In Japan in the days of the remote Ancestors, near the little village of Shiobara, the river ran through rocks of a very strange blue colour, and the bed of the river was also composed of these rocks, so that the clear water ran blue as turquoise gems to the sea.
The great forests murmured beside it, and through their swaying boughs was breathed the song of Eternity. Those who listen may hear if their ears are open. To others it is but the idle sighing of the wind.
Now because of all this beauty there stood in these forests a roughly built palace of unbarked wood, and here the great Emperor would come from City-Royal to seek rest for his doubtful thoughts and the cares of state, turning aside often to see the moonlight in Shiobara. He sought also the free air and the sound of falling water, yet dearer to him than the plucked strings of sho and biwa. For he said;
“Where and how shall We find peace even for a moment, and afford Our heart refreshment even for a single second?”
And it seemed to him that he found such moments at Shiobara.
Only one of his great nobles would His Majesty bring with him—the Dainagon, and him be chose because he was a worthy and honorable person and very simple of heart.
There was yet another reason why the Son of Heaven inclined to the little Shiobara. It had reached the Emperor that a Recluse of the utmost sanctity dwelt in that forest. His name was Semimaru. He had made himself a small hut in the deep woods, much as a decrepit silkworm might spin his last Cocoon and there had the Peace found him.
It had also reached His Majesty that, although blind, he was exceedingly skilled in the art of playing the biwa, both in the Flowing Fount manner and the Woodpecker manner, and that, especially on nights when the moon was full, this aged man made such music as transported the soul. This music His Majesty desired very greatly to hear.
Never had Semimaru left his hut save to gather wood or seek food until the Divine Emperor commanded his attendance that he might soothe his august heart with music.
Now on this night of nights the moon was full and the snow heavy on the pines, and the earth was white also, and when the moon shone through the boughs it made a cold light like dawn, and the shadows of the trees were black upon it.
The attendants of His Majesty long since slept for sheer weariness, for the night was far spent, but the Emperor and the Dainagon still sat with their eyes fixed on the venerable Semimaru. For many hours he had played, drawing strange music from his biwa. Sometimes it had been like rain blowing over the plains of Adzuma, sometimes like the winds roaring down the passes of the Yoshino Mountains, and yet again like the voice of far cities. For many hours they listened without weariness, and thought that all the stories of the ancients might flow past them in the weird music that seemed to have neither beginning nor end.
“It is as the river that changes and changes not, and is ever and ever the same,” said the Emperor in his own soul.
And certainly had a voice announced to His Augustness that centuries were drifting by as he listened, he could have felt no surprise.
Before them, as they sat upon the silken floor cushions, was a small shrine with a Buddha shelf, and a hanging picture of the Amida Buddha within it—the expression one of rapt peace. Figures of Fugen and Fudo were placed before the curtain doors of the shrine, looking up in adoration to the Blessed One. A small and aged pine tree was in a pot of grey porcelain from Chosen—the only ornament in the chamber.
Suddenly His Majesty became aware that the Dainagon also had fallen asleep from weariness, and that the recluse was no longer playing, but was speaking in a still voice like a deeply flowing stream. The Emperor had observed no change from music to speech, nor could he recall when the music had ceased, so that it altogether resembled a dream.
“When I first came here”—the Venerable one continued—“it was not my intention to stay long in the forest. As each day dawned, I said; ‘In seven days I go.’ And again—‘In seven.’ Yet have I not gone. The days glided by and here have I attained to look on the beginnings of peace. Then wherefore should I go?—for all life is within the soul. Shall the fish weary of his pool? And I, who through my blind eyes feel the moon illuming my forest by night and the sun by day, abide in peace, so that even the wild beasts press round to hear my music. I have come by a path overblown by autumn leaves. But I have come.”
Then said the Divine Emperor as if unconsciously;
“Would that I also might come! But the august duties cannot easily be laid aside. And I have no wife—no son.”
And Semimaru, playing very softly on the strings of his biwa made no other answer, and His Majesty, collecting his thoughts, which had become, as it were, frozen with the cold and the quiet and the strange music, spoke thus, as if in a waking dream;
“Why have I not wedded? Because I have desired a bride beyond the women of earth, and of none such as I desire has the rumor reached me. Consider that Ancestor who wedded Her Shining Majesty! Evil and lovely was she, and the passions were loud about her. And so it is with women. Trouble and vexation of spirit, or instead a great weariness. But if the Blessed One would vouchsafe to my prayers a maiden of blossom and dew, with a heart calm as moonlight, her would I wed. O, honorable One, whose wisdom surveys the world, is there in any place near or far—in heaven or in earth, such a one that I may seek and find?”
And Semimaru, still making a very low music on his biwa, said this;
“Supreme Master, where the Shiobara River breaks away through the gorges to the sea, dwelt a poor couple—the husband a wood-cutter. They had no children to aid in their toil, and daily the woman addressed her prayers for a son to the Bodhisattwa Kwannon, the Lady of Pity who looketh down for ever upon the sound of prayer. Very fervently she prayed, with such offerings as her poverty allowed, and on a certain night she dreamed this dream. At the shrine of the Senju Kwannon she knelt as was her custom, and that Great Lady, sitting enthroned upon the Lotos of Purity, opened Her eyes slowly from Her divine contemplation and heard the prayer of the wood-cutter’s wife. Then stooping like a blown willow branch, she gathered a bud from the golden lotos plant that stood upon her altar, and breathing upon it it became pure white and living, and it exhaled a perfume like the flowers of Paradise, This flower the Lady of Pity flung into the bosom of her petitioner, and closing Her eyes returned into Her divine dream, whilst the woman awoke, weeping for joy.
“But when she sought in her bosom for the Lotos it was gone. Of all this she boasted loudly to her folk and kin, and the more so, when in due time she perceived herself to be with child, for, from that august favour she looked for nothing less than a son, radiant with the Five Ornaments of riches, health, longevity, beauty, and success. Yet, when her hour was come, a girl was born, and blind.”
“Was she welcomed?” asked the dreaming voice of the Emperor.
“Augustness, but as a household drudge. For her food was cruelty and her drink tears. And the shrine of the Senju Kwannon was neglected by her parents because of the disappointment and shame of the unwanted gift. And they believed that, lost in Her divine contemplation, the Great Lady would not perceive this neglect. The Gods however are known by their great memories.”
“Majesty, Tsuyu-Morning Dew. And like the morning dew she shines in stillness. She has repaid good for evil to her evil parents, serving them with unwearied service.”
“What distinguishes her from others?”
“Augustness, a very great peace. Doubtless the shadow of the dream of the Holy Kwannon. She works, she moves, she smiles as one who has tasted of content.”
“Has she beauty?”
“Supreme Master, am I not blind? But it is said that she has no beauty that men should desire her. Her face is flat and round, and her eyes blind.”
“And yet content?”
“Philosophers might envy her calm. And her blindness is without doubt a grace from the excelling Pity, for could she see her own exceeding ugliness she must weep for shame. But she sees not. Her sight is inward, and she is well content.”
“Where does she dwell?”
“Supreme Majesty, far from here—where in the heart of the woods the river breaks through the rocks.”
“Venerable One, why have you told me this? I asked for a royal maiden wise and beautiful, calm as the dawn, and you have told me of a wood-cutter’s drudge, blind and ugly.”
And now Semimaru did not answer, but the tones of the biwa grew louder and clearer, and they rang like a song of triumph, and the Emperor could hear these words in the voice of the strings.
“She is beautiful as the night, crowned with moon and stars for him who has eyes to see. Princess Splendour was dim beside her; Prince Fireshine, gloom! Her Shining Majesty was but a darkened glory before this maid. All beauty shines within her hidden eyes.”
And having uttered this the music became wordless once more, but it still flowed on more and more softly like a river that flows into the far distance.
The Emperor stared at the mats, musing—the light of the lamp was burning low. His heart said within him;
“This maiden, cast like a flower from the hand of Kwannon Sama, will I see.”
And as he said this the music had faded away into a thread-like smallness, and when after long thought he raised his august head, he was alone save for the Dainagon, sleeping on the mats behind him, and the chamber was in darkness. Semimaru had departed in silence, and His Majesty, looking forth into the broad moonlight, could see the track of his feet upon the shining snow, and the music came back very thinly like spring rain in the trees. Once more he looked at the whiteness of the night, and then, stretching his august person on the mats, he slept amid dreams of sweet sound.
The next day, forbidding any to follow save the Dainagon, His Majesty went forth upon the frozen snow where the sun shone in a blinding whiteness. They followed the track of Semimaru’s feet far under the pine trees so heavy with their load of snow that they were bowed as if with fruit. And the track led on and the air was so still that the cracking of a bough was like the blow of a hammer, and the sliding of a load of snow from a branch like the fall of an avalanche. Nor did they speak as they went. They listened, nor could they say for what.
Then, when they had gone a very great way, the track ceased suddenly, as if cut off, and at this spot, under the pines furred with snow, His Majesty became aware of a perfume so sweet that it was as though all the flowers of the earth haunted the place with their presence, and a music like the biwa of Semimaru was heard in the tree tops. This sounded far off like the whispering of rain when it falls in very small leaves, and presently it died away, and a voice followed after, singing, alone in the woods, so that the silence appeared to have been created that such a music might possess the world. So the Emperor stopped instantly, and the Dainagon behind him and he heard these words.
“In me the Heavenly Lotos grew,
The fibres ran from head to feet,
And my heart was the august Blossom.
Therefore the sweetness flowed through the veins of my flesh,
And I breathed peace upon all the world,
And about me was my fragrance shed
That the souls of men should desire me.”
Now, as he listened, there came through the wood a maiden, bare—footed, save for grass sandals, and clad in coarse clothing, and she came up and passed them, still singing.
And when she was past, His Majesty put up his hand to his eyes, like one dreaming, and said;
“What have you seen?”
And the Dainagon answered;
“Augustness, a country wench, flat—faced, ugly and blind, and with a voice like a crow. Has not your Majesty seen this?”
The Emperor, still shading his eyes, replied;
“I saw a maiden so beautiful that her Shining Majesty would be a black blot beside her. As she went, the Spring and all its sweetness blew from her garments. Her robe was green with small gold flowers. Her eyes were closed, but she resembled a cherry tree, snowy with bloom and dew. Her voice was like the singing flowers of Paradise.”
The Dainagon looked at him with fear and compassion;
“Augustness, how should such a lady carry in her arms a bundle of firewood?”
“She bore in her hands three lotos flowers, and where each foot fell I saw a lotos bloom and vanish.”
They retraced their steps through the wood; His Majesty radiant as Prince Fireshine with the joy that filled his soul; the Dainagon darkened as Prince Firefade with fear, believing that the strange music of Semimaru had bewitched His Majesty, or that the maiden herself might possibly have the power of the fox in shape-changing and bewildering the senses.
Very sorrowful and careful was his heart for he loved his Master.
That night His Majesty dreamed that he stood before the kakemono of the Amida Buddha, and that as he raised his eyes in adoration to the Blessed Face, he beheld the images of Fugen and Fudo, rise up and bow down before that One Who Is. Then, gliding in, before these Holinesses stood a figure, and it was the wood-cutter’s daughter homely and blinded. She stretched her hands upward as though invoking the supreme Buddha, and then turning to His Majesty she smiled upon him, her eyes closed as in bliss unutterable. And he said aloud.
“Would that I might see her eyes!” and so saying awoke in a great stillness of snow and moonlight.
Having waked, he said within himself
“This marvel will I wed and she shall be my Empress were she lower than the Eta, and whether her face be lovely or homely. For she is certainly a flower dropped from the hand of the Divine.”
So when the sun was high His Majesty, again followed by the Dainagon, went through the forest swiftly, and like a man that sees his goal, and when they reached the place where the maiden went by, His Majesty straitly commanded the Dainagon that he should draw apart, and leave him to speak with the maiden; yet that he should watch what befell.
So the Dainagon watched, and again he saw her come, very poorly clad, and with bare feet that shrank from the snow in her grass sandals, bowed beneath a heavy load of wood upon her shoulders, and her face flat and homely like a girl of the people, and her eyes blind and shut.
And as she came she sang this.
“The Eternal way lies before him,
The way that is made manifest in the Wise.
The Heart that loves reveals itself to man.
For now he draws nigh to the Source.
The night advances fast,
And lo! the moon shines bright.”
And to the Dainagon it seemed a harsh crying nor could he distinguish any words at all.
But what His Majesty beheld was this. The evening had come on and the moon was rising. The snow had gone. It was the full glory of spring, and the flowers sprang thick as stars upon the grass, and among them lotos flowers, great as the wheel of a chariot, white and shining with the luminance of the pearl, and upon each one of these was seated an incarnate Holiness, looking upward with joined hands. In the trees were the voices of the mystic Birds that are the utterance of the Blessed One, proclaiming in harmony the Five Virtues, The Five Powers, the Seven Steps ascending to perfect Illumination, the Noble Eightfold Path, and all the Law. And, bearing, in the heart of the Son of Heaven awoke the Three Remembrances—the Remembrance of Him who is Blessed, Remembrance of the Law, and Remembrance of the Communion of the Assembly.
So, looking upward to the heavens, he beheld the Infinite Buddha, high and lifted up in a great raying glory. About Him were the exalted Bodhisattwas, the mighty Disciples, great Arhats all, and all the countless Angelhood. And these rose high into the infinite until they could be seen but as a point of fire against the moon. With this golden multitude beyond all numbering was He.
Then, as His Majesty had seen in the dream of the night, the wood-cutter’s daughter, moving through the flowers like one blind that gropes his way, advanced before the Blessed Feet, and uplifting her hands, did adoration, and her face he could not see, but his heart went with her, adoring also the infinite Buddha seated in the calms of boundless Light.
Then enlightenment entered at his eyes, as a man that wakes from sleep, and suddenly he beheld the Maiden crowned and robed and terrible in beauty, and her feet were stayed upon an open lotos, and his soul knew the Senju Kwannon Herself, myriad-armed for the helping of mankind.
And turning, she smiled as in the vision, but his eyes being now clear her blinded eyes were opened, and that glory who shall tell as those living founts of Wisdom rayed upon him their ineffable light? In that ocean was his being drowned, and so, bowed before the Infinite Buddha, he received the Greater Illumination.
How great is the Glory of Kwannon!
When the radiance and the vision were withdrawn and only the moon looked over the trees, His Majesty rose upon his feet, and standing on the snow, surrounded with calm, he called to the Dainagon, and asked this;
“What have you seen?”
“Augustness, nothing but the country wench and moon and snow.”
“Augustness, nothing but the harsh voice of the wood-cutter’s daughter.”
“Augustness, nothing but the bone-piercing cold.” So His Majesty adored that which cannot be uttered, saying;
“So Wisdom, so Glory encompass us about, and we see them not for we are blinded with illusion. Yet every stone is a jewel and every clod is spirit and to the hems of the Infinite Buddha all cling. Through the compassion of the Supernal Mercy that walks the earth as the Bodhisattwa Kwannon, am I admitted to wisdom and given sight and hearing. And what is all the world to that happy one who has beheld Her eyes!”
And His Majesty returned through the forest.
When, the next day, he sent for the venerable Semimaru that holy recluse had departed and none knew where. But still when the moon is full a strange music moves in the tree tops of Shiobara.
Then His sacred Majesty returned to City-Royal, having determined to retire into the quiet life, and there, abandoning the throne to a kinsman wise in greatness, he became a dweller in the deserted hut of Semimaru.
His life, like a descending moon approaching the hill that should hide it, was passed in meditation on that Incarnate Love and Compassion whose glory had augustly been made known to him, and having cast aside all save the image of the Divine from his soul, His Majesty became even as that man who desired enlightenment of the Blessed One.
For he, desiring instruction, gathered precious flowers, and journeyed to present them as an offering to the Guatama Buddha. Standing before Him, he stretched forth both his hands holding the flowers.
Then said the Holy One, looking upon his petitioner’s right hand;
“Loose your hold of these.”
And the man dropped the flowers from his right hand. And the Holy One looking upon his left hand, said;
“Loose your hold of these.”
And, sorrowing, he dropped the flowers from his left hand. And again the Master said;
“Loose your hold of that which is neither in the right nor in the left.”
And the disciple said very pitifully;
“Lord, of what should I loose my hold for I have nothing left?”
And He looked upon him steadfastly.
Therefore at last understanding he emptied his soul of all desire, and of fear that is the shadow of desire, and being enlightened relinquished all burdens.
So was it also with His Majesty. In peace he dwelt, and becoming a great Arhat, in peace he departed to that Uttermost Joy where is the Blessed One made manifest in Pure Light.
As for the parents of the maiden, they entered after sore troubles into peace, having been remembered by the Infinite. For it is certain that the enemies also of the Supreme Buddha go to salvation by thinking on Him, even though it be against Him.
And he who tells this truth makes this prayer to the Lady of Pity;
“Grant me, I pray, One dewdrop from Thy willow spray, And in the double Lotos keep My hidden heart asleep.”
How great is the Glory of Kwannon!