Under autumn skies

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu, 10th Century

THE Tale of Genji, considered the first novel to be written anywhere in the world, has been my passage to a secret world of unmitigated beauty and pure sentiments. Here, within its thousand-odd cloistered pages are the lives and love and sorrow of a gentle people, long before there were samurais, emperor worship and other bloodthirsty rituals of medieval and modern Japan.

In Genji’s world, one is judged according to one’s skill in calligraphy, poetry composition, dance performance and expressing one's sentiments in music. One takes pleasure wearing fine kimono, gossiping about old lovers, exchanging slips of poems with beautiful women behind screen doors, attending religious festivals, listening to an extended reading of the Lotus Sutra, and shedding a tear over the falling leaves of autumn. And occasionally, when the stress of the world is too much to bear, one retires into a Buddhist retreat hidden by mist and mountains.

The excerpts are from a translation by Edward Seidensticker (1976). Pages quoted are from the 1999 paperback edition:

I plow my field

I plow my field in Hitachi
You have made your way, this rainy night
Over mountains and over moor
To see if I have a lover.
– p107

Changes through the seasons

But aside from house and family, it is nature that gives me the most pleasure, the changes through the seasons, the blossoms and leaves of autumn and spring, the shifting patterns of the skies. People have always debated the relative merits of the groves of spring and the fields of autumn, and had trouble coming to a conclusion.

I have been told that in China nothing is held to surpass the brocades of spring, but in the poetry of our own country the preference would seem to be for the wistful notes of autumn. I watch them come and go and must allow each its points, and in the end am unable to decide between song of bird and hue of flower.

I go further: within the limits allowed by my narrow gardens, I have sought to bring in what I can of the seasons, the flowering trees of spring and the flowering grasses of autumn, and the humming of insects that would go.

Most pleasant arrangement of lakes and hills

The new Rokujo mansion was finished in the Eighth Month and people began moving in. The southwest quarter was assigned to Akikonomu as her home away from the palace. The northeast quarter was assigned to the lady of the orange blossoms, who had occupied the east lodge at Nijo, and the northwest quarter to the lady from Akashi. The wishes of the ladies themselves were consulted in designing the new gardens, a most pleasant arrangement of lakes and hills.

The hills were high in the southeast quarter, where spring-blossoming trees and bushes were planted in large numbers. The lake was most ingeniously designed. Among the plantings in the forward parts of the garden were cinquefoil pines, maples, cherries, wisteria, yamabuki, and rock azalea, most of them trees and shrubs whose season was spring. Touches of autumn too were scattered through the groves.

In Akikonomu’s garden the plantings, on hills left from the old garden, were chosen for rich autumn colours. Clear spring water went singing off into the distance, over rocks designed to enhance the music. There was a waterfall, and the whole expanse was like an autumn moor. Since it was now autumn, the garden was a wild profusion of autumn flowers and leaves, such as to shame the hills of Oi.

In the northeast quarter there was a cool natural spring and the plans had the summer sun in mind. In the forward parts of the garden the wind through thickets of Chinese bamboo would be cool in the summer, and the trees were deep and mysterious as mountain groves. There was a hedge of mayflower, and there were oranges to remind the lady of days long gone. There were wild carnations and roses and gentianst and a few spring and autumn flowers as well. Apart of the quarter was fenced off for equestrian grounds. Since the Fifth Month would be its liveliest time, there were irises along the lake. On the far side were stables where the finest of horses would be kept.

And finally the northwest quarter: beyond artificial hillocks to the north were rows of warehouses, screened off by pines which would be beautiful in new falls of snow. The chrysanthemum hedge would bloom in the morning frosts of early winter, when also a grove of "mother oaks" would display its best hues. And in among the deep groves were mountain trees which one would have been hard put to identify.
– p384

Full moon

One is always moved by the full moon, said Genji. But somehow the moon this evening takes me to other worlds.
– p672

Someone far away was reading a sutra

It was the middle of the Ninth Month, a time when not even the most insensitive of men can be unaware of the mountain colours. The autumn winds tore at the trees and the leaves of the vines seemed fearful of being left behind. Someone far away was reading a sutra, and someone was invoking the Holy Name, and for the rest Ono seemed deserted.

Indifferent to the clappers meant to frighten them from the harvest, the deer that sought shelter by the garden fences were sombre spots among the hues of autumn. A stag bayed plaintively, and the roar of a waterfall was as if meant to break in upon sad thoughts.

Insect songs, less insistent, among the brown grasses, seemed to say that they must go but did not know where. Gentians peered from the grasses, heavy with dew, as if they alone might be permitted to stay on.

The sights and sounds of autumn, ordinary enough, but recast by the occasion and the place into a melancholy scarcely to be borne.
– p695

Living in the mountains

Mountain upon mountain separated his (the Eighth Prince) dwelling from the larger world. Rough people of the lower classes, woodcutters and the like, sometimes came by to do chores for him. There were no other callers. The gloom continued day after day, as stubborn and clinging as “the morning mist on the peaks”.

My gloomy thoughts run on and on, broken
As the morning mist on the peaks the wild geese pass. [Kokinshu 935]

There happened to be in those Uji mountains an abbot, a most saintly man. Though famous for his learning, he seldom took part in public rites. He heard in the course of time that there was a prince living nearby, a man who was teaching himself the mysteries of the Good Law. Thinking this a most admirable undertaking, he made bold to visit the prince, who upon subsequent interviews was led deeper into the texts he had studied over the years. The prince became more immediately aware of what was meant by the transience and uselessness of the material world.

“In spirit,” he confessed, quite one with the holy man, “I have perhaps found my place upon the lotus of the clear pond; but I have not yet made my last farewells to the world because I cannot bring myself to leave my daughters behind.”

(The young man Kaoru, who heard from the abbot about the prince in his mountain dwelling, longed to see for himself that figure so wrapped in the serenity of religion.)

“I have every intention of calling on him and asking him to be my master,” Kaoru said to the abbot. “Might I ask you to find out, unobtrusively, of course, how he would greet the possibility?”

When the abbot met the prince, he spoke of Kaoru. “He asked me most earnestly to tell you about him: to tell you that he has longed since childhood to give himself up to study of the scriptures; that he has been kept busy with inconsequential affairs, public and private, and has been unable to leave the world; that since these affairs are trivial in any case and no one could call his career a brilliant one, he could hardly expect people to notice if he were to lock himself up in prayers and meditation; that he has had an unfortunate way of letting himself be distracted. And when he had entrusted me with all this, he added that, having heard through me of your own revered person, he could not take his mind from you, and was determined to be your pupil.”

“When there has been a great misfortune,” said the prince, “when the whole world seems hostile – that is when most people come to think it a flimsy facade, and wish to have no more of it. I can only marvel that a young man for whom everything lies ahead, who has had everything his way, should start thinking of other worlds. In my own case, it often seems to me, the powers deliberately arranged matters to give my mind such a turn, and so I came to religion as if it were the natural thing. I have managed to find a certain amount of peace, I suppose; but when I think of the short time I have left and of how slowly my preparations creep forward, I know that what I have learned comes to nothing and that in the end it will still be nothing. No, I am afraid I would be a scandalously bad teacher. Let him think of me as a fellow seeker after truth, a very humble one.”

Kaoru and the prince exchanged letters and presently Kaoru paid his first visit. The house itself was like a grass hut put up for a few days' shelter, and as for the furnishings, everything even remotely suggesting luxury had been dispensed with. There were mountain villages that had their own quiet charm; but here the tumult of the waters and the wailing of the wind must make it impossible to have a moment free of sad thoughts. He could see why a man on the way to enlightenment might seek out such a place as a means of cutting his ties with the world.

Deeply moved by the saintly figure before him, he offered the warmest avowals of friendship. His visits were frequent thereafter. Nowhere did he find evidence of shallowness in the discourses to which he was treated; nor was there a suggestion of pompousness in the prince’s explanations of the Scriptures and of his profoundly significant reasons, even though he had stopped short of taking the tonsure, for living in the mountains.

The world was full of saintly and learned men, but the stiff, forbidding bishops and patriarchs who were such repositories of virtue had little time of their own, and he found it far from easy to approach them with his questions. Then there were lesser disciples of the Buddha. They were to be admired for observing the discipline, it was true; but they tended to be vulgar and obsequious in their manner and rustic in their speech, and they could be familiar to the point of rudeness. Since Kaoru was busy with official duties in the day, it was in the quiet of the evening, in the intimacy of his private chambers, that he liked to have company. Such people would not do.

Now he had found a man who combined great elegance with a reticence that certainly was not obsequious, and who, even when he was discussing the Good Law, was adept at bringing plain, familiar similes into his discourse. He was not, perhaps, among the completely enlightened, but people of birth and culture have their own insights into the nature of things. After repeated visits Kaoru came to feel that he wanted to be always at the prince’s side, and he would be overtaken by intense longing when official duties kept him away for a time.

Three years went by. It was the end of autumn, and the time had come for the quarterly reading of the Scriptures. The roar of the fish weirs was more than a man could bear, said the Eighth Prince as he set off for the abbot's monastery, there to spend a week in retreat.
– p782, 783

Fireflies

The firefly burns but makes no comment,
Sometimes silence tells of deeper thoughts.
– p432


Contents

Tale of Genji in 10 volumes, from Kinokuniya bookshop, Singapore, Francis Chin 1999