When I enter a temple retreat

the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,
translated by Ivan Morris

In the First Month when I go to a temple for a retreat I like the weather to be extremely cold; there should be snow on the ground, and everything should be frozen. If it looks like rain, however, I feel most dissatisfied.

Once I went on a pilgrimage to Hase Temple. While our rooms were being prepared, our carriage was pulled up to the foot of the log steps that lead to the temple. Young priests, wearing only their sashes and under-robes, and with those things called high clogs on their feet, were hurrying up and down the steps without the slightest precaution, reciting verses from the Sacred Storchouse or such scraps from the Sutras as came into their heads. It was very appropriate to the place, and I found it charming. Later, when we started to climb the steps, we were terrified and kept close to the side, clinging to the banisters. I was amused to see that the priests walked as freely as on an ordinary wooden floor.

Presently a priest told us that our rooms were ready and asked us to go to them directly; he brought us some overshoes and helped us out of our carriage. Among the pilgrims who had already arrived I saw some who were wearing their clothes inside out, while others were dressed in formal style with trains on their skirts and Chinese jackets. The sight of so many people shuffling along the corridors in lacquered leather shoes and short clogs was delightful and reminded me of the Palace.

On the way to our rooms we had to pass in front of rows of strangers. I found this very unpleasant; but, when I reached the chapel and got a view past the dog-barrier and right up to the sanctuary, I was overcome with awe and wondered how I could have stayed away for so many months. My old feelings were aroused and they overwhelmed all else.

The lamps that lit the sacred image in the sanctuary were not permanent ones, but had been brought by pilgrims as offerings. They burnt with terrifying brightness, and in their light the Buddha glittered brilliantly. Priest after priest reverently entered the sanctuary, and, kneeling on the platform of worship, held up his petition in both hands and read it aloud. So many people were bustling about that it was hard to make out what any particular priest was saying; but occasionally I could distinguish a strained voice pronouncing some phrase like “One thousand platforms on behalf of Lord So-and-so”.

I was kneeling down to pray, with the sash of my skirt hanging loosely over my shoulders, when a priest came up to me and said, “I have brought you this.” He was carrying a bough of anise, and I was delighted by the gesture.
Presently another priest came and told us that he had satisfactorily recited all our petitions and asked how long we expected to remain in retreat. He also gave us the names of some other people who were staying in the temple. When he had gone, the attendants brought us a brazier and some fruit. Our washing-water was poured into a bucket, and I noticed we had been given a basin without handles. A priest called for our servants and explained where they would be lodged; then, one at a time, the servants went off to their cells.

Now the bell rang for the recitation of the Sutras. It was very comforting to think that it rang for me. In the cell next to ours a solitary gentleman was prostrating himself in prayer. At first I thought that he might be doing it because he knew we were listening; but soon I realised that he was absorbed in his devotions, which he continued hour after hour. I was greatly moved. When he rested from his prayers, he started reading the Sutras in a voice that was no less impressive for being somewhat inaudible. I was wishing that he would read more loudly so that I might hear every word; but instead he stopped and blew his nose – not in a noisy, unpleasant way but gently and discreetly. I wondered what he could be praying for so fervently and hoped that his wish might be granted.

Usually when we stayed in temples the days passed rather quietly. The male attendants and boys who accompanied us would spend a good deal of time visiting the priests in their cells, and we were left with very little to do. Then the stillness of the day would be broken by the loud noise of the conch shell.
Or a messenger would arrive with an elegantly folded letter and offerings to pay for a recitation of the Sutras; laying everything down, he would call for the acolytes in a voice so powerful that it echoed among the hills. Sometimes the booming of the temple bell became louder and louder until I was overcome with curiosity about who had asked for the readings. Then someone would mention the name of a great family, adding, “It is a service of instruction and guidance for Her Ladyship's safe delivery!” An anxious period indeed, I thought, and would begin praying for the lady's well-being.

All this happened at an ordinary time, when life in the temple was fairly peaceful. In the First Month things are in an uproar. People are constantly arriving with their requests, and as I watch them I sometimes forget all about my own devotions.

One day at sunset a large party came to the temple, evidently intending to stay for a retreat. The acolytes bustled about efficiently, installing tall screens (which looked so heavy that I should not have thought they could possibly carry them) and flopping straw mats noisily on the floor. The visitors were taken directly to their quarters, and soon I heard a loud rustling sound as a blind was hung over the dog-barrier to separate their rooms from the sanctuary. All the arrangements were carried out in a most effortless fashion: the acolytes were used to their job.

Presently I heard another rustling sound – this time of silk. It came from a large group of elderly ladies, discreet in manner and distinguished in appearance, who were apparently leaving their quarters and returning home.
“Be careful about fire,” I heard one of them say. “These rooms are very dangerous.” Among their party was a boy of about seven who called for the attendants and spoke to them in a proud, charming voice that I found very attractive. There was also an adorable child, about two years old, who was coughing drowsily. I wished the mother or someone else would address its nurse by name so that I might find out who these people were.

The service continued all night, and it was so noisy that I could not get to sleep. After the matins I finally dozed off, only to be woken by a reading of the Sutra consecrated to the temple Buddha. The priests were reciting loudly and raucously, without making any effort to sound solemn. From their tone I gathered that they were travelling monks and, as I listened to their voices, which had awakened me so abruptly, I found myself being strangely moved.

I also remember a pleasant-looking young gentleman, evidently from a good family, who did not stay in his cell at night and performed all his devotions during the daytime. He was attractively dressed in wide, bluish-grey trousers and many layers of white robes. Several pages had accompanied him on his pilgrimage, and I enjoyed watching how respectfully they attended him. They had provided their master with a special screen, behind which he occasionally prostrated himself in prayer.

When staying at temples, I enjoy wondering who the strangers are; and it is also pleasant to recognise people one knows.

The young men who visited the temple were apt to wander near the women’s quarters and spend more time looking in that direction than at Buddha. Sometimes they would call for one of the sextons and, after a whispered consultation, set off for some other part of the temple. I saw nothing wrong in their behaviour.

At the end of the Second and beginning of the Third Months, when the cherry blossoms were in bloom, I made another pleasant retreat to the temple. Two or three good-looking gentlemen, apparently travelling incognito, arrived while I was there. They were elegantly dressed in cherry-blossom and willow robes, and they looked very distinguished with the ends of their laced trousers neatly tucked up and fastened. They were accompanied by a very proper-looking attendant, who held an attractively decorated bag of provisions. Their page-boys, who carried flowering branches of cherry blossom, wore hunting costumes of plum red and bright green, with vari-coloured under-robes and skirts printed with scattered patches of colour. Also in their party was a slender retainer, who looked, extremely attractive as he beat the gong at the entrance to the temple. I recognised one of the gentlemen. Of course he had no way of knowing that I was at the temple, and he did not notice me as he passed near where I stood. Though I had no particular desire to meet him, this rather saddened me. “If only I could let him know!” I thought, and found my feelings somewhat strange.


Hase Temple