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

The Temple of Kwannon

By Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)

From ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’

AND we arrive before the far-famed Kamakura temple of Kwannon,—Kwannon, who yielded up her right to the Eternal Peace that she might save the souls of men, and renounced Nirvana to suffer with humanity for other myriad million ages; Kwannon, the goddess of Pity and of Mercy.

I climb three flights of steps leading to the temple, and a young girl seated at the threshold rises to greet us. Then she disappears within the temple to summon the guardian priest, a venerable man, white-robed, who makes me a sign to enter.

The temple is large as any that I have yet seen, and like the others, gray with the wearing of six hundred years. From the roof there hang down votive offerings, inscriptions, and lanterns in multitude, painted with various pleasing colors. Almost opposite to the entrance is a singular statue, a seated figure of human dimensions and most human aspect, looking upon us with small weird eyes set in a wondrously wrinkled face. This face was originally painted flesh tint, and the robes of the image pale blue; but now the whole is uniformly gray with age and dust, and its colorlessness harmonizes so well with the senility of the figure that one is almost ready to believe one’s self gazing at a living mendicant pilgrim. It is Benzuru, the same personage whose famous image at Asakusa has been made featureless by the wearing touch of countless pilgrim fingers. To left and right of the entrance are the Ni-O, enormously muscled, furious of aspect; their crimson bodies are speckled with a white scum of paper pellets spat at them by worshipers. Above the altar is a small but very pleasing image of Kwannon, with her entire figure relieved against an oblong halo of gold, imitating the flickering of flame.

But this is not the image for which the temple is famed; there is another to be seen, upon certain conditions. The old priest presents me with a petition, written in excellent and eloquent English, praying visitors to contribute something to the maintenance of the temple and its pontiff, and appealing to those of another faith to remember that “Any belief which can make men kindly and good is worthy of respect.” I contribute my mite, and I ask to see the great Kwannon.

Then the old priest lights a lantern, and leads the way through a low doorway on the left of the altar, into the interior of the temple, into some very lofty darkness. I follow him cautiously a while, discerning nothing whatever but the flicker of the lantern; then we halt before something which gleams. A moment, and my eyes, becoming more accustomed to the darkness, begin to distinguish outlines; the gleaming object defines itself gradually as a foot, an immense golden foot, and I perceive the hem of a golden robe undulating over the instep. Now the other foot appears; the figure is certainly standing. I can perceive that we are in a narrow but also very lofty chamber, and that out of some mysterious blackness overhead, ropes are dangling down into the circle of lantern light illuminating the golden feet. The priest lights two more lanterns, and suspends them upon hooks attached to a pair of pendent ropes about a yard apart; then he pulls up both together slowly. More of the golden robe is revealed as the lanterns ascend, swinging on their way; then the outlines of two mighty knees; then the curving of columnar thighs under chiseled drapery, and as with the still waving ascent of the lanterns the golden Vision towers ever higher through the gloom, expectation intensifies. There is no sound but the sound of the invisible pulleys overhead, which squeak like bats. Now above the golden girdle, the suggestion of a bosom. Then the glowing of a golden hand uplifted in benediction. Then another golden hand holding a lotus. And at last a face, golden, smiling with eternal youth and infinite tenderness,—the face of Kwannon.

So revealed out of the consecrated darkness, this ideal of Divine femininity, creation of a forgotten art and time, is more than impressive. I can scarcely call the emotion which it produces admiration; it is rather reverence.

But the lanterns, which paused awhile at the level of the beautiful face, now ascend still higher, with a fresh squeaking of pulleys. And lo! the tiara of the divinity appears, with strangest symbolism. It is a pyramid of heads, of faces,—charming faces of maidens, miniature faces of Kwannon herself.

For this is the Kwannon of the Eleven Faces,—Jiu-ichi-men-Kwannon.