, and his interest in the city’s disadvantaged. When the latter interest erupted into a love affair, Hearn went as far as marrying a black woman, an illegal act at the time (they divorced in 1877).

No wonder Lafcadio felt at home in Japan, the country’s folklore teeming with all kinds of monsters, elves and ghost legends. On the other hand, it is difficult not to conclude that it was his professional inquisitiveness, and most of all open-mindedness, which enabled Hearn to delve so deep into the psyche of the nation so alien and mysterious. At the same time he was very much aware, probably with a tinge of sadness, that the bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds would forever rest on shaky foundations for there could never be a complete understanding of each other:

Sympathy is limited by comprehension. We may sympathize to the
same degree that we understand. One may imagine that he
sympathizes with a Japanese or a Chinese; but the sympathy can
never be real to more than a small extent outside of the simplest
phases of common emotional life,--those phases in which child and
man are at one. The more complex feelings of the Oriental have
been composed by combinations of experiences, ancestral and
individual, which have had no really precise correspondence in
Western life, and which we can therefore not fully know. For
converse reasons, the Japanese cannot, even though they would,
give Europeans their best sympathy.

from ‘Kokoro’, part II: ‘The Genius of Japanese Civilization’, 1895 [http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8882]

Hearn’s intuitive, serpent-tongue-like inquisitiveness leads him to question the creeds of the Western thought once confronted with the doctrines and views of Buddhist teaching. To borrow a phrase from today's Guardian article (on Chris Hitchens), Hearn's open-minded curiosity is akin to a 'child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true'. Consider the following passage in which Lafcadio consults his learned friend about the case of a certain young priest from Osaka, who committed suicide as he found it impossible to reconcile his powerful worldly attraction to a woman with the equally powerful religious calling.

I called upon a Japanese friend, a Buddhist scholar, to ask some
questions about the religious aspects of the incident. Even as a
confession of human weakness, that suicide appeared to me a

It did not so appear to my friend. He spoke words of rebuke. He
reminded me that one who even suggested suicide as a means of
escape from sin had been pronounced by the Buddha a spiritual
outcast,--unfit to live with holy men. As for the dead priest, he
had been one of those whom the Teacher called fools. Only a fool
could imagine that by destroying his own body he was destroying
also within himself the sources of sin.

"But," I protested, "this man's life was pure.... Suppose he
sought death that he might not, unwittingly, cause others to
commit sin?"

My friend smiled ironically. Then he said:--"There was once a
lady of Japan, nobly torn and very beautiful, who wanted to
become a nun. She went to a certain temple, and made her wish
known. But the high-priest said to her, 'You are still very
young. You have lived the life of courts. To the eyes of worldly
men you are beautiful; and, because of your face, temptations to
return to the pleasures of the world will be devised for you.
Also this wish of yours may be due to some momentary sorrow.
Therefore, I cannot now consent to your request.' But she still
pleaded so earnestly, that he deemed it best to leave her
abruptly. There was a large hibachi--a brazier of glowing
charcoal--in the room where she found herself alone. She heated
the iron tongs of the brazier till they were red, and with them
horribly pierced and seamed her face, destroying her beauty
forever. Then the priest, alarmed by the smell of the burning,
returned in haste, and was very much grieved by what he saw. But
she pleaded again, without any trembling in her voice: 'Because I
was beautiful, you refused to take me. Will you take me now?' She
was accepted into the Order, and became a holy nun.... Well,
which was the wiser, that woman, or the priest you wanted to

"But was it the duty of the priest," I asked, "to disfigure his

"Certainly not! Even the woman's action would have been very
unworthy if done only as a protection against temptation. Self-
mutilation of any sort is forbidden by the law of Buddha; and
she transgressed. But, as she burned her face only that she might
be able to enter at once upon the Path, and not because afraid of
being unable by her own will to resist sin, her fault was a minor
fault. On the other hand, the priest who took his own life
committed a very great offense. He should have tried to convert
those who tempted him. This he was too weak to do. If he felt it
impossible to keep from sinning as a priest, then it would have
been better for him to return to the world, and there try to
follow the law for such as do not belong to the Order."

"According to Buddhism, therefore, he has obtained no merit?" I

"It is not easy to imagine that he has. Only by those ignorant of
the Law can his action be commended."

"And by those knowing the Law, what will be thought of the
results, the karma of his act?"

My friend mused a little; then he said, thoughtfully:--"The whole
truth of that suicide we cannot fully know. Perhaps it was not
the first time."

"Do you mean that in some former life also he may have tried to
escape from sin by destroying his own body?"

"Yes. Or in many former lives."

"What of his future lives?"

"Only a Buddha could answer that with certain knowledge."

"But what is the teaching?"

"You forget that it is not possible for us to know what was in
the mind of that man."

"Suppose that he sought death only to escape from sinning?"

"Then he will have to face the like temptation again and again,
and all the sorrow of it, and all the pain, even for a thousand
times a thousand times, until he shall have learned to master
himself. There is no escape through death from the supreme
necessity of self-conquest."

After parting with my friend, his words continued to haunt me;
and they haunt me still. They forced new thoughts about some
theories hazarded in the first part of this paper. I have not yet
been able to assure myself that his weird interpretation of the
amatory mystery is any less worthy of consideration than our
Western interpretations. I have been wondering whether the loves
that lead to death might not mean much more than the ghostly
hunger of buried passions. Might they not signify also the
inevitable penalty of long-forgotten sins?

                from ‘Kokoro’, part IX: ‘By Force of Karma’, 1895

Here is a one-minute Lafcadio Hearn intro video, including an outside view of his summering house at Meiji Mura:

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