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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Mediæval Literature

By Japanese Literature

  • 1200–1600 A.D.

    Meditations of a Hermit
  • [From the ‘Hōjōki,’ 1212; translated by J. M. Dixon. The writer, Kamo no Chomei, the son of a priest, disappointed with life, sought seclusion from the world in a ten-feet-square hut (hōjō), on Mt. Ohara. There he made a record of his thoughts, this ‘Hōjōki,’ now valued as a literary treasure.]

  • THE WATER incessantly changes as the stream glides calmly on; the spray that hangs over a cataract appears for a moment only to vanish away. Such is the fate of mankind on this earth and of the houses in which they dwell. If we gaze at a mighty town we behold a succession of walls, surmounted by tiled roofs which vie with one another in loftiness. These have been from generation to generation the abodes of the rich and of the poor, and yet none resist the destructive influence of time. Some are allowed to fall into decay; others are replaced by new structures. Their fate is shared by their inmates. If after the lapse of a long period we return to a familiar locality, we scarcely recognize one in ten of the faces we were accustomed to meet long ago. In the morning we behold the light, and next evening we depart for our long home. Our destiny resembles the foam on the water. Whence came we, and whither are we tending? What things vex us, what things delight us, in this world of unreality? It is impossible truly to say. A house and its occupant, changing perpetually, may well be compared to a morning-glory flecked with dew. Sometimes it happens that the dew evaporates and leaves the flower to die in the first glare of day; sometimes the dew survives the flower, but only for a few hours; before sunset the dew also has disappeared.

  • Vagrant Reveries
  • [From ‘Tsure-zure Gusa,’ 1345; translated by Charles S. Eby. Yoshida Kenkō, the writer of these ‘Weeds of Idleness,’ was a court official, who upon the death of the Mikado entered the priesthood and became a monk. He was poet as well as prose writer; was also a profound student of philosophy and of the Chinese classics.]

  • IF man did not disappear like the dew of the field, or vanish like the mists of Toribe hills, and continued his stay upon earth, then tenderness of heart, sympathy, pity, would perish. The unsettled changeableness of the present sublunary life is vastly to be preferred.

    OF all living creatures man is the most long-lived. The ephemeral gnat comes into existence in the morning, and vanishes ere evening falls. The summer cicada knows never a spring or autumn. One year of a man’s life in comparison with these things must be considered laborious and long. A life of a thousand years, if passed in discontent and clung to, would seem to fly away as a dream of the night. What profit is there in clinging to a life which results in deformity, and cannot after all continue forever? Longevity produces shame and disgrace. It is better to die before forty years are passed, and thus escape the shame of decrepitude.

    A QUIET talk with one perfectly of your own turn of mind is a very pleasant thing. It would give one great delight to speak freely with such a friend about things that are pleasant, and about the instability of earthly joys. But no such friendship is possible.

    THE CHANGES of the seasons are full of things which arouse our souls to deep emotion.

    TO sit opposite to and converse with a man like oneself in every respect would be as good as sitting by oneself. Two persons in many respects alike could sometimes raise a dispute. And that would be very useful in dissipating the gloomy thoughts of solitude.

    TO spread open your books under the light of your lamp, and hold communion with men of bygone ages, is surpassingly comfortable.

    JAPANESE poetry is especially charming. Even the toil of an awkward peasant or of a woodman, expressed in poetic form, delights the mind. The name of the terrible wild boar also, when styled “fusui no toko,” sounds elegant.

    EVERY one says that the autumn is the most affecting season of the year. Perhaps so. But the springtime transformations of nature are more delightful, giving buoyancy to the heart. The warbling of cheery songsters gives signal for the full outburst of spring-tide glory. The wild grass sprouts under the hedge in answer to the mild rays of the kindly sun. The spring advances and the mists melt into translucent air. The flowers seem ready to burst into bloom. But rain and wind still make their reckless attacks, and flowers are shattered to our dismay. The changefulness of the days before the leaves are all green cause us much distress. The past is brought back to our loving memories more by the fragrance of the plum than by the hana tachibana, which is noted in this respect. The pure appearance of the yamabuki and the uncertain condition of the fuji cannot be missed without pain.

    THE HEART of man has been compared to flowers; but unlike them, it does not wait for the blowing of the wind to be scattered abroad. It is so fleeting and changeful.

  • The Dance of the Moon Fairy
  • [This beautiful translation by Basil Hall Chamberlain, of the second and third parts of the lyric drama ‘Hagoromo’ (Robe of Feathers), is an excellent illustration of the mediæval Nō no Utai. These dramas bear a striking resemblance to the drama of ancient Greece. In this, Hagoromo, a fisherman, finds on a tree on Mio beach a feather robe. The robe is claimed by a lovely maiden, a moon fairy, who regains possession of her treasure by showing to the fisherman one of the dances of the immortals.]

  • CHORUS—Where’er we gaze the circling mists are twining:
  • Perchance e’en now the moon her tendrils fair
  • Celestial blossoms bear.
  • Those flowerets tell us that the spring is shining—
  • Those fresh-blown flowerets in the maiden’s hair.
  • Fairy—Blest hour beyond compare!
  • Chorus—Heaven hath its joys, but there is beauty here.
  • Blow, blow, ye winds! that the white cloud-belts driven
  • Around my path may bar my homeward way:
  • Not yet would I return to heaven,
  • But here on Mio’s pine-clad shore I’d stray,
  • Or where the moon in bright unclouded glory
  • Shines on Kiyómi’s lea,
  • And where on Fujiyama’s summit hoary
  • The snows look on the sea,
  • While breaks the morning merrily!
  • But of these three, beyond compare
  • The wave-washed shore of Mio is most fair,
  • When through the pines the breath of spring is playing.
  • What barrier rises ’twixt the heaven and earth?
  • Here too on earth the immortal gods came straying,
  • And gave our monarchs birth,
  • Fairy—Who in this empire of the rising sun,
  • While myriad ages run,
  • Shall ever rule their bright dominions,
  • Chorus—E’en when the feathery shock
  • Of fairies flitting past with silvery pinions
  • Shall wear away the granite rock!
  • Oh magic strains that fill our ravished ears!
  • The fairy sings, and from the cloudy spheres
  • Chiming in unison, the angels’ lutes,
  • Tabrets and cymbals and sweet silvery flutes,
  • Ring through the heaven that glows with purple hues,
  • As when Soméiro’s western slope endues
  • The tints of sunset, while the azure wave
  • From isle to isle the pine-clad shores doth lave,
  • From Ukishíma’s slope—a beauteous storm—
  • Whirl down the flowers; and still that magic form,
  • Those snowy pinions, fluttering in the light,
  • Ravish our souls with wonder and delight.
  • FairyHail to the kings that o’er the moon hold sway!
  • Heaven is their home, and Buddhas too are they.
  • ChorusThe fairy robes the maiden’s limbs endue
  • FairyAre, like the very heavens, of tenderest blue;
  • ChorusOr, like the mists of spring, all silvery white,
  • FairyFragrant and fair—too fair for mortal sight!
  • ChorusDance on, sweet maiden, through the happy hours!
  • Dance on, sweet maiden, while the magic flowers
  • Crowning thy tresses flutter in the wind
  • Raised by thy waving pinions intertwined!
  • Dance on! for ne’er to mortal dance ’tis given
  • To vie with that sweet dance thou bring’st from heaven:
  • And when, cloud-soaring, thou shalt all too soon
  • Homeward return to the full-shining moon,
  • Then hear our prayers, and from thy bounteous hand
  • Pour sevenfold treasures on our happy land;
  • Bless every coast, refresh each panting field,
  • That earth may still her proper increase yield!
  • But ah! the hour, the hour of parting rings!
  • Caught by the breeze, the fairy’s magic wings
  • Heavenward do bear her from the pine-clad shore,
  • Past Ukishíma’s widely stretching moor,
  • Past Ashidaka’s heights, and where are spread
  • The eternal snows on Fujiyama’s head,—
  • Higher and higher to the azure skies,
  • Till wandering vapors hide her from our eyes!
  • The True Samurai
  • [This illustration of the spirit of the true samurai is taken from a mediæval drama entitled ‘Dwarf Trees,’ translated by “Shinehi.” The drama tells of the award made to a poverty-stricken knight by the de facto ruler of Japan, 1190, for great kindness shown to the latter when once abroad in the garb of a mendicant priest. The samurai had sacrificed even his dwarf trees to warm his mean-looking guest.]

  • TSUNEYO—Hail, traveler! Is it true that the troops are gathering towards Kamakura? Why do such immense numbers now advance to the capital?[Following in the train.]Why, here are all the barons and knights of the eight provinces of Adzuma in splendid equipment, all aiming for Kamakura! Their weapons are brilliantly flashing, their armor resplendent with silver and gold, mounted on well-fattened horses, with numerous steeds for relief in the train. Amid them all this poor Tsuneyo cuts a sorry figure, with horse and weapons and all so mean on this rough road. Doubtless they will laugh at me, though my soul is by no means inferior. Still this lean, slow horse renders the heart’s courage abortive.

    Chorus—Though he hastens, hastens, as a quivering willow twig he is so weak, so very weak. Though he twist and pull, the horse is ill-fed; though he beat him and whack his flanks, yet he can scarcely make him budge. There is no better conveyance for him; but he eventually comes in last of all with weary weakly feet.

    Saimiōji[in state in Kamakura]—Is my attendant there?

    Attendant—At your service, my lord.

    Saimiōji—Have the troops arrived from all the provinces?

    Attendant—All have safely come.

    Saimiōji—Among the troops is a single retainer in ragged armor, with rusty spear, and leading himself a starved steed. Go find him and order him into my presence.

    Attendant—Your orders shall be executed.[Goes out.]Any one there?

    Servant—At your service, sir.

    Attendant—My lord’s orders are that we go out immediately, and find among the troops a samurai in battered armor, with a rusty spear, leading a lean horse, and bring him at once into his august presence.

    Servant—I will attend to the matter.[Goes out and hails Tsuneyo.]Hail! Art thou my man?

    Tsuneyo—Why am I called?

    Servant—Haste there; come into the presence of our Lord Saimiōji.

    Tsuneyo—And am I called to appear in his august presence?

    Servant—Most assuredly.

    Tsuneyo—Alack, but this is unexpected! You must have mistaken your man.

    Servant—Not at all: you are the man intended. The way of it is this: my lord has ordered into his presence the worst-looking samurai of all the assembled armies; I have looked well over the hosts, and am sure that there is none that can compare with you for hideous appearance. So it is settled. Come, haste to the palace.

    Tsuneyo—What do you say? He wants the worst-looking samurai in the army!

    Servant—Most positively; those are the orders.

    Tsuneyo—Then I must be the man. Go; say I’m coming.

    Servant—Very well.

    Tsuneyo[approaching the palace]—Verily, this is incomprehensible. Some enemy has accused me of treason, and this being ordered into my lord’s presence is but the prelude of having my head taken off. Well, well, I can do nothing to help it. I will go in at any risk; please show me the way.

    Chorus—Then in an instant, suddenly ushered into the midst of assembled soldiers ranged like blazing stars, rank on rank of samurai of the armies, besides many other notables. Their eyes are drawn to him, and many point the scornful finger.

    Tsuneyo—What is well sewed may yet be ripped.

    Chorus—His old armor and rusty spear are not useless to him, nor cares he for the ridiculous figure he cuts.

    [He appears before Saimiōji.]
    Saimiōji—Ha! That is the man.[To Tsuneyo.]Art thou Genzaemon Tsuneyo of Sano, and hast thou forgotten the wandering priest who sought shelter of thee yon snowy night? Thou declaredst then that should trouble arise at Kamakura thou wouldst don thy battered armor, seize thy rusty spear, mount thy shadowy steed, and speed thee first of all to Kamakura. Now thou hast valiantly kept thy word; for this I admire thee.[To the assembly.]The object of this gathering of vassals in the capital was for no other cause than to test the truth or falsehood of Tsuneyo’s words. However, if there is any person here with a grievance to state, let him now plead his cause, and judgment shall be given according to justice and law. But first of all I give judgment in the case of Tsuneyo. His former inheritance in Sano, over thirty counties, must be forthwith returned to him. Moreover, besides this, for that in the cold snow-storm he willingly cut down his precious ornamental trees to warm the stranger guest, in hope of reward in some other world, I now in return for the ume [plum], sakura [cherry], matsu [pine] trees, bestow upon him Ume-da in Kaga, Sakura-i in Etchu, and Mafsu-eda in Kōdzuke, three portions as a perpetual inheritance for himself and his heirs to all generations; in testimony whereof, I now give official documents signed and sealed.

    Chorus—With gladness of heart he accepts the benefactions of his lord.

    Tsuneyo—Tsuneyo accepts the gifts.

    Chorus—He accepts, and three times makes humble obeisance. O ye who erst laughed him to scorn, look now upon him excelling in honor. The warriors all return to their homes, and among them Tsuneyo, his face all bright with new-found joy. Now riding bravely on a gorgeous steed, away he speeds to his home in Sano of Kamitsuke with joyous heart.

  • The Dominant Note of the Law
  • [This is one of the Buddhist ‘Wasan,’ or hymns, from the latter part of the sixteenth (?) century, written by a priest, Kwaihan; translation by Clay MacCauley. The translation follows the Japanese metre of the naga uta, each line containing two series of alternating five and seven syllable measures.]

  • IN spending my days chasing things that are trifles,
  • In sowing the seed of the sixfold migration,
  • I pass through the world with my life-purpose baffled.
  • Since gaining a birth among those that are human,
  • Just now I have learned that I may become godlike;
  • So now I seek Buddha’s help, trusting the promise.
  • This world, after all,—it is only a dream-world;
  • And we, after all, are vain selves with dust mingled.
  • Our jealousies, angers, and scoffing reproaches,
  • All evils we do, though disguised by our cunning,
  • At last become massed like the bulk of a mountain,
  • And we are cast down to “The River of Three Paths”;
  • A fitting reward for our self-prompted actions,
  • Whose ills each must bear, never blaming another.
  • Live I a long life,—’tis like flashing of lightning.
  • Live I but one life,—lo! ’tis lived in a dream-world.
  • Grow I into one life with wife and with children,
  • The love of such one life abides but a moment.
  • Think, how to the depths has my heart been affected!
  • Engrossed by my bonds to a world that is fleeting.
  • Naught led me to pray,—“Namu Amida Buddha;”
  • As wind to a horse-ear were things of the future;
  • Reminded of death’s blast, I answered, “When comes it?”
  • The preacher I trusted not; thought he spoke falsely:
  • And so has my time sped to this very moment.
  • Desire I thought was for good that would follow;—
  • Oh! how I lament as I think of what has been.
  • But yet in this troubled life comes consolation:
  • Adorable Buddha enlightens the dark way;
  • Has pity on all those who live in these last days;
  • To all gives compassion and blessed redemption,
  • Whose depth or whose height passes ocean or mountain.
  • To Buddha’s salvation so bountiful, boundless,
  • Thanksgiving forever;—to me it is given.
  • Up pointing towards heaven, down pointing ’neath heaven,
  • The Buddha sheds light upon all who are living.
  • Now, knowing the Law as the Law has been given,
  • The blest triple treasure,—Rite, Priesthood, and Buddha,—
  • I lift up my song, though I sing in a dream-world.
  • If sorrow and knowing are both the mind’s flowering,
  • If demon or Buddha with each is attendant,
  • Then let all my faith upon knowing be centred.
  • Up-striving, away from “The River of Three Paths,”
  • A glance at the Fullness Divine of all Goodness
  • Will gladden my eyes,—the reward of my striving.
  • Recite then the Prayer;—for by its mere virtue
  • Your pathway will enter the “Land of the Holy.”