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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Legend of the Golden Lotus

By Edward Greey (1835–1888)

[Born in Sandwich, Kent, England, 1835. Died in New York, N. Y., 1888. The Golden Lotus, and Other Legends of Japan. 1883.]

HEAVY drops of rain were plashing upon the dusty surface of the broad avenue of Shiba, Tokio. The pilgrims, who but a few moments before thronged the place, had vanished like “water in sand” into the adjoining restaurants; and the sellers of nondescript trifles, located beneath the magnificent trees, were anxiously glancing skyward, and hurriedly covering their wares with sheets of oiled paper.

My companion, a charming old Japanese gentleman, knitted his bushy eyebrows, bowed, smiled, and said in a gentle tone: “A hundred thousand pardons! I believe we are about to have a down-pour. I regret very much this inhospitable weather. Would you like to partake of a cup of tea?”

While he was speaking the rain began to descend in a torrent; whereupon we sought refuge in the nearest chaya, which was crowded with men and women in white robes.

We seated ourselves in a retired corner, and as we sipped our tea, listened to the babel of conversation around us. Presently a young bozu (priest) entered, and after shaking the moisture from his robes, said:

“It is almost time for the ho-dan (sermon); you, good people, ought not to miss such a great benefit.”

He was a plump, mild-featured lad, and his head was so closely shaven that it almost pained one to look at it.

The pilgrims, who, upon his entrance, had bowed their foreheads to the mats, murmured respectful replies, and rising, awaited his departure.

To my surprise he turned to my companion, and said: “All men ought to know of Buddha. It would be a benevolent act for you to induce that foreign gentleman to listen to the golden words. Who knows but that he might be led into the true path?”

My friend, who blushed to the tips of his ears, made a respectful gesture of caution, and whispered behind his fan: “Reverend sir, this gentleman understands what you say.”

The bozu, not at all disconcerted, bowed politely and invited me to accompany him, remarking: “We have many of your preachers in our country: surely you will not object to listen to one of ours.”

I replied that I had long wished to have such an opportunity, and that I should be most happy to accept his invitation.

While we were waiting for the shower to pass over, we had quite an interesting conversation; and when I hinted that his class had neglected to teach the masses the pure doctrines of Buddhism, and had allowed the people to remain in a shocking state of idolatry, he said: “I think you have been misinformed, or do not quite understand the movement that is taking place in our religious circles. It is true, before the arrival of you foreign gentlemen, there was great laxity among some of our sects; now all of us are doing our best to instruct our people in the Great Truth”: adding, “The rain has ceased, honorable sir from afar; will you please accompany me and listen to the imperfect teaching of a humble follower of Shaka?”

It was a novel sensation to find myself one of a procession of pilgrims, while the conversation of our devout companions severely taxed my gravity.

“Hai [yes],” said a weather-beaten dame, “those dark-eyed to-jin [foreigners] are always more amenable to reason than the oni [imps] with blue eyes. In fact, they are more human” (utterly disregarding the cautioning signals of my friend). “I am one of those who speak my mind. Nobody frightens me by scowling.”

“Pray excuse her,” whispered the worthy old gentleman. “Some people are so religious that they have enough faith for half a dozen. Such persons have very little sense”; adding sotto voce, “but then, she is only a woman.”

After a short walk we reached a shed-like building connected with one of the temples. Our guide ushered us in and saw us seated comfortably on the clean matted floor, then retired behind a screen at the upper end of the apartment.

The pilgrims behaved very much like our country folks at a church meeting. Some prayed, others stared about them, and a few yawned as though they considered the affair a bore.

After a brief interval an ascetic-visaged bozu glided from behind the screen, and advancing to a platform slightly raised above the level of the floor, knelt, bowed, and murmured the Buddhist prayer; then sitting up on his heels, glanced round at the congregation until he discovered me. This action reminded me of an incident I had once witnessed in a place of worship in far-off Massachusetts, and I smiled.

The bozu regarded me sorrowfully, after which he began his discourse in a low, musical voice, saying:

“Man is born without a knowledge of Amida [Buddha], therefore it is the teacher’s duty to instruct everybody, not only in the true doctrine, but also to enlighten people concerning the life of the Lord Shaka-ni-yorai.

“I will not insult your intelligence by telling you who Shaka was. Every child knows that” (glancing slyly at me). “The wonderful story of his life has been translated into all the languages of the world. Everybody knows how the king gave up his title and became a beggar, that he might give the true light to the world.

“Of late years we have had strange teachers coming from various foreign countries, offering us their religion” (slyly) “and their merchandise. What can they give you more precious and delightful than the Golden Lotos?” (In a chatty tone.)

“A few days ago I met a pilgrim who said to me: ‘Holy Father, tell me about the Golden Lotos. I do not understand why the Lord Shaka is seated upon that beautiful flower.’

“This ignorance amazed me; however, after I had told him the truth, I thought, ‘Possibly there may be many in our land as ignorant as he,’ therefore I made up my mind, the next time I spoke to the people, to explain this portion of the life of Shaka-ni-yorai.” (Very solemnly, with half-closed eyes.)

“The merciful Lord Shaka had concluded his meditations on the mountain of Dan-doku, and was descending the rocky path on his way toward the city. Night was approaching, the shadows were deepening, and no sound disturbed the stillness of the hour.

“As he reached a plateau at the crest of the last turn in the road, he heard some one exclaim in a loud voice: ‘Shio-giyo mu-jiyo! [The outward manner is not always an index to the natural disposition.]’

“The Lord Shaka was amazed and delighted, thinking, ‘What manner of being is this? I must question him and learn more.’

“He then approached the edge of the precipice, still hearing the voice repeating the wonderful sentence. On glancing down into the valley he beheld a horrible tatsu [dragon], which regarded him threateningly.”

The bozu changed his tone into a confidential one, and glancing at me, said:

“I will now explain the meaning of the dragon’s words.

“Man is naturally disposed to sin, and if he were left without teaching would descend to the lowest depths of degradation. The Lord Shaka came into the world to teach humility, gentleness, forbearance, and patience. Those who listen to his words will gradually lose their natural disposition to sin, and approach one step nearer to the Golden Lotos. This is the true explanation of ‘Shio-giyo mu-jiyo.’”

(Resuming his solemn manner.) “The Lord Shaka seated himself upon the edge of the rock, and addressing the monster, said: ‘How came you to learn one of the higher mysteries of Buddhism? Although I have been studying ten years, I have never heard this sentence. I think you must know others. Please tell them to me.’

“The dragon coiled itself tightly round the base of the rock, then said in a thunderous tone: ‘Ze-shio metsu-po! [All living things are antagonistic to the law of Buddha.]’”

(Resuming his confidential manner.) “This truth is eternal. How sad it is to know that every year millions of people die ignorant of the teachings of the Lord Shaka! I beseech you to keep the laws of Buddha, and to close your ears to the words of false priests who come from outside the civilized world to encourage the worst inclination of human nature,—that is, the violation of the Buddhistic law.”

This covert allusion to our missionaries was much relished by the old woman who had spoken her mind so freely. “Hai [yes],” she exclaimed, glancing fixedly at me, “yes, yes, yes, that is so!”

The preacher again resumed his earnest manner, saying:

“‘Ze-shio metsu-po!’ roared the dragon, regarding the sacred one. Then it held its peace for a space, whereupon the Lord Shaka said: ‘That is very good; now pray tell me the next sentence.’

“‘Shio-metsu metsu-i! [All living things must die.]’

“The Lord Shaka bowed and answered: ‘That sentence is better than the last; I would very much like to hear the next.’

“The dragon looked up at him with a hungry expression, and said: ‘The next truth is the last and most precious, but I cannot speak it until my hunger is appeased. I have not eaten since daybreak, and am very weak. Give me some food, and I will tell you the last of the four precious sentences.’

“‘I will give you anything you wish,’ replied the Lord Shaka. ‘You have such great wisdom that I will deny you nothing. What do you demand?’

“‘Human flesh,’ was the response.

“The Lord Shaka regarded the dragon pityingly, and said, ‘My religion forbids me to destroy life; but as I must, for the sake of the people, hear the final sentence, I will give myself to you. Now tell me all you know.’

“The monster opened its enormous mouth, and as it did so, said: ‘Jaku-metsu I-raku! [The greatest happiness is experienced after the soul has left the body.]’

“The Lord Shaka listened, then bowed his sacred head and sprang into the gaping mouth of the tatsu.

“When he touched the dragon’s jaws they split into eight parts, and changed into the eight petals of the Golden Lotos.”

(Earnestly and solemnly.) “As the Lord Shaka trusted himself to the horrible monster, so you must trust to His teachings. If you do so, and earnestly strive to attain perfection, you will, most assuredly, some day, learn the full meaning of the sentence, ‘Jaku-metsu I-raku!’”

A collection was made for the benefit of the preacher, after which the congregation silently dispersed.

When we reached the avenue, my companion remarked: “Although I am only an ignorant man, I cannot help making comparisons. After all, there is not much difference between our religions. You hope for a crown of glory, and I to some day take my place upon a Golden Lotos.”