When it comes to Japanese literature, my comfort zone tends to be early-to-mid twentieth century (with the exception of contemporary writers such as the Murakamis). However, I’m not averse to taking the odd trip further back in time, as a quick glance at my list of J-Lit reviews will show, so I was happy to take Columbia University Press up on their offer to review the paperback edition of another classic. Today’s choice dates from the start of the 14th Century, and it poses a rather clear question – do you believe in miracles?
Royall Tyler is well-known for his efforts with major works in Japanese Literature (e.g. The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike), and while The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity doesn’t quite match up to those in terms of length, it’s certainly up there in importance. Nara, the Imperial capital immediately before Kyōto, is home to a number of shrines and temples, and Kasuga-taisha (while now slightly overshadowed by the Tōdai-ji complex with its ‘Big Buddha’) is one of the most famous. At the foot of Mikasa-yama, surrounded by parkland (and wild deer!), it’s a beautiful location, but, more importantly, home to some of the most important Gods in the Shinto religion.
In 1309, a number of monks from the neighbouring temple complex of Kōfuku-ji dedicated a work of art to the Kasuga Deity, a collection of twenty scrolls with illustrations of the miracles the Daimyōjin (Great Deity) had performed over the centuries, with text accompanying the art. According to Tyler, much of the academic focus awarded the scrolls in the past has been from art historians, meaning the stories of the miracles themselves haven’t received much attention from literary scholars – which is where The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity comes in 🙂
The work consists of much more than the translations of the stories on the scroll (which is a good thing as it would probably only be sixty pages or so if that were the case…). The first half of the book introduces us to the history of the scrolls, explaining how they came into being. The work was commissioned to show the importance of Kasuga to the Fujiwara (Taira) clan of nobles, and the scrolls were a team effort by a relatively small number of high-status monks:
The Kasuga Deity was the tutelary deity (ujigami) of the Fujiwara, while for Kōfukuji he was not only a protector but also a source of legitimacy for the temple’s power. In the first years of the fourteenth century, this convergence of enthusiasm produced one of the major artistic achievements of the Kamakura period:the superb emakimono (“set of painted handscrolls”) entitled Kasuga Gongen genki (“The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity”).
pp.1/2 (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Tyler then goes on to discuss the history of the scrolls, including a painstaking record of their travels, sources and inspirations.
However, The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity has just as much to say about the period the scrolls appeared in as about the work itself. There’s frequent emphasis on the connection between the shrine (Kasuga) and the neighbouring temple (Kōfuku-ji), and we learn how Kōfuku-ji gradually rose in importance, along with the Kasuga cult. Of more interest, perhaps, to the militarily-minded is the description of political infighting and the intense rivalry between Kōfuku-ji and Mount Hiei (home of a rival school of Buddhist thought). Each temple complex had its own armed, trained monks, who were only too keen to rush off to Kyōto to demand wrongs be redressed – a church militant if ever there was one 😉
Perhaps the most fascinating section looks at the Deity itself. When we talk of God, most people would have a fairly clear image in mind, but that’s unlikely to be of much help here:
So far, conciseness and the standards of English grammar have made it necessary to write of “the Kasuga deity” as though the deity were singular, and for that matter male. By now, of course, it is obvious that the truth is a little more varied. (p.111)
The Gods of the shrine come from Shinto creation myths, but (in a neat example of cultural appropriation) they’re also incarnations of Buddhas. Together, they form one Deity with many incarnations, not all of them male – oh, and the buildings at the shrine and the deities are one and the same… Luckily, Tyler provides some perspective:
It is easier to remember that superficially, at least, the problem is largely an artifact of language. Having no masculine or feminine gender and no singular or plural inflections to manipulate, the Japanese speaker does not need to worry about it. (p.113)
Glad that’s sorted, then!
The second half of the book moves on to the miracles (the Genki) themselves, providing a series of short sketches. Many show encounters between the Deity and his followers over the centuries preceding the creation of the scrolls, with the Daimyōjin appearing in dreams or possessing various messengers (who could be servants, high-ranking monks or even retired Emperors). The stories offer an insight into temple life and history, showing the political upheaval of the twelfth century and the frequent skirmishes between rival temples (such as when Kōfukuji monks storm off to Kyōto to do battle with monks from Mount Hiei after the burning of ‘their’ Kyomizu-dera…).
On the whole, the texts are short pieces (often outdone in length by the following notes) showing the immediate effects of piety and prayers to the Kasuga Daimyōjin. One example of this is the story of Sanetsune and Lord Chisokuin, where the Lord’s illness is caused by the arrest of the pious old man. Once Sanetsune is summoned, and prayers are directed towards Kasuga, the illness vanishes. In fact, the Deity’s powers even extend beyond the grave, with several examples showing devout monks and laymen being revived after their passing. On awakening, they tell of their encounters with the King of Hell, who politely allows them to return to the land of the living when a manifestation of the Deity demands it.
There is a flipside to this awesome display of might; if you get on the wrong side of the Deity, you’re in trouble, and no amount of prayers can save you. In one of the miracles, the nobleman Taira no Chikamune is involved in the beating and killing of a Kasuga servant. He subsequently falls ill, and some of his retainers travel to Kasuga to offer prayers and curry favour with the Daimyōjin. The Deity manifests itself to tell them to save their breath:
Sannō Jūzenji possessed the medium and announced, “It is not because of fixed karma that this man is ill, nor is King Enma insisting on calling him to his palace because he has accomplished no great good. No, he is being summoned because Kasuga no Daimyōjin has rejected him. He has no more than a day or two to live. Do not pray on his behalf. Leave him immediately.” Realizing that his efforts were useless, the healer withdrew. (p.198)
There’s no beating about the bush here. Chikamune must die – and so he does…
Most of the personalities featured here appear in only one short piece, but some of the monks are more equal than others. For example, two scrolls (17 & 18) tell of the exploits of Myōe Shōnin, a particular favourite of the Deity. About to depart for India on a pilgrimage, he is prevented from leaving (twice!) by the Deity, who possesses a pregnant woman in order to give his commands. These sections are slightly longer and more detailed than most, and the vision of the woman ascending to the ceiling and the overpowering fragrance she exudes linger in the memory – as does the way those witnessing the miracle start licking the woman’s hands and feet. It’s an interesting set of passages to say the least…
The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes. I’ve dabbled in the area of classical Japanese writing before, and certain names were familiar (especially the Taira connections provided by The Tale of the Heike), but I was lost at times in the religious doctrine and copious footnotes, and I suspect that a novice (no pun intended) would struggle to make headway through the intricacies of Buddhist prayers.
Still, it’s a fascinating journey into the past, particularly if you’ve ever visited the region where it all takes place. During my time in Japan, I stayed in Nara twice, and while Tōdai-ji is now the main draw, I did visit both Kasuga-taisha and Kōfuku-ji (or what is left of it…), even if I was unaware of their significance at the time. What I love about Nara is that this area of the city has been left untouched by modern urban sprawl, with the contemporary centre situated to the west, away from the ancient capital – the deer still roam the Kasuga precincts, and the giant Torii gates still stand on the boundary between Kasuga and the Kōfuku-ji complex.
As I read of the miracles, and followed the monks on their paths between the buildings, I could almost see where they were going – in many cases more than a thousand years ago. Many of the temple buildings no longer stand, and Kōfuku-ji is now a pale reflection of the religious and military power it once was (sic transit gloria mundi…), but at least we have the stories of the miracles to show us how life was so many years ago. I certainly enjoyed my visit to ancient Yamato, and I’m sure I’ll be taking another (vicarious) trip at some point 🙂