Tales of Old Japan



"If a man loses a fowl or a dog, he knows how to reclaim it. If he loses his soul, he knows not how to reclaim it. The true path of learning has no other function than to teach us how to reclaim lost souls." This parable has been declared to us by Môshi. If a dog, or a chicken, or a pet cat does not come home at the proper time, its master makes a great fuss about hunting for it, and wonders can it have been killed by a dog or by a snake, or can some man have stolen it; and ransacking the three houses opposite, and his two next-door neighbours' houses, as if he were seeking for a lost child, cries, "Pray, sir, has my tortoiseshell cat been with you? Has my pet chicken been here?" That is the way in which men run about under such circumstances. It's a matter of the utmost importance.

And yet to lose a dog or a tame chicken is no such terrible loss after all. But the soul, which is called the lord of the body, is the master of our whole selves. If men part with this soul for the sake of other things, then they become deaf to the admonitions of their parents, and the instructions of their superiors are to them as the winds of heaven. Teaching is to them like pouring water over a frog's face; they blink their eyes, and that is all; they say, "Yes, yes!" with their mouths, but their hearts are gone, and, seeing, they are blind, hearing, they are deaf. Born whole and sound, by their own doing they enter the fraternity of cripples. Such are all those who lose their souls. Nor do they think of inquiring or looking for their lost soul. "It is my parents' fault; it is my master's fault; it is my husband's fault; it is my elder brother's fault; it is Hachibei who is a rogue; it is 0 Matsu who is a bad woman." They content themselves with looking at the faults of others, and do not examine their own consciences, nor search their own hearts. Is not this a cruel state of things? They set up a hue and cry for a lost dog or a pet chicken, but for this all-important soul of theirs they make no search. What mistaken people! For this reason the sages, mourning over such a state of things, have taught us what is the right path of man; and it is the receiving of this teaching that is called learning. The main object of learning is the examination and searching of our own hearts; therefore the text says, "The true path of learning has no other function than to teach us how to reclaim lost souls." This is an exhaustive exposition of the functions of learning. That learning has no other object, we have this gracious pledge and guarantee from the sage. As for the mere study of the antiquities and annals of China and Japan, and investigation into literature, these cannot be called learning, which is above all things an affair of the soul. All the commentaries and all the books of all the teachers in the world are but so many directories by which to find out the whereabouts of our own souls. This search after our own souls is that which I alluded to just now as the examination of our consciences. To disregard the examination of our consciences is a terrible thing, of which it is impossible to foresee the end; on the other hand, to practise it is most admirable, for by this means we can on the spot attain filial piety and fidelity to our masters. Virtue and vice are the goals to which the examination and non-examination of our consciences lead. As it has been rightly said, benevolence and malice are the two roads which man follows. Upon this subject I have a terrible and yet a very admirable story to tell you. Although I dare say you are very drowsy, I must beg you to listen to me.

In a certain part of the country there was a well-to-do farmer, whose marriage had brought him one son, whom he petted beyond all measure, as a cow licks her calf. So by degrees the child became very sly: he used to pull the horses' tails, and blow smoke into the bulls' nostrils, and bully the neighbours' children in petty ways and make them cry. From a peevish child he grew to be a man, and unbearably undutiful to his parents. Priding himself on a little superior strength, he became a drunkard and a gambler, and learned to wrestle at fairs. He would fight and quarrel for a trifle, and spent his time in debauchery and riotous living. If his parents remonstrated with him, he would raise his voice and abuse them, using scurrilous language. "It's all very well your abusing me for being dissolute and disobedient. But, pray, who asked you to bring me into the world? You brought me into the world, and I have to thank you for its miseries; so now, if you hate dissolute people, you had better put me back where I came from, and I shall be all right again." This was the sort of insolent answer he would give his parents, who, at their wits' end, began to grow old in years. And as he by degrees grew more and more of a bully, unhappy as he made them, still he was their darling, and they could not find it in their hearts to turn him out of the house and disinherit him. So they let him pursue his selfish course; and he went on from worse to worse, knocking people down, breaking their arms, and getting up great disturbances. It is unnecessary to speak of his parents' feelings. Even his relations and friends felt as if nails were being hammered into their breasts. He was a thoroughly wicked man.

Now no one is from his mother's womb so wicked as this; but those who persist in selfishness lose their senses, and gradually reach this pitch of wickedness. What a terrible thing is this throwing away of our hearts!

Well, this man's relations and friends very properly urged his parents to disown him; but he was an only child, and so his parents, although they said, "To-day we really will disinherit him," or "To-morrow we really will break off all relations with him," still it was all empty talk; and the years and months passed by, until the scapegrace reached his twenty-sixth year, having heaped wickedness upon wickedness; and who can tell how much trouble he brought upon his family, who were always afraid of hearing of some new enormity? At last they held a family council, and told the parents that matters had come to such a pass that if they did not disown their son the rest of the family must needs break off all communication with them: if he were allowed to go on in his evil courses, the whole village, not to speak of his relations, would be disgraced; so either the parents, against whom, however, there was no ill-will felt, must be cut by the family, or they must disinherit their son: to this appeal they begged to have a distinct answer. The parents, reflecting that to separate themselves from their relations, even for the sake of their own son, would be an act of disrespect to their ancestors, determined to invite their relations to assemble and draw up a petition to the Government for leave to disinherit their son, to which petition the family would all affix their seals according to form; so they begged them to come in the evening, and bring their seals with them. This was their answer.

There is an old saw which says, "The old cow licks her calf, and the tigress carries her cub in her mouth." If the instinct of beasts and birds prompt them to love their young, how much the more must it be a bitter thing for a man to have to disown his own son! All this trouble was the consequence of this youth casting his heart from him. Had he examined his own conscience, the storm of waves and of wind would not have arisen, and all would have been calm. But as he refused to listen to his conscience, his parents, much against their will, were forced to visit him with the punishment of disinheritance, which he had brought upon himself. A sad thing indeed! In the poems of his Reverence Tokuhon, a modern poet, there is the following passage: "Since Buddha thus winds himself round our hearts, let the man who dares to disregard him fear for his life." The allusion is to the great mercy and love of the gods. The gods wish to make men examine their consciences, and, day and night, help men to discern that which is evil; but, although they point out our desires and pleasures, our lusts and passions, as things to be avoided, men turn their backs upon their own consciences. The love of the gods is like the love of parents for their children, and men treat the gods as undutiful children treat their parents. "Men who dare to disregard the gods, let them fear for their lives." I pray you who hear me, one and all, to examine your own consciences and be saved.

To return to the story of the vagabond son. As it happened, that day he was gambling in a neighbouring village, when a friend from his own place came up and told him that his relations had met together to disinherit him; and that, fine fellow as he was, he would find it a terrible thing to be disowned. Before he had heard him half out, the other replied in a loud voice—

"What, do you mean to say that they are holding a family council to-night to disinherit me? What a good joke! I'm sure I don't want to be always seeing my father's and mother's blubbering faces; it makes me quite sick to think of them: it's quite unbearable. I'm able to take care of myself; and, if I choose to go over to China, or to live in India, I should like to know who is to prevent me? This is the very thing above all others for me. I'll go off to the room where they are all assembled, and ask them why they want to disinherit me. I'll just swagger like Danjurô 91 the actor, and frighten them into giving me fifty or seventy ounces of silver to get rid of me, and put the money in my purse, and be off to Kiôto or Osaka, where I'll set up a tea-house on my own account; and enjoy myself to my heart's content! I hope this will be a great night for me, so I'll just drink a cup of wine for luck beforehand."

And so, with a lot of young devils of his own sort, be fell to drinking wine in teacups,92 so that before nightfall they were all as drunk as mud. Well, then, on the strength of this wine, as he was setting out for his father's house, he said, "Now, then, to try my luck," and stuck a long dirk in his girdle. He reached his own village just before nightfall, thinking to burst into the place where he imagined his relations to be gathered together, turning their wisdom-pockets inside out, to shake out their small provision of intelligence in consultation; and he fancied that, if he blustered and bullied, he would certainly get a hundred ounces of silver out of them. Just as he was about to enter the house, he reflected—

"If I show my face in the room where my relations are gathered together, they will all look down on the ground and remain silent; so if I go in shouting and raging, it will be quite out of harmony; but if they abuse me, then I shall be in the right if I jump in on them and frighten them well. The best plan will be for me to step out of the bamboo grove which is behind the house, and to creep round the verandah, and I can listen to these fellows holding their consultation: they will certainly be raking up all sorts of scandal about me. It will be all in harmony, then, if I kick down the shutters and sliding-doors with a noise like thunder. And what fun it will be!"

As he thought thus to himself, he pulled off his iron-heeled sandals, and stuck them in his girdle, and, girding up his dress round his waist, left the bamboo grove at the back of the house, and, jumping over the garden wicket, went round the verandah and looked in. Peeping through a chink in the shutters, he could see his relations gathered together in council, speaking in whispers. The family were sitting in a circle, and one and all were affixing their seals to the petition of disinheritance. At last, having passed from hand to hand, the document came round to where the two parents were sitting. Their son, seeing this, said—

"Come, now, it's win or lose! My parents' signing the paper shall be the sign for me to kick open the door and jump into the middle of them."

So, getting ready for a good kick, he held his breath and looked on.

What terrible perversion man can allow his heart to come to! Môshi has said that man by nature is good; but although not a particle of fault can be found with what he has said, when the evil we have learned becomes a second nature, men reach this fearful degree of wickedness. When men come to this pass, Kôshi93 and Môshi themselves might preach to them for a thousand days, and they would not have strength to reform. Such hardened sinners deserve to be roasted in iron pots in the nethermost hell. Now, I am going to tell you how it came about that the vagabond son turned over a new leaf and became dutiful, and finally entered paradise. The poet says, "Although the hearts of parents are not surrounded by dark night, how often they stray from the right road in their affection for their children!"

When the petition of disinheritance came round to the place where the two parents were sitting, the mother lifted up her voice and wept aloud; and the father, clenching his toothless gums to conceal his emotion, remained with his head bent down: presently, in a husky voice, he said, "Wife, give me the seal!"

But she returned no answer, and with tears in her eyes took a leather purse, containing the seal, out of a drawer of the cupboard and placed it before her husband. All this time the vagabond son, holding his breath, was peeping in from outside the shutters. In the meanwhile, the old man slowly untied the strings of the purse, and took out the seal, and smeared on the colouring matter. Just as he was about to seal the document, his wife clutched at his hand and said, "Oh, pray wait a little."

The father replied, "Now that all our relations are looking on, you must not speak in this weak manner."

But she would not listen to what he said, but went on—

"Pray listen to what I have to say. It is true that if we were to give over our house to our undutiful son, in less than three years the grass would be growing in its place, for he would be ruined. Still, if we disinherit our child—the only child that we have, either in heaven or upon earth—we shall have to adopt another in his place. Although, if the adopted son turned out honest and dutiful, and inherited our property, all would be well; still, what certainty is there of his doing so? If, on the other hand, the adopted son turned out to be a prodigal, and laid waste our house, what unlucky parents we should be! And who can say that this would not be the case? If we are to be ruined for the sake of an equally wicked adopted son, I had rather lose our home for the sake of our own son, and, leaving out old familiar village as beggars, seek for our lost boy on foot. This is my fervent wish. During fifty years that we have lived together, this has been the only favour that I have ever asked of you. Pray listen to my prayer, and put a stop to this act of disinheritance. Even though I should become a beggar for my son's sake, I could feel no resentment against him."

So she spoke, sobbing aloud. The relations, who heard this, looked round at one another, and watched the father to see what he would do; and he (who knows with what thoughts in his head?) put back the seal into the leather purse, and quickly drew the strings together, and pushed back the petition to the relations.

"Certainly," said he, "I have lost countenance, and am disgraced before all my family; however, I think that what the good wife has just said is right and proper, and from henceforth I renounce all thoughts of disinheriting my son. Of course you will all see a weakness of purpose in what I say, and laugh at me as the cause of my son's undutiful conduct. But laugh away: it won't hurt me. Certainly, if I don't disinherit this son of mine, my house will be ruined before three years are over our heads. To lay waste the house of generations upon generations of my ancestors is a sin against those ancestors; of this I am well aware. Further, if I don't disinherit my son, you gentlemen will all shun me. I know that I am cutting myself off from my relations. Of course you think that when I leave this place I shall be dunning you to bestow your charity upon me; and that is why you want to break off relations with me. Pray don't make yourselves uneasy. I care no more for my duties to the world, for my impiety to my ancestors, or for my separation from my family. Our son is our only darling, and we mean to go after him, following him as beggars on foot. This is our desire. We shall trouble you for no alms and for no charity. However we may die, we have but one life to lose. For our darling son's sake, we will lay ourselves down and die by the roadside. There our bodies shall be manure for the trees of the avenue. And all this we will endure cheerfully, and not utter a complaint. Make haste and return home, therefore, all of you. From to-morrow we are no longer on speaking terms. As for what you may say to me on my son's account, I do not care."

And as his wife had done, he lifted up his voice and wept, shedding manly tears. As for her, when she heard that the act of disinheritance was not to be drawn up, her tears were changed to tears of joy. The rest of the family remained in mute astonishment at so unheard-of a thing, and could only stare at the faces of the two old people.

You see how bewildered parents must be by their love for their children, to be so merciful towards them. As a cat carrying her young in her mouth screens it from the sun at one time and brings it under the light at another, so parents act by their children, screening their bad points and bringing out in relief their good qualities. They care neither for the abuse of others, nor for their duties to their ancestors, nor for the wretched future in store for themselves. Carried away by their infatuation for their children, and intoxicated upon intoxication, the hearts of parents are to be pitied for their pitifulness. It is not only the two parents in my story who are in this plight; the hearts of all parents of children all over the world are the same. In the poems of the late learned Ishida it is written, "When I look round me and see the hearts of parents bewildered by their love for their children, I reflect that my own father and mother must be like them." This is certainly a true saying.

To return to the story: the halo of his parents' great kindness and pity penetrated the very bowels of the prodigal son. What an admirable thing! When he heard it, terrible and sly devil as he had been, he felt as if his whole body had been squeezed in a press; and somehow or other, although the tears rose in his breast, he could not for shame lift up his voice and weep. Biting the sleeve of his dress, he lay down on the ground and shed tears in silence. What says the verse of the reverend priest Eni? "To shed tears of gratitude one knows not why." A very pretty poem indeed! So then the vagabond son, in his gratitude to his parents, could neither stand nor sit. You see the original heart of man is by nature bright virtue, but by our selfish pursuit of our own inclinations the brilliancy of our original virtue is hidden.

To continue: the prodigal was pierced to the core by the great mercy shown by his parents, and the brilliancy of his own original good heart was enticed back to him. The sunlight came forth, and what became of all the clouds of self-will and selfishness? The clouds were all dispelled, and from the bottom of his soul there sprang the desire to thank his parents for their goodness. We all know the story of the rush-cutter who saw the moon rising between the trees on a moorland hill so brightly, that he fancied it must have been scoured with the scouring-rush which grew near the spot. When a man, who has been especially wicked, repents and returns to his original heart, he becomes all the more excellent, and his brightness is as that of the rising moon scoured. What an admirable thing this is! So the son thought to enter the room at once and beg his parents' forgiveness; but he thought to himself, "Wait a bit. If I burst suddenly into the room like this, the relations will all be frightened and not know what to make of it, and this will be a trouble to my parents. I will put on an innocent face, as if I did not know what has been going on, and I'll go in by the front door, and beg the relations to intercede for me with my parents." With stealthy step he left the back of the house, and went round to the front. When he arrived there, he purposely made a great noise with his iron-heeled sandals, and gave a loud cough to clear his throat, and entered the room. The relations were all greatly alarmed; and his parents, when they saw the face of their wicked son, both shed tears. As for the son, he said not a word, but remained weeping, with his head bent down. After a while, he addressed the relations and said, "Although I have frequently been threatened with disinheritance, and although in those days I made light of it, to-night, when I heard that this family council had assembled, I somehow or other felt my heart beset by anxiety and grief. However I may have heaped wickedness upon wickedness up to the present moment, as I shall certainly now mend my ways, I pray you to delay for a while to-night's act of disinheritance. I do not venture to ask for a long delay,—I ask but for thirty days; and if within that time I shall not have given proofs of repentance, disinherit me: I shall not have a word to say. I pray you, gentlemen, to intercede with my parents that they may grant this delay of thirty days, and to present them my humble apologies." With this he rubbed his head on the mat, as a humble suppliant, in a manner most foreign to his nature.

The relations, after hearing the firm and resolute answer of the parents, had shifted about in their places; but, although they were on the point of leaving the house, had remained behind, sadly out of harmony; when the son came in, and happily with a word set all in tune again. So the relations addressed the parents, and said, "Pray defer to-night's affair;" and laid the son's apologies at their feet. As for the parents, who would not have disinherited their son even had he not repented, how much the more when they heard what he said did they weep for joy; and the relations, delighted at the happy event, exhorted the son to become really dutiful; and so that night's council broke up. So this son in the turn of a hand became a pious son, and the way in which he served his parents was that of a tender and loving child. His former evil ways he extinguished utterly.

The fame of this story rose high in the world; and, before half a year had passed, it reached the ears of the lord of the manor, who, when he had put on his noble spectacles and investigated the case, appointed the son to be the head man of his village. You may judge by this what this son's filial piety effected. Three years after these events, his mother, who was on her death-bed, very sick, called for him and said, "When some time since the consultation was being held about disinheriting you, by some means or other your heart was turned, and since then you have been a dutiful son above all others. If at that time you had not repented, and I had died in the meanwhile, my soul would have gone to hell without fail, because of my foolish conduct towards you. But, now that you have repented, there is nothing that weighs upon me, and there can be no mistake about my going to paradise. So the fact of my becoming one of the saints will all be the work of your filial piety." And the story goes, that with these words the mother, lifting up her hands in prayer, died.

To be sure, by the deeds of the present life we may obtain a glimpse into the future. If a man's heart is troubled by his misdeeds in this life, it will again be tortured in the next. The troubled heart is hell. The heart at rest is paradise. The trouble or peace of parents depends upon their children. If their children are virtuous, parents are as the saints: if their children are wicked, parents suffer the tortures of the damned. If once your youthful spirits, in a fit of heedlessness, have led you to bring trouble upon your parents and cause them to weep, just consider the line of argument which I have been following. From this time forth repent and examine your own hearts. If you will become dutiful, your parents from this day will live happy as the saints. But if you will not repent, but persist in your evil ways, your parents will suffer the pains of hell. Heaven and hell are matters of repentance or non-repentance. Repentance is the finding of the lost heart, and is also the object of learning. I shall speak to you further upon this point to-morrow evening.

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