‘Common Sense’ By Lafcadio Hearn (a short story set in Kyoto and contained in Kotto, 1902)
by Andrew Sokulski Zozaya (WiK intern)
Kyoto is a city with abundant temples and rich in Buddhist history, so it is not surprising that a tale about a priest would be set there. ‘Common Sense’ by Lafcadio Hearn is a story about a priest in a temple on Mt Atago who thought that after meditating and reciting the sutras for many years he could see the spirit of Fugen Bosatsu (a bodhisattva). However, a simple-minded hunter shot the apparition and explained to the priest afterwards that it was in fact a wild animal.
The story begins with the priest inviting the hunter to stay overnight and share his vision of Fugen Bosatsu. ‘You are aware that I have been meditating, and reciting the sutras daily, for many years; and it is possible that what has been vouchsafed me is due to the merit obtained through these religious exercises,’ he says. Filled with anticipation, the hunter obliges and asks a young acolyte if he has seen the vision, to which the boy replies that he has already seen it six times.
Though the hunter is doubtful, he is eager to see for himself. Close to midnight the priest opens the temple’s main doors and kneels down with the acolyte and the hunter behind to wait for the coming of Fugen Bosatsu. A white light like a star approaches, taking the shop of a divine being riding upon a white elephant with tusks. The priest and acolyte fervently repeated the invocation to the deity, but the hunter stood up and fired an arrow at it. The priest was left aghast: ‘O miserable man! O most wretched and miserable man! – what have you done?’
The hunter however responds by saying that if the priest was right, only he could have seen the holy vision for only he had accumulated merit. A hunger however kills for a living and the taking of life is hateful to the Buddhas. He then suggests the priest was deceived by goblinry and that they should wait till daylight to learn the truth. By the end of the story the priest has come to realise that what he thought to be Fugen Bosatsu was actually a great badger.
The lesson of the story is that even an intelligent, dedicated priest can lack common sense, which commoners on the other hand may have in full. It was the simple-minded hunter who spotted the great illusion and revealed the truth.
Historically, Kyoto was capital during the Heian period (794-1186), which is when the imperial class created many noteworthy contributions to the arts, such as the Tale of Genji. In this age there was a large divide between the wealthy and the poor, and a stringent class system was in place. As a result, the lower class were seen as simple-minded. As such, a hunter would not be one of the first people from whom to expect wisdom. However, his humility and open mindedness, since he is not encumbered by attachment to any particular teaching, allows him to see the situation clearly and react in a natural manner.
However, the priest’s mind is enscheckled by the belief that having recited the sutras repeatedly he is able to see Fugen Bosatsu, and this ironically becomes an immense obstacle on his path to enlightenment and seeing clearly. Moreover, the hunter, simply curious about things, was willing to accept the idea of chants producing a vision yet was just as willing to believe that it might not work. Therefore, when the ‘spirit’ of Fugen arises before the priest, the hunter promptly shoots it down knowing that it was not real.
Hearn’s story marks an interesting contrast between the priest, a well-renowned figure, and the hunter who is given little esteem. Being that Buddhist priests were part of the higher echelons of Japanese society, it is interesting to see a story in which the priest’s way of thought proved less reliable than that of the hunter. It is reminiscent too of Kyogen in which delight is taken in gently mocking priests.
Kyoto, as the old imperial and religious centre of Japan, retains traditional values and is devoted to the pursuit of a higher truth. A story such as this reminds us of the importance of common sense (in the story termed ‘mother wit’). It reminds us too that truth may come from a simple commoner as much as from a well-bred scholar.