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Japanese Gardens and Aesthetics

Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Japanese Films

Essential Dharma


The Clan of Matsuyama

SCA Resources
(The Chatelaine's Box)












a classic folktale

In a little house in a little old village in Japan lived a little old man and his little old wife. One morning when the old woman slid open the screens which form the sides of the Japanese houses, she saw on the doorstep a poor little sparrow. She took him up gently and fed him. Then she held him in the bright morning sunshine until the cold dew was dried from his wings. Afterward, she let him go, so that he might fly home to his nest, but he stayed with her to thank her with his songs.

Each morning, when the pink on the mountaintops told that the sun was near, the sparrow perched on the roof of the house and sang out his joy. The old man and woman thanked the sparrow for this, for they liked to be up early and at work. But near them lived a cross old woman who did not like to be awakened so early. At last she became so angry that she caught the sparrow and cut his tongue. Then the poor little sparrow flew away to his home. But he never could sing again.

When the kind woman knew what had happened to her pet she was very sad. She said to her husband, "Let us go and find our poor little sparrow." So they started together, and asked of each bird by the wayside: "Do you know where the tongue-cut sparrow lives? Do you know where the tongue-cut sparrow went?" In this way the followed until they came to a bridge. They did not know which way to turn, and at first could see no one to ask. At last they saw a bat, hanging head downward, taking his daytime nap. "O friend Bat, do you know where the tongue-cut sparrow went?"

"Yes. Over the bridge and up the mountain," said the bat. Then he blinked his sleepy eyes and was fast asleep again.They went over the bridge and up the mountain, but again they found two roads and did not know which one to take. A little field mouse peeped through the leaves and grass, so they asked him, "Do you know where the tongue-cut sparrow went?"

"Yes. Down the mountain and through the woods," said the field mouse. Down the mountain and through the woods they went, and at last came to the home of their little friend. When he saw them coming, the poor little sparrow was very happy indeed. He and his wife and children all came and bowed their heads down to the ground to show their respect. Then the sparrow rose and led the old man and the old woman into the house while his wife and children hastened to bring them boiled rice, fish, and cress. After they had feasted, the sparrow wished to please them still more, so he danced for them what is called the "sparrow dance."

When the sun began to sink, the old man and woman started home. The sparrow brought out two baskets. "I would like to give you one of these," he said. "Which will you take?" One basket was large and looked very full, while the other one seemed very small and light. The old people thought they would not take the large basket, for that might have all the sparrow's treasure in it, so they said, "The journey home is long, so please let us take the smaller one."

They took it and walked home over the mountain and across the bridge, happy and contented. When they reached their own home, they decided to open the basket to see what the sparrow had given them. Within the basket they found many rolls of silk and piles of gold, enough to make them rich, so they were more grateful than ever to the sparrow.

The cross old woman who had cut the sparrow's tongue was spying through the screen when they opened their basket. She saw the rolls of silk and piles of gold, and planned how she might get some for herself. The next morning she went to the kind woman and said, "I am so sorry that I cut the tongue of your sparrow. Please tell me the way to his home so that I may go to him and tell him I am sorry."

The kind woman told her the way and she set out. She went across the bridge, over the mountains, and through the woods. At last she came to the home of the little sparrow. He was not so glad to see this old woman, yet he was very kind to her and did everything to make her feel very welcome. They made a feast for her, and when she started home the sparrow brought out two baskets as before. Of course the cross old woman chose the large basket, for she thought that would have even more wealth than the other one. The basket was very heavy and caught on the trees as she was going through the wood. She could hardly pull it up the mountain with her, and she was all out of breath when she reached the top. She did not get to the bridge until it was dark. They she was so afraid of dropping the basket into the river that she scarcely dared to step. When at last she reached home she was tired out, but she pulled the screens tightly closed so that no one could look in, and opened her treasure.

Treasure indeed! A whole swarm of horrible creatures burst from the basket the moment she opened it. They stung her and bit her, they pushed her and pulled her, and scratched her. At last she crawled to the edge of the room and slid aside the screen to get away from the pests. The moment the door was opened they swooped down upon her, picked her up, and flew away with her. Since then nothing has been heard of the old woman.




Japan's capital city of Kyoto was devastated by earthquake, storm,and fire in the late 12th century. Retreating from "this unkind world," the poet and Buddhist priest Kamo-no-Chomei left the capital for the forested mountains, where he eventually constructed his famous "ten-foot-square" hut. From this solitary vantage point Chomei produced Hojoki, an extraordinary literary work that describes all he has seen of human misery and his new life of simple chores, walks, and acts of kindness. Yet at the end he questions his own sanity and the integrity of his purpose. Has he perhaps grown too attached to his detachment?

This is the prelude to Hojoki, the great work of literary witness of medieval Japan by the recluse Kamo-no-Chomei (1155-1216).

The flowing river

never stops

and yet the water

never stays

the same.

Foam floats

upon the pools,

scattering, re-forming,

never lingering long.

So it is with man

and all his dwelling places

here on earth.

Yuku kawa no nagare wa taezushite

shikamo moto no mizu ni arazu

yodomi ni ukabu utakata wa

katsu kie katsu musubite

hisashiku todomaritaru tameshi nashi

yononaka ni aru hito to sumika to

mata kaku no gotoshi




Creed of a Samurai

I have no parents - I make the heavens and earth my parents.

I have no home - I make awareness my home.

I have no life or death - I make the tides of breathing my life and death.

I have no divine power - I make honesty my divine power.

I have no means - I make understanding my means.

I have no magic secrets - I make character my magic secret.

I have no body - I make endurance my body.

I have no eyes - I make the flash of lightning my eyes.

I have no ears - I make sensibility my ears.

I have no limbs - I make promptness my limbs.

I have no strategy - I make "unshadowed by thought" my strategy.

I have no designs - I make "seizing the opportunity by the forelock" my design.

I have no miracles - I make right action my miracles.

I have no principles - I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles.

I have no tactics - I make emptiness and fullness my tactics.

I have no talents - I make ready wit my talent.

I have no friends - I make my mind my friend.

I have no enemy - I make carelessness my enemy.

I have no armor - I make benevolence and righteousness my armor.

I have no castle - I make immovable mind my castle.

I have no sword - I make absence of self my sword.

Anonymous samurai, fourteenth century




Some Zen Thoughts in Poetry

The priest and zen garden designer, Muso Soseki, who designed the garden at Tenriuji in the mid-1300's composed a poem about the garden and the natural beauty that surrounds it:

The sounds of the streams splash out the Buddha's sermon,

Don't say that the deepest meaning comes only from one's mouth,

Day and night, 80,000 poems arise one after the other,

And in fact, not a single word has ever been spoken.

The 16th century tea master Rikyu insisted on austere simplicity in the practice of tea and its related arts. In time, Rikyu's taste permeated much of Japanese culture. Centuries later, his descendants continue a practice that has been described in the following words:

In my hands, I hold a bowl of tea

I see all of nature represented in its green color

Closing my eyes, I find green mountains and pure water within my own heart

Silently drinking, I feel these become a part of me.




Japanese Death Poems

For hundreds of years, the Japanese have had the tradition of the death poem or jisei. The essential idea was that at one's final moment of life, one's reflection on death (one's own usually but also death in general) could be especially lucid and meaningful and therefore also constituted an important observation about life. The poem was considered a gift to one's loved ones, students, and friends. The tradition began with zen monks, but was also popular with poets, whose poems were often just as solomn as those of monks, or entirely flipant and humorous. The poems are often full of sybols of death, such as the full moon, the western sky, the song of the cuckoo, and images of the season in which the writer died. These examples are borrowed from Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death by Yoel Hoffmann.

Yoshitoshi was a printmaker who produced a series (among countless others) called "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon". His death poem reads:

Holding back the night

with it's increasing brilliance

the summer moon.

Basho is considered one of the greatest haiku poets of all time. His death poem reads:

On a journey, ill;

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields.

The zen master Kozan Ichikyo died in the winter of 1360 at the age of seventy-seven. A few days before his death, Kozan called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, and forbade them to hold services in his memory. He wrote this poem on the morning of his death, laid down his brush, and died sitting upright.

Empty-handed, I entered the world

barefoot, I leave it.

My coming, my going -

two simple happenings

that got entangled.

Zoso Royo died on the fifth day of the sixth month, 1276, at the age of eighty-four.

I pondered Buddha's teaching

a full four and eighty years.

The gates are all now

locked about me.

No one was ever here -

Who then is he about to die,

and why lament for nothing?


The night is clear,

the moon shines calmly,

the wind in the pines

is like a lyre's song.

With no I and no other

who hears the sound?