‘The Nihon-ryōiki’ by Kyōkai, translated by Burton Watson (Review)

Over the last few years, I’ve gradually been making my way through the classics of Japanese literature, and I’ve come (like many readers) to have a few favourites among the publishers in this area.  One publishing house of note is Columbia University Press, who make J-lit classics (and I mean classics) available for everyone.  However, I’m not sure that today’s choice is one for your casual reader…

The Nihon ryōiki, or Record of Miraculous Events in Japan (translated by Burton Watson, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books***) is something a little different.  It dates from around 822, and the writer, the monk Kyōkai, is actually more of an editor than an author.  He collected stories from around the region and put them together in a book of ‘setsuwa’ – anecdotal tales promoting the virtues of the recently-imported Buddhist faith.  These stories were for explaining the importance of adherence to religion to the common folk who had little idea of Buddhism (and virtually no idea of literacy).

In effect, these are classic tales which play a similar part in Japanese literature as, say, Aesop’s fables do in the west.  Short folk tales with a Buddhist slant, they’re little vignettes which are part of Japanese culture and, therefore of interest to anyone wanting to look a little more closely at Japanese literary history.

As mentioned above, their primary purpose was to promote Buddhist beliefs.  The stories are rather short, many taking up less than a page, with some comprising a single paragraph, and they display examples of ‘karmic retribution’ or ‘karmic causality’ (in layman’s terms, what goes around comes around…).  Each story hammers the point home in the last paragraph with a summary of the tale and a heavy moral:

“In appraisal we say: The Venerable Monk went far away to study, met with trouble, and could not return.  Having no way to escape, he rested on the bridge, meditating on the Sage or Bodhisattva.  He depended on the power of the heart, and this caused the appearance of the old man, who disappeared suddenly once they had parted.  In time, he made an image and always paid it honor, never ceasing his devotions.”
p.26, 1:6 (Columbia University Press, 2013)

In fact, other stories go further, claiming that ‘It was a miraculous event!’ or asking the reader ‘How can we fail to believe in the law of karmic causality?’.  Which can get a tad annoying at times 😉

Though the stories are short, the titles are very long, and rather illuminating.  When you read headings like ‘On Paying for and Freeing Turtles and Being Rewarded Immediately and Saved by them’, you have a fair idea what will be happening over the next page or two…  Overall, there is a feeling of common-sense teachings with familiar morals: the idea of might not being right; doing to others as you would have them do unto you; and the importance of living right, rather than being especially pious.

After a while, recurring themes begin to stand out from the blur of short tales.  One is that of reincarnation, with debtors in particular often falling foul of this precept (and being born as an ox in the next life).  Another is the frequent karmic penalty incurred for mistreating animals, an offence usually ‘rewarded’ by some healthy suffering for the wrong-doer.  Filial disobedience is (naturally) high on the agenda too, and those who disrespect their parents are likely to meet a sad demise.

It’s not all about punishment in this world though.  Many of the tales feature journeys to the kingdom of King Yama, a Buddhist equivalent of the western underworld of Hades.  Monks die and come back to life after a few days (luckily, they usually have the foresight to tell people in advance not to burn the body..), and after their reawakening, they interpret the events of the ‘journey’ (or dream).  These usually lead to improvements in future conduct (as the chanting and copying of sutras does your karmic soul the world of good).

The main idea though is a predictable one – if you mess with monks, or misuse temple funds, you’ll meet with a painful, gruesome end…

“The officiating monk saw him and tried to explain, giving reasons of doctrine, but he refused to listen.  “It’s no use explaining!” he said.  “You’re trying to seduce my wife!  You should be knocked in the head, you worthless monk”  His language was too vile to describe in detail.  He called his wife to go home, and when they got there he violated her.  But an ant bit his penis, and he died in great pain.” (2:11, p.84)

Ouch.  Please note, the punishment was for the ‘vile language’ and not his behaviour towards his wife – these were very different times…

Burton Watson’s translation reads fairly smoothly, and the style chosen makes the stories easy to read.  It is am academic text though, and as such is replete with footnotes.  While they can get repetitive after a while, they are useful – and some are surprisingly candid:

“Some kind of stunt?  The meaning escapes me.” (1:26, p.46)

It’s nice to have honesty in footnotes 😉

However, the short nature of texts, and the fact that many ideas are repeated, means that casual readers may get frustrated.  After the tenth talking ox, your eyes may well glaze over, and even the visits to Hell will pall after a while.  In fact, for those who enjoy a good narrative, the lack of a progression in the stories may make this a challenging read at times.

But it all depends on how you approach the book; it’s definitely a resource to be dipped into.  The Nihon ryōiki runs to just over 200 pages, and I read it over the course of five days (and perhaps should have stretched it out more).  As I said in the introduction, it may not be ideal for the complete J-Lit novice, but for those (like me…) who have a deeper interest in Japanese literature, it’s a book which will add an extra dimension to your private library 🙂

***Footprint Books assure me that this book is available in Australia and New Zealand, both online and through bookshops 🙂


8 thoughts on “‘The Nihon-ryōiki’ by Kyōkai, translated by Burton Watson (Review)

  1. Please note that other earlier translations exist, viz.:
    1) English: Nakamura Kyoko Motomochi [Übs., Hrsg.]; Miraculous stories from the Japanese Buddhist tradition – the Nihon ryōiki of the monk Kyōkai; Cambridge 1973 (Harvard University Press); Richmond (UK) 1997 (Curzon); 322 S.; ISBN 0-7007-0449-3
    2) 68 legends in Russian: Meshcheryakow, Alexander N.; Yaponskie legendy o chudsakh (ix-ii vv.); Moskau 1984
    3) a mervelous piece of scholarship in German: Dr. Hermann Bohner; „Legenden aus der Frühzeit des japanischen Buddhismus,“ Tōkyō 1934 (OAG), online: http://zenwort.lima-city.de/nihonryoiki/
    4) Vietnamese: Nguyễn Thị Oanh et. al; Nhật bản linh di̲ ký; Hà Nội 1999 (Nhà xuất bản Văn học), 539 S.


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