Miyazawa's familiarity with the Lotus Sutra and his faith in its saving power had a discernible influence on many of his stories: on their imagery, expressed concepts, and emotional tonality.
The biographical record of the poet and storywriter Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) tells us that he had a profound encounter with the Lotus Sutra in 1914 when he was eighteen years old. It is said that he was especially moved by the sixteenth chapter, "The Life Span of the Thus Come One," the reading of which caused his "body to tremble ceaselessly."1 Beginning with that initial experience, faith in the Lotus Sutra profoundly shaped his life. There are indications that Miyazawa saw his writing as a means of propagating the faith. Nonetheless, explicit references to the Lotus Sutra are not common in Miyazawa's literary works. It is mentioned with much more frequency in his letters. A few of his poems refer to specific items in the sutra, but in his stories, perhaps the most popular part of his oeuvre, the Lotus is explicitly referenced in only one piece, "The Shining Feet" (Hikari no suashi),2 where he refers to the title of the sixteenth chapter.
Despite the absence of much explicit reference, we can argue that Miyazawa's familiarity with the Lotus Sutra and his faith in its saving power had a discernible influence on many of his stories: on their imagery, expressed concepts, and emotional tonality. One story in which I discern a probable yet inexplicit Lotus influence is "The Diamonds of Ten Powers" (Juriki no kongoseki).3 While the dating of this and most of Miyazawa's stories is not definite, it seems likely that this narrative was written comparatively early in his career and near the same time as "The Shining Feet." My investigation of the influence of Miyazawa's Lotus Sutra faith will focus on these two narratives.
The devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan in March 2011 has brought the issue of human suffering to the forefront of the consciousness of many people both in Japan and around the world. In light of the current heightened awareness of issues of suffering, I will focus my examination of Lotus Sutra influence on Miyazawa on two questions: (1) how suffering is viewed in these stories and what is shown - or suggested to be - the means of release from suffering; and (2) the settings - the landscapes and their attributes - in which characters seem able to find release from suffering. I feel that paying attention to the kinds of spaces - both natural spaces and spaces evocative of the sacred - in which suffering and release from suffering occur can tell us something about how Miyazawa perceived suffering in cosmological and other religious terms.
"The Shining Feet"
"The Shining Feet" tells the story of two brothers, Ichiro and Narao, who set out from their father's charcoal-making hut in the mountains to walk back to their home in the village and on the way encounter a violent snowstorm that claims the life of the younger brother, Narao. The framing sections of the story depict the this-worldly setting of mountainous rural Iwate in the 1920s, including the mountain hut, a snowy trail through the mountains, and a high, snowbound pass. The middle sections of the tale depict what appears to be an otherworldly realm beyond death that the two brothers enter together but from which only the elder, Ichiro, returns. The world beyond death in this story is depicted as two strikingly different spaces. First there is the hellish, dimly lit land that is marked by a painfully uneven ground of thorns and agate splinters that mercilessly cut the bare feet of the two brothers and other children as they walk. Devils (oni) are also present in this dimly lit land. The devils yell at the children and lash them with whips to force them to walk on the lacerating ground, thus increasing their suffering. Second, in the world beyond death, there is a pleasant land where a radiant person with shining bare feet is present. This second otherworldly location is marked by characteristics of a buddha land (buddha-k?etra), as depicted in the Lotus Sutra, and includes such significant attributes as being level, vast, and filled with jewels, pleasant fragrances, abundant light, and the presence of both celestial and enlightened beings. I will consider the story's depiction of a buddha-land setting in more detail later, but for now it is important to note that while in this story these two areas within the world beyond death are shown to be radically different, especially in terms of the presence and absence of suffering, they occupy the same spatial area. The profound difference in the way the world beyond death is perceived is dependent on the karmic and spiritual state of the perceivers, the children, especially Ichiro (289).
In the land of the living, in this story, it is the innocent figure of the younger brother, Narao, who in particular is shown to suffer. The immediate cause of Narao's suffering lies in the unavoidable forces of nature - wind, snow, and cold. His suffering elicits a response of concern in the other characters, most especially his older brother. Ichiro is not able to prevent Narao's suffering, but his efforts in trying to relieve it - warming Narao's cold chapped hands in his own, comforting him when he expresses fear, wrapping Narao in his own cape - indicate a compassionate nature. The narrative in this section seems to suggest that while the suffering caused by forces of nature is daunting, compassion, such as that shown by Ichiro, is an appropriate response.
In the dimly lit land, Ichiro and Narao are in the company of other children, all of whom suffer horribly from the cuts and whiplashes they receive. While Ichiro shares in the suffering of Narao and the other children, his compassionate response to Narao continues, and he does his best to shield him from the devils' whips. The suffering here is more intense than in the previous "this-worldly" section of the story. The devils here play a key role in bringing about the children's suffering, but they also offer indications as to why the suffering is happening, its ultimate cause. For instance, when a devil lashes Narao when he stumbles and Ichiro then clings to the devil's hand, asking the devil to whip him instead, the devil responds, "Tsumi wa kondo bakari dewa nai zo" (The sin is not just of this time, I tell you) (286). The devil's gruff explanation points to sin (tsumi) and, by extension, the negative karma it creates, as the cause of Narao's and the others' suffering. The statement that the sin is not "just of this time" strongly suggests that the devil sees the negative actions as ones committed in other, previous lifetimes as well as this one. In other words, the devil is pointing to the origin of the children's suffering in purva-karma (shukugo).
This explanation is reinforced later when Narao asks a fellow child why they have met with such hardship. When she responds that she does not know, the devil howls an explanation: "Minna kisamatachi no dekashita kotta" (You all brought all of this on yourselves) (287). In this way, this section of the story locates the origin of suffering - even the suffering of young children - in the past actions of those who suffer. This teaching of the root cause of suffering in negative karma is a foundational one in Buddhism and strongly underscored in the Lotus Sutra.
The dimly lit world is not only a place where past karma has effect; here, too, Ichiro's compassionate actions in response to Narao's suffering appear to establish the conditions for the introduction of the source of relief from karmic suffering. Ichiro is unflinching when whipped by a devil as he tries to shelter Narao in his arms. As the devil raises its whip to strike a second time, Ichiro asks for his brother to be spared and exposes both his arms to the whip in order to protect his brother. It is as he exposes himself to the whip a second time in order to prevent his brother's suffering that the saving words of the title of the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra appear in the narrative. This passage in chapter 16, "Nyorai Juryo Bon Dai Juroku" (The life span of the Thus Come One) reads:
As he struggled to shield Narao, from somewhere, ever so softly, as though it were a breath of wind or perhaps a scent, Ichiro sensed this phrase. Then, somehow, it seemed that everything around him became a bit more bearable, and he tried repeating the phrase in a whisper. "Nyorai Juryo Bon." As he spoke, one of the devils who was moving up ahead stopped and looked around at Ichiro in amazement. The line of children stopped as well. Although it was not clear why, the cracking of the whips and the shouting voices ceased. A hush settled over the group. When they looked, they saw that the edge of the dimly lit field of red agate had become a golden expanse, and a person, looking very tall and splendid, was walking across it headed in their direction. For some reason, they all felt a sense of relief. (283)4
The "The Life Span of the Thus Come One" chapter teaches that the Tathagata (Thus Come One) Sakyamuni has been enlightened for incalculable ages, that his parinirva?a is an expedient means, and that he is and will be present in the world for incalculable ages to come. It is important to note that in this scene the sacred words of this Lotus Sutra chapter title do not initially appear through Ichiro's direct agency; rather, they "come to him from somewhere" as a breeze or a scent. It is only then that Ichiro utters them himself. His voicing the sacred words seems to change the karmic circumstances, not only of himself, but of all the children.
The rest of the story makes it clear that while Narao's and the other children's suffering came about through their own actions, their suffering is relieved through a power other than their own, one readily available to all. The radiant person with shining feet - perhaps a portrayal of the Buddha Sakyamuni himself - explains to the children: "There is nothing to fear. If we compare your sins to the power of the great virtue that envelops this world, it is like the difference between the tiny dewdrop that clings to the tip of a thistle thorn and the light of the sun" (289). The story does not give a clear identification of the source of the "power of the great virtue that envelops this world," but given Miyazawa's Lotus Sutra faith and his earlier referencing of the "Life Span of the Thus Come One" chapter, it seems reasonable to assume that the great virtue is connected to the Buddha and the marvelous Dharma of his teaching. Soon after the person with shining feet makes this statement, he pats Narao on the head, and at his fragrant touch all of the children are healed of their cuts.
The relief from suffering and change in perception that occurs when the words of the "Life Span of the Thus Come One" chapter are spoken and the children encounter the person with shining feet allows the children to see the place they are in as a buddha land. The attributes of the world they now see include a blue stone surface of utter smoothness like the undisturbed surface of a lake, trees that appear to be made of precious stone, colored lights, a rain of flower petals, jeweled pagodas, pleasant music, and the presence of heavenly beings (289-90). While these can be seen as attributes of Pure Land depictions in many Pure Land scriptures, they resonate well with the passage in the "Life Span of the Thus Come One" chapter, which depicts the buddha land that always exists where the Buddha's presence is perceived:
When living beings witness the end of a kalpa
and all is consumed in a great fire, this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.
The halls and pavilions in its gardens and groves
are adorned with various kinds of gems.
Jeweled trees abound in flowers and fruit
where living beings enjoy themselves at ease.
The gods strike heavenly drums,
constantly making many kinds of music.
Mandarava blossoms rain down,
scattering over the Buddha and the great assembly.5
At the close of the story, Ichiro leaves this radiant world to return to the everyday world of the living. In this story, then, the two realms - the world that is like a buddha land and the everyday world - are not explicitly depicted as coterminous. The next story we will examine, "The Diamonds of Ten Powers," takes a different approach and closely examines the interpenetration of the ideal world of the Buddha's presence and the everyday world. As we will see, this difference in arrangement of related cosmological schemes between the two stories gives readers an additional context for understanding Miyazawa's faith-based conception of suffering and its relief.
"The Diamonds of Ten Powers"
The setting of this fantasy story is an unnamed kingdom in a land with a climate and flora similar to Miyazawa's own Iwate Province: oaks and birches grow in the woods; gentians, bog stars (umebachiso), and wild roses are found in the grassy fields. The plot is a very simple one. Two noble youths, a prince and the son of a high-ranking minister, escape the care of their guardians one misty morning to go in search of precious stones. They seek both the ruby paint dish they have heard can be found at the base of a rainbow and diamonds that they understand can be found at the top of a hill. In the process of their search, they encounter changing conditions of precipitation, including misty rain, a sudden downpour, sunlit rain, and hail. They also become lost as they seek to find the base of the rainbows they see. Before long they arrive at a magical place, the Hill of Light, which is magical in the sense that its plants and birds can talk and also in the sense that the precipitation there falls as gemstones, not rain or sleet, and its plants are made of precious stones. As noted above, plants composed of precious stones are also one of the hallmarks of buddha-land imagery. The Hill of Light also invites the parallel with a buddha land in its openness and the presence there of abundant light. The two noble boys are delighted by the beauty of the Hill of Light and its gemstones but find it impossible to collect the gems to take home. At the close of the story, a dew falls as evening approaches. This dew, the Diamonds of Ten Powers, is joyously welcomed by the flowers, trees, and sky of the Hill of Light. While it is clear that these residents of the Hill of Light consider this dew to be far more exceptional than any other precipitation, it appears as ordinary dew, and as it falls, the Hill of Light returns to an ordinary, nonmagical state in which the plants are real plants, not gems, and no longer speak. At the close of the story, we hear the voices of the king's ministers coming in search of the two boys while the boys themselves kneel with expressions of devotion at the top of the hill.
Its association with attributes of a buddha land might lead us to assume that the Hill of Light in its magical state is a place untouched by suffering or sadness, but that is not, in fact, the case. As the rain stops and the sun shines brightly, a gentian, a bog star, and a wild rose all sing songs that indicate the Hill of Light to be a place of either sadness or loneliness. For example, as a breeze blows, causing the topaz drops that have collected in its amazonite blooms to spill out, the gentian sings:
The topaz dewdrops tinkle, tsaran tsari rurin,
Spilling down, they sparkle, sangu sangarin
While dwelling on the Hill of Light,
What could be as sad as this? (194)
The two boys are puzzled that these plants find the beautiful Hill of Light to be a place of sadness. Their question as to why this is so is finally answered by a song sung by all of the plants and flowers together, and by the wild rose, who explains to the two boys that the reason for the sadness is that the Diamonds of Ten Powers will not be coming (196).
It is the name for this longed-for nourishing dew that inserts a specifically Buddhist set of meanings into the narrative. "Ten Powers" (Jpn., juriki; Skt., dasa-bala) refers to the powers of a buddha, powers that include such omniscient abilities as "knowing the karmic causality at work in the lives of all beings past, present and future."6 While Ten Powers is a term widely used in Buddhist scripture,7 it is also used in the Lotus Sutra, where it appears three times. Although Ten Powers is technically a reference to the particular powers of a buddha, it is also used to refer to one who possesses those powers, that is, the Buddha himself.8 The diamonds are the gift of the Buddha - the Ten Powers One - falling freely on the hill and nourishing and invigorating the plants.
The story makes clear the transcendent, nondualistic nature of the dewdrops/Diamonds of Ten Powers as both real literal moisture that does not "flash unpleasantly like ordinary diamonds" (196) and the life-giving gift of the Buddha that both nourishes the plants and makes "the apple cheeks of children shine" (197).
The Lotus Sutra repeatedly represents the place of the Buddha Sakyamuni's teaching of the true Dharma as the saha world, our familiar world of endurance and suffering, but it also states that this same world is the Buddha's "safe and tranquil land," a "pure land" that "is not destroyed."9 The concluding scene of "The Diamonds of Ten Powers" presents readers with just such a nondualistic cosmological strategy. This is overtly expressed when all the trees, grasses, flowers, and even the blue sky itself realize that the Diamonds of Ten Powers will indeed come that day and joyfully sing the following song in the traditional meter of a hymn (wasan):
The flames of death and decay flare up,
engulfing both earth and people,
but I make this into a tranquil land,
and the light fills the people full,
the whole world filled with light. (198)
The first three lines of this song especially closely parallel the passage from the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra cited above: "When living beings witness the end of a kalpa / and all is consumed in a great fire, / this, my land, remains safe and tranquil." Miyazawa understands this "tranquil land" to be available to all beings. As he writes in "The Shining Feet," those who, through the burden of bad karma, are prevented from seeing this suffering-free world can be relieved of that burden and have their eyes opened through the "power of the great virtue that envelops this world." In this short song, as well as in the entire text of both of these stories, Miyazawa seems to express both his compassion for the suffering of erring sentient beings in the saha world and his faith-based understanding of that same world's freedom from suffering in the merit of the Buddha and his teaching.
. Tada'ichi Sakai, Hyoden Miyazawa Kenji [Critical biography of Kenji Miyazawa] (Tokyo: Ofusha, 1975), 69-70.
. Kenji Miyazawa, "Hikari no suashi," in Kohon Miyazawa Kenji zenshu [Variorum edition of the complete works of Kenji Miyazawa] (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1973), vol. 7, 270-93. Hereafter references to page numbers for passages in this text are inserted parenthetically after the reference.
. Kenji Miyazawa, "Juriki no kongoseki," in Kohon Miyazawa Kenji zenshu, vol. 7, 185-99.
. With a few minor changes, this translation follows mine in Kenji Miyazawa, The Shining Feet, trans. Sarah M. Strong (Tokyo: International Foundation for the Promotion of Languages and Culture, 1997), n.p.
. Burton Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 230-31. Text in T 262 IX. 43c7-11.
. Burton Watson, glossary in Watson, Lotus Sutra, 339.
. See Étienne Lamotte, trans., Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse [The treatise on the great virtue of wisdom] (Louvain: Université de Louvain Institut Orientaliste, 1970), 1505-66.
. Hajime Nakamura, Bukkyo-go daijiten [An encyclopedic dictionary of Buddhist terms] (Tokyo: Tokyo Shoseki, 1981), 661.
. Watson, Lotus Sutra, 230-31.
Sarah M. Strong is Professor of Japanese Language and Literature at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. She received her PhD in Japanese literature from the University of Chicago. As a scholar she has focused on works that portray Japan's natural beauty and rich ecosystems. Her studies and translations of Kenji Miyazawa's works, including Night of the Milky Way Railway (1991) and Masterworks of Miyazawa Kenji: Poems and Fairy Tales (2002), have appeared in both the United States and Japan. Her most recent book is on Ainu oral traditions, Ainu Spirits Singing: The Living World of Chiri Yukie's Ainu Shin'yoshu (2011).
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.