On Rereading The Heike Monogatari

The people of this medieval Japanese epic are all Buddhists of a sort, just as the protagonists of the contemporary Western European epics are all Christians of a sort. Their Buddhism is, it is true, syncretised with the Shintō deities, but State Shintō is still seven centuries in the future. The two dominant Buddhist schools are Tendai, with the players performing pious exercises or more likely commissioning them from others, in precisely the same way as monastic observance in Christendom; and Pure Land, a characteristic Japanese approach that seems to resemble Luther’s salvation by faith alone.

What I did not find in the Heike Monogatari was what we have associated with the Japanese from the first Jesuit missionaries to James Clavell: a complete lack of the fear of death. There is, to be sure, a lot of suicide. Samurai men kill themselves by the sword, though the ritual of seppuku lies in the future; noble women drown themselves. But willing death is not at all the same thing as willing cessation of being. On the contrary, everybody in the epic reckons on coming back, quite possibly to be reunited with their loved ones in future existences. Some warriors even make death sound like a canny career move, such as the one who says, “If, as seems likely, I am named as a ringleader and imprisoned, banished or beheaded, I will consider it an honour in this life and something to remember in the next.” He makes his execution sound like a stop on the tourist trail.

Coexisting with reincarnation in the Heike Monogatari is a belief in Hell, the realm of the dead under Enma its royal employer of torturers. No character in the epic ever explains how these two concepts fit together and who gets which afterlife. In the same way, nobody is explicit about how return in another life goes with the paradise to which you will be conducted by the Amida Buddha if you sincerely recite the nembutsu. Perhaps the audience understood all this perfectly well, or perhaps the audience was itself muddled on the subject. At any rate, those in the epic who talk about the Pure Land are clearly yearning for it in precisely the same manner and degree as medieval Christians yearn for Heaven. However else we might describe the mentality of the death-defying samurai and their womenfolk in the Heike Monogatari, it is by no means a readiness for extinction. A conquest of the animal will-to-live it is not.

Posted on February 17, 2018 at 16:35 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault

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