(BLSB) - "The Blue Hood" by Ueda Akinari, 1776 (full-text short story)

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Detail of the sixth section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll (餓鬼草紙 Gaki Zōshi, Late 12th Century) located at the Kyoto National Museum, Japan. Ananda, a disciple of Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), teaches an incantation to achieve salvation to a hungry ghost who continuously belches flames from his mouth.


From Tales of Moonlight and Rain (雨月物語 Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776) by Ueda Akinari, translated, with an introduction, by Anthony H. Chambers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Footnotes omitted.

Note: Akinari's short story collection was written at a time when Japan followed the East Asian age reckoning, by which a person is considered to be one year old at birth, with age being incremented at the beginning of the lunar or solar year.[1]

THE BLUE HOOD

[...]

Long ago, there was an eminent priest of great virtue called Zen Master Kaian. From the time he came of age, he understood the spirit of extralingual transmission and surrendered his body to the clouds and waters. One year, having completed the summer retreat at Ryōtai Temple, in Mino Province, he set out on a journey, having decided to spend that autumn in the Ōu region. Traveling on and on, he entered the province of Shimotsuke.

The sun set as he reached a village called Tonda. When he approached a large, prosperous-looking house to ask for a night’s lodging, men who had just returned from the paddies and fields seemed to be struck with fear at the sight of a monk standing in the dim twilight. “The mountain demon is here! Everyone come out,” they shouted. An uproar began inside the house, with women and children screaming, thrashing about, and hiding in shadows and nooks. The master of the house took up a cowl-staff and rushed outside, where he found an old monk, close to fifty years of age, standing with a dark-blue hood on his head, a tattered black robe on his body, and a bundle on his back. Raising his walking staff, the monk beckoned to him: “Dānapati, why do you take such precautions? I am an itinerant monk, waiting here for someone to receive me as I seek lodgings for one night. To be met with such distrust is not what I expected. This haggard monk is not about to rob you. Please do not be suspicious of me.” The master of the house dropped his cowl-staff, clapped his hands, and laughed: “Thanks to those fellows’ undiscerning eyes, we have startled you, a venerable traveling monk. Let me compensate for our crime by offering you lodging here tonight.” With all signs of respect, he escorted the monk inside and cheerfully invited him to dine.

The master of the house gave this account: “There is a reason why those fellows panicked when they saw Your Reverence and cried ‘The demon is here.’ I have a most unusual story to tell you. Please pass it on to others, though it is a strange, wild tale. There is a monastery on a mountain above this village. Originally, it was the family temple of the Oyama clan, and many priests of great virtue have resided there over the generations. The current ajari, the nephew of a certain lord, was famous for his learning and asceticism, and the people of the province were devoted to him, making frequent offerings of flowers and incense. He often visited my house, too, and spoke without reserve; but then came the spring of last year. He was invited to Koshi to administer the vows at an initiation ceremony and stayed for more than one hundred days. He brought back with him a servant boy in his twelfth or thirteenth year, whom he made his constant attendant. I noticed that he began to neglect his longtime practices, entranced as he was by the boy’s elegance and beauty. Then, around the Fourth Month of this year, the boy took to his bed with some slight illness, and as the days passed his condition grew more serious. The abbot, greatly distressed and saddened, even called in the official physician from the provincial capital, but their ministrations had no effect and the boy finally passed away. Feeling that the jewel of his breast had been snatched from him, that the blossom adorning his crown had been stripped away by a storm, the abbot had no tears to weep, no voice with which to cry out, and in the extremity of his grief he neither cremated the boy nor buried him, but pressed his face to the boy’s and held his hand, until, as the days went by, he lost his mind and began to play with the boy just as he had when the boy was alive, and, finally, lamenting the decomposition of the flesh, he ate the flesh and licked the bones until nothing was left. The other people of the temple fled in a panic, saying that their abbot had turned into a demon. Since then, he has come down the mountain every night, terrifying the villagers or digging up graves and eating fresh corpses. I had heard of demons from old tales, but now I have truly seen one with my own eyes. How can we put a stop to this? Every family now locks its doors tightly at dusk, and word has spread throughout the province, so that no one comes here any more. This is why you were mistaken for a demon.”

After hearing this tale, Kaian said, “Yes, strange things happen in this world. Among those who have been born as humans but end their days in foolishness and perversity, because they know not the greatness of the teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, there are countless examples, from the past down to the present, of those who, led astray by the karmic obstacles of lust and wrong thoughts, reveal their original forms and give vent to their resentments, or turn into demons or serpents to take retribution. There have also been people who turned into demons while they were still alive. A lady-in-waiting to the king of Chu turned into a snake; Wang Han’s mother became an ogre; Wu Sheng’s wife became a moth. Also, long ago, when a certain traveling monk was staying over in a poor house, the night brought heavy rain and wind, so that the monk, lonely without even a lamp, could not sleep. As the night deepened, he heard the bleating of a sheep, and soon thereafter something sniffed at him intently, to see if he was asleep. Suspicious, the monk picked up his Zen staff, which lay by his pillow, and struck out forcefully, whereupon the thing fell over with a scream. Hearing the noise, the old woman who was the head of the household lit a lamp and brought it in, and by its light they saw a girl lying there. The old woman pleaded tearfully for the girl’s life. What could he do? Leaving things as they were, the monk departed; but later, when he had occasion to pass through the village again, he found many people gathered together in a rice paddy, looking at something. Approaching them, he asked what it was. A villager told him, ‘We captured a girl who has turned into a demon, and now we are burying her.’ But these stories are all of women; I have never heard one of a man. It is, after all, because of their perverse nature that women turn into shameless demons. Now, as for men, there was a minister of Emperor Yang of Sui named Ma Shumou, who fancied the flesh of small children, whom he would kidnap from the people, steam, and devour; but this was shameless barbarity, quite different from the case you have described. Nevertheless, your monk’s turning into a demon must be the result of his actions in a former life. The virtue he accumulated through his earlier ascetic practices is due to his utter sincerity in serving the Buddha, and he would surely have become a splendid priest had he not taken in that boy. It was probably his single-minded nature that caused him to turn into a demon when, once having entered the maze of lust, he was burned by the karmic flames of unenlightenment. He who fails to control his mind becomes a demon; he who governs his mind attains to buddhahood. Your priest is a good example of this. If I, an old monk, can instruct the demon and lead him back to his original mind, I shall also be repaying your hospitality tonight.” Thus he set a noble aim. The master of the house pressed his head to the floor mat. “If you can accomplish this, Your Reverence, it will be as though the people of the province had been reborn in the Pure Land,” he said, weeping tears of joy. Lodging in this mountain village, they heard no sound of conch or bell; but they knew that the night was late, because the last-quarter moon had risen, spilling its light through a crack in the old door. “Well, then, have a good rest,” the master said, and retired to his bedroom.

Since the mountain temple was almost deserted, brambles clung to the two-story gate and moss grew on the neglected sutra pavilion. Spiders had spun webs that bound the Buddhist statues together; sparrow droppings covered the goma dais; the abbot’s residence, the covered walkways, and the monks’ quarters were all in terrible disrepair. As the sun declined toward the southwest, Zen Master Kaian entered the temple grounds and struck his ringing-staff against the ground. “Please provide lodgings for a traveling monk tonight,” he called, again and again, but there was no response. Finally, from the sleeping quarters, a withered monk emerged, came slowly toward him with uncertain steps, and spoke in a dry, hoarse voice: “Where are you going that would lead you here? For certain reasons, this temple has gone to ruin, as you see, and turned into a wilderness. There is no food, nor am I prepared to offer you lodging. Go quickly to the village.” The Zen Master said, “I have come from the province of Mino and am traveling to Michinoku. When I passed through the village below, I was drawn by the beauty of this mountain and the streams and came here on an impulse. As the sun is setting, the road to the village would be long and dangerous. Please let me stay for just one night.” The abbot said, “Bad things happen in a wilderness like this. I cannot encourage you to stay, nor will I order you to leave. Do as you please.” He said nothing more. Without another word, Kaian sat near the abbot. Soon the sun went down, and in the darkness of the night he could not make out his surroundings, for no lamps were lit; he could hear only the ripple of a brook nearby. The abbot returned to the sleeping quarters and made no sound thereafter.

The night deepened and the moon rose, its brilliant light reaching every corner. Shortly after midnight, the abbot reemerged from the sleeping quarters and rushed about, looking for something. Unable to find it, he cried, “Where’s that damn monk hiding? He ought to be right here.” He ran past the Zen master several times, but could not see him at all. He appeared to hurry off toward the main hall, but then danced crazily around the courtyard until finally he collapsed, face down, in exhaustion. Dawn came, and the morning sun began to shine. Looking like a man recovering from too much wine, he seemed dumbfounded when he saw the Zen master sitting right where he had been sitting before. Leaning silently against a column, the abbot heaved a great sigh but said nothing. Drawing near him, the Zen master said, “Abbot, why are you grieving? If you are hungry, fill your belly with my flesh.” The abbot said, “Were you there all night?” The Zen master said, “I was here and did not sleep.” The abbot said, “Shamefully, I have a fondness for human flesh, but I have never tasted the flesh of a living buddha. You truly are a buddha. It is no surprise that, with the dark eyes of a fiend, I could not see the coming of a living buddha, try as I might. This is more than I deserve.” Bowing his head, he fell silent.

The Zen master said, “Villagers tell me that, once your mind had been distracted by lust, you quickly sank to the level of a fiend. This is an almost unprecedented result of bad karma, and neither ‘shameful’ nor ‘sad’ can describe it. Because you go to the village night after night and hurt people, no one in the villages nearby can rest easy. I could not ignore this when I heard of it. I have come here especially to instruct you and lead you back to your original mind. Will you listen?” The abbot said, “Truly, you are a buddha. Teach me, please, how I can quickly put these shameful actions out of my mind.” The Zen master said, “If you will listen to me, then, come with me.” Having the abbot sit on a flat stone in front of the veranda, he removed the dark-blue hood from his own head, placed it on the head of the abbot, and taught him two lines from the Song of Enlightenment:

The moon glows on the river, wind rustles the pines.
Long night, clear evening—what are they for?

Kaian instructed him kindly: “Seek quietly the meaning of these lines without leaving this spot. When you have worked out the meaning, you will probably, without trying, encounter your original buddha-nature.” Then he went down the mountain. Although the villagers escaped great harm thereafter, they did not know whether the abbot was alive or dead, and so, in their uncertainty and fear, they forbade anyone to go up the mountain.

One year passed quickly. In the winter of the following year, early in the Tenth Month, Priest of Great Virtue Kaian traveled this way again on his return from the north, stopped at the house of the man who had lodged him for a night, and inquired about the abbot. The master of the house welcomed him joyfully: “Thanks to Your Reverence’s great virtue, the demon has not come down the mountain again, and all the people feel as though they had been reborn in the Pure Land. They are, however, terrified of going to the mountain, and so not a single person has climbed it. Therefore, I do not know what has happened to him. But how could he still be alive? While you rest here tonight, may you pray that his spirit achieve buddhahood. All of us will follow you in doing so.” The Zen master said, “If he has passed on as a consequence of his good actions, then he is my teacher, preceding me on the Way. If he is still alive, then he is one of my disciples. In either case, I must see what has become of him.” Going up the mountain again, he could hardly believe that this was the same path he had taken last year, for indeed it appeared that all traffic had ceased. Entering the temple grounds, he found plumed grasses growing thickly, taller than a man; the dew fell on him like a cold autumn shower; and he could not even make out the three paths. The doors of the main hall and the sutra pavilion had toppled to the right and left, and moss grew on rain-dampened cracks in the rotted wood of a walkway that connected the abbot’s residence with the kitchen.

When he sought out the place near the veranda where he had told the abbot to sit, he found a shadowy man with hair and beard so tangled that one could not tell if he were monk or layman. Weeds coiled about him and plumed grasses swayed above him, and he murmured something almost inaudible in a wispy voice, no louder than the hum of a mosquito:

“The moon glows on the river, wind rustles the pines.
Long night, clear evening—what are they for?”

Seeing this, the Zen master immediately took a firm hold on his Zen staff, cried “Samosan, what are they for?” and struck him on the head. Instantly, the figure began to fade, like ice meeting the morning sun, until only the blue hood and some bones remained on the leaves of grass. No doubt his long obsession vanished at this moment. Herein lies a venerable truth.

In this way, the great virtue of the Zen master came to be known under the clouds and beyond the seas, and people celebrated him, saying “The flesh of the First Patriarch has not dried up.” Gathering together, the villagers cleared the temple grounds, repaired the buildings, and chose the Zen master to live at the temple as abbot, whereupon he changed it from its original, esoteric, sect and established a revered Sōtō site. It is said that the venerable temple still flourishes today.


Male couple: A nenja and a wakashū lying down together. Japanese woodblock-printed illustration by Nishikawa Sukenobu, from Nanshoku Dew on a Mountain Path (男色山路露 Nanshoku Yamaji no Tsuyu, Early 18th Century) by Nankai no Sanjin.

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