Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tales of Times Now Past: stories from a medieval Japanese collection

Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection
Edited and translated by Marian Ury
Introduction by Marian Ury

From the wrapper overleaf:

"Tales of Times Past is a translation of sixty-two outstanding tales freshly selected from Konjaku monogatari shu, a Japanese anthology dating from the early twelfth century. The original work, unique in world literature, contains more than one thousand systematically arranged tales from India, China, and Japan. It is the most important example of a genre of collections of brief tales which, because of their informality and unpretentious style, were neglected by Japanese critics until recent years but which are now acknowledged to be among the most significant prose literature of premodern Japan. Konjaku in particular has aroused the enthusiasm of such leading twentieth-century writers as Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Tanizaki Jun'ichiro."

This thousand year-old collection was carefully and "systematically arranged," suggesting that literary organization is not something new. The work is divided into three major parts: stories from India, China, and Japan. Then, the stories from each country were organized into two subcategories for each country: stories about Buddha and Buddhists, which were then followed by secular tales from each country. In the section of tales from India, many are about Buddha and the miraculous events of his life and his teachings.

The stories about Buddhists are very similar to various collections of lives of the saints found in the Christian tradition. There are miraculous cures and rescues from robbers and demons as a result of a strong belief in Buddhism and/or prayers pleading for help. In addition are a number of stories of Buddhist monks who were punished for their greed or jealousy or lack of piety or rewarded for their strong faith and devotion to Buddha and Buddhist principles.

Many of the secular stories also have a strong religious tinge to them. One story tells of two brothers who traveled through a mountainous region, each carrying a large amount of gold. During the trip, the same thought occurred to both of them: "If I were to kill my brother, I could double the amount of gold I have." However neither acted upon the impulse. Coming to a river, once out of the mountains, the elder brother threw his gold into the river. When the younger brother asked him why he did that, the elder brother replied that he had an impulse to kill him, his only brother. He would never have thought that ordinarily so it had to be the gold that tempted him. That is why he threw it away. The younger brother said he had had the same idea and he also threw his gold in the river.

The moral of the story is: "People are robbed of their lives because of the cravings of the senses and incur bodily harm because of worldly good. he who possesses none and remains poor will have no cause for grief. And indeed, it is the craving for worldly goods that causes us" to be trapped in the cycle of birth and death, reincarnation.

While the tales are short, most are around two-three pages with a number being only one page long and a few as long as four or five pages, they are not all straightforward tales of simply praying to Buddha and being rewarded for one's piety. Many are more subtle or complex than that.

My favorite cautionary tale, less than a page long, is as follows:

"At a time now past, in China . . . there was a man of Ch'u whose name was Hou Ku. His father was unfilial and was angry with his own father for being slow to die.

Now, Hou Ku's father fashioned a litter and put his aged father in it. Hou ku's father and Hou Ku carried it on their shoulders deep into the mountains, abandoned the old man, and returned home. Hou Ku brought the litter back with him. His father saw it and said, 'What did you bring the litter back for?' Hou Ku answered, 'I have just learned that a son is one who puts his aged father in a litter and abandons him in the mountains. That means that when my own father is old I will put him in a litter and abandon him in the mountains. This will save me from having to make a new one.'

When his father heard this he thought, 'I myself will be abandoned when I am old,' and wild with anxiety he hurried back to the mountains to welcome his father back home. Thereafter, Hou Ku's father never stinted his filial care. This was due entirely to Hou Ku's scheme.

The whole world praises and admires Hou Ku beyond measure: one who saves his grandfather's life and causes his own father to be a filial son truly deserves to be called wise. So the tale's been told, and so it's been handed down."

(The note to this story says the theme of this story "is very popular, and versions of it can be found in the Indian and Japanese sections of Konjaku as well."

Another tale brings in Chuang Tzu, one of the early and most important figures in the development of Taoism. Once while traveling, he came across a huge old tree. When he asked why this tree was allowed to live to such a great age, the woodsman said, "I choose trees for cutting that are well formed and straight. This tree is gnarled and twisted. Since it is no good for anything, I have not cut it, and thus it has attained its great age."

A day later, "Chuang Tzu went to someone's house." The master of the house served him wine and discovered "there were no tidbits to accompany it." The master then ordered a servant to kill a goose. The servant asked him which goose should he kill, "The one that sings nicely, or the one that doesn't sing?" The master said, "Let the singing one live to sing, kill the one that doesn't sing and make it into tidbits."

"Thereupon Chuang Tzu said, 'The tree in the stand of timber I saw yesterday had been let live because it was useless. Today my host has spared the life of a goose because it has a talent. This proves that whether you live or die does not depend on whether you are wise or foolish; it is something that just comes about of itself. No can we deduce a rule that those who have talent will not die or that those who are useless will not die. The useless tree lives long, the goose that did not sing died at once. Such is life."

In the quotation from the overleaf, it was pointed out that several twentieth-century writers were "enthusiastic" about these tales, one of whom was Akutagawa Ryunosuke. He took a number of these stories and revised and expanded them. Two of these tales are the source for what might be his most famous short stories, "In a Grove," and "Rashomon."

Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite film directors, then combined these two stories into one of the world's greatest films, Rashoman. As I had mentioned in an earlier post on Rashomon, the story doesn't end here. Hollywood did its own version and called it The Outrage, starring Paul Newman (the Mexican bandit), Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson (the thief), and William Shatner (the minister)--not bad for a couple of twelfth-century short tales.

Each story has a moral attached to it, either one of moral goodness or piety for the Buddhist tales or one of practical or earthly wisdom for the secular tales. There are tales of rulers, both wise and not-so-wise, of dramatic escapes from demons, ghosts, robbers, and murderers, and of justly deserved (in most cases) rewards and punishments.

Overall: fascinating and brief (much too brief) glimpses into times now long past.


  1. Interesting stories that have a "parable" feel to them. Thanks for posting this! I'll have to see if I can find it through the library.

  2. Cheryl,

    I hope you enjoy them.