Deep Dreams

10 - Urashima Taro and Goddess Kwannon.

Urashima Taro sees some kids and wishes he never had. A bunch of Buddhist philosophy later, this episode is either extremely profound or complete garbage.


Long, long ago in the province of Tango there lived on the shore of Japan in the little fishing village of Mizu-no-ye a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father had been a fisherman before him, and his skill had more than doubly descended to his son, for Urashima was the most skillful fisher in all that country side, and could catch more Bonito and Tai in a day than his comrades could in a week.

But in the little fishing village, more than for being a clever fisher of the sea was he known for his kind heart. In his whole life he had never hurt anything, either great or small, and when a boy, his companions had always laughed at him, for he would never join with them in teasing animals, but always tried to keep them from this cruel sport.

One soft summer twilight he was going home at the end of a days fishing when he came upon a group of children. They were all squabbling together, and seemed to be in some dispute over a basket. On drawing near Urashima saw that the basket contained a tiny baby who was sobbing piteously.

"What are you doing with the baby?" demanded Urashima.

"We found it in the forest," said one of the children; "it must have been abandoned by its parents. What are we to do with it?"

"Bring it home to my house," said Urashima; "my wife and I will look after it."

The children carried the basket to Urashimas house and he quickly told his wife about the baby. Then she at once began to prepare a bed for it and soon had the little one lying comfortably in a soft bed of cotton wool. So the baby grew big and strong day by day, and Urashima and his wife loved it dearly, and were very happy, for they had been childless for many years.

About this time there occurred in the village an epidemic called "ka-tsue," which is peculiar to Japan, and very deadly. The doctor told Urashima that this disease was very prevalent just now, that even healthy people had caught it, and that those who were ill would certainly die. So great was the terror of this illness among the people that when anyone felt weak and tired all work was immediately stopped, everything was put aside until the unfortunate became well again, or until he died; then the houses in which he had lived were burned to the ground so that no trace of infection might remain. So great was their fear of this disease that men would rather die than go on living for even a short time if they got this illness.

Urashima went about his work as usual at first, but one evening he felt so tired and weak that he could not fish any more, so he went home. The baby was awake and smiling, but when its mother saw Urashima look so ill she was troubled, and begged him to go to bed at once. He tried to rest but could not sleep, so he gradually fell into a doze; then there appeared before him a beautiful lady dressed in pure white with long black hair that flowed down over her shoulders like a waterfall. Her face was soft and gentle and her voice sweet as she spoke:

"Urashima Taro, because of your great sympathy for suffering humanity I come from Yue-do to thank you for your tender care of our child and to give you this medicine which will cure you of your illness." So saying she handed him an oblong object about two inches long by half an inch wide! It looked like amber, but it was transparent, like crystal. Urashima rubbed his eyes in wonder for he thought he must be dreaming; then taking the object from the ladys hands he put it to his lips, when instantly his strength came back, and without telling anyone what had occurred he went off next morning to his fishing as usual. The month passed, but still he did not grow any worse; then on the 30th day something happened which made him believe that he had indeed seen a fairy being in his house during his illness. His daughter who had been there all the time fell ill of the same disease as himself; when she felt her end drawing near she called her father and mother to her side and said,

"Before I go away from you forever I want you both to swear an oath that yon will never forget me or my last words, but that every year on this day you will offer food and wine to my spirit and will not forget my grave." Then she closed her eyes without another word or moan and in another moment expired without pain. Urashima laid his dead child tenderly under the eaves of their house with her face turned toward the south and went out alone into the dark forest saying,

"If there is any mercy or justice under heaven surely my poor child cannot have died for nothing!" A single red tear rolled down his wrinkled cheek as with trembling hands he sought for firewood in order to make a fire at sunset on which to offer up a prayer for his childs spirit; then having found some wood he made a rough fire on which he laid five pieces of dry seaweed as an offering to Benzaiten,the Buddhist Goddess of Music,and five pieces of dry oak-tree bark as an offering to Kwannon,the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy,and five pieces of dry grasses as an offering to Suijo,the Buddhist God of Wealth,also five pieces of dry grasses as an offering to Hotei,the Buddhist God of Happiness,and lastly five small fishes which he boiled in seawater at dusk over his small cooking fire placed towards the south close beside a rock on which some sacred Buddhist writing could be faintly seen. When all was ready he prayed as follows:

"O ye Gods whom I have invoked at sunset today make me truly thankful for all past favors shown unto me since childhood when I left my native land never again to return until death has claimed me as his own appointed prey! O Gods let my prayer be heard by one or other of your Ministers who reigns supreme over this land where I now dwell! I pray thee let thy heart be moved with pity at my pitiful prayers! Good Gods deliver my dead child from pain and suffering! Bestow upon her happiness such as thou hast promised those who faithfully follow thy precepts! Bestow upon her happiness such as thou hast promised those who faithfully follow thy precepts! O benevolent Gods hear my prayer! O merciful Gods hear my prayer!"

Then for the first time Urashima wept for his daughter as though his heart would break. Suddenly a soft fragrant odor as of incense was wafted from some unknown quarter and fell upon his face like a benediction from above. As he marvelled at the strange sweetness of the air he heard a voice saying,—

"Be comforted, thou foolish man! I am Kwannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy! I have come to prove if thou art worthy of my love and protection! For many long years hast thou lived in this place seeking for happiness with unwearied patience and yet thou hast not found it; but now in thy old age thou shalt obtain it, not in this poor disguise of mortal flesh but in the guise wherewith I shall clothe thee; for I will show thee that all things are illusion—the happy as well as the sad—and illusion must pass away like a fleeting dream! Therefore turn thy face to the south. Look up and behold that which is written on the sacred rock there!"

As Urashima looked up he saw that on the rock there was indeed some sacred writing which he could not read; but written or not written there words appeared on that sacred rock which he could read with ease. They were these:—

"The body of man is like unto an inn wherein rest temporarily the traveller called 'Soul.' “This Soul cannot exist without the aid of the five senses; therefore those who would deliver their Souls from love or hate, joy or sorrow must destroy their five senses by entering into Death’s peaceful vale."

When Urashima had read what was written on the sacred rock he knew that his daughter was dead; but as yet he did not understand how she had obtained peace from her sufferings. Then suddenly appeared before him a being more beautiful than mortal eyes have ever seen, holding in her hand a gold seal-cylinder which she gave to him saying,—

"Thou foolish aged man! Why art thou so unhappy? If thou wilt not believe that thy child’s sufferings are illusions how canst thou find peace? Take this seal and placing the last seal, which thou hast never set aside since the day thou didst first receive it, with this one seal on thy forehead press both seals tightly until they hurt thy flesh and draw blood. Then shalt thou know that all things are nought but illusions."

When Urashima heard these words spoken by that beautiful being so strangely and unknown to him he cried out in fear:—

"O blessed Kwannon! I did not think to hear thee speak thus. Canst thou mean that I should kill myself?"

To this Kwannon replied with tenderness:—

"Thou foolish one! Hast thou forgotten all I have said? I do not ask thee to slay thyself, but only to destroy illusion!"

Then Urashima grew sadder than before for he thought; "If all things are illusions how can I destroy illusion?" As soon as this doubt arose within him he felt as if his soul were slipping from his grasp, so great was his astonishment at hearing that all things were illusion!

"Oh Kwannon," he cried in dismay, "tell me who am I? What am I?"

There-upon the Goddess spread her five scarlet fingers towards the south and touching him on his breast said:—"Look!" Urashima looked down at his hands and saw that they were neither hands nor feet but hoofs,—hoofs brown with age and cracked with travel! His hair was neither hair nor wool, but grey wisps of grasses clinging together,—grasses dried by long years of sunshine and wind and rain,—grasses which no strength could hold together! His shoulders were neither shoulders nor back but only two knotted branches of trees,—withered branches stripped by heavy snowfall,—withered branches which no man could climb! His body was neither flesh nor skin but only weather-beaten rocks,—rocks worn smooth by the waves of many seas,—rocks hardened by sunlit days and bitter frosty nights,—rocks over which no garment could fitly be thrown. And lastly his head was no longer a human head, but only an old withered stump which had once been struck by an axe,—an old stump which no grass would ever grow upon again even though hundreds and thousands of years should pass!

Then Urashima wept when he saw that his head had become nothing more than old driftwood washed up on a lonely beach. Then said Kwannon gently,—

"O foolish man! Why art thou dismayed at seeing such changes in thine own body? Hearest thou not these voices now shouting loudly across the sea announcing to all this land that a new victim has been found? Hearest thou not these voices cried so loud that they might be heard above the crash of thunder? Hast thou never seen flowers bloom in spring time or die in autumn?"

Urashima shook his head sadly and said:— "I have never seen such changes because I have lived too long shut up within my own house."—"Nay," replied Kwannon "thou dost not understand what I say. Thou hast seen these things but hast hidden them from thine eyes lest they should wring thy heart with grief. All things change excepting only Gods who rule forever,—never changing midnight into mid-day nor mid-day into midnight! It is only when Gods become men or men become Gods that change comes upon them. Therefore look at thyself now!"

When Urashima heard these words spoken by that gentle voice he looked down at himself again and found himself changed into an ugly crab,—a crab covered with hard shells save only at its left side under its arm where there was a soft spot unprotected by any shell. Then grieving sorely at seeing himself thus distorted into an object so loathsome Urashima cried out:—

"O merciful Goddess whom I worship! It is enough—I cannot bear it any longer!"

But Kwannon said:—"Peace be still!" And touching him again upon his breast she spoke softly to him saying:—"O foolish man! Thinkest thou it is for thy sake alone that I came hither to save thee from despair? There are thousands just like thee living even now after death just as before death excepting only for one thing; namely, when alive they knew not what life really meant nor what death really meant either! Now after death they know both life and death because they understand! It is my mercy alone which has brought me here to this sea shore to save sad hearts like thine from despair! Henceforth there shall be no more tears shed because of thy mournful memories of yore; henceforth there shall be no more sighs nor reproaches wrung from out thy bosom by thoughts of yore; henceforth all shall be forgotten as if it had never been! This true body before thee is called 'Crab,' but look within its heart where dwell mercy and justice together; then shalt thou find there written what name it bears."

As soon as Urashima heard these words spoken by Kwannon he lifted up his crab claws and tried to tear open the hard shells about his bosom. He tried and he tried but could not succeed. Then again he cried out;—

"O merciful Goddess who has come from the heavenly jasper throne to save me from despair! Deign to show me mercy and tell me my name!"

And Kwannon answered saying:—"Thy name is written here. Just read what is here written."

Urashima looked into his own breast whereupon the hard shells all vanished away leaving his bosom as white and soft as a lily. He looked down upon his feet which he found were now those of a crane and then he said:—"O merciful Goddess! I have now learned my lesson! My name is written on my body so that I may remember it forever after!"

Upon hearing these words spoken by Urashima Kwannon smiled and spoke thus:—"Thou hast now learned that mercy and justice dwell in thy bosom together with other virtues which thou mayst make use of at proper times by being just and merciful unto others; for often people injure others without knowing why. To such thou canst say,—Like unto myself through my own foolishness, henceforth I pray thee be merciful unto others who, unknowing steal from thee thy position in life which thou didst know not how to keep in the first place because of thy lack of understanding. Thus shalt thou give them a chance to learn the lesson which thou hast already learned!"

Urashima could not find words with which to answer, so glad was he to find that he had passed that great test—finally realizing that mercy was only justice in disguise and justice mercy also! After this he begged her once more saying: "O merciful Kwannon who has come from the heavenly jasper throne to save me from despair! I have one more prayer to make which is that I may come back again and bring my wife and children with me!"

Kwannon answered:—"Thou askest much, but because I know thou dost sincerely wish it and because of the lessons thou hast learned there shall be granted unto thee that wish. However it must depend upon thyself if thou wilt ever return again."

Urashima rejoiced greatly when he heard these words, for now his mind was at rest and elated with joy he took leave of Kwannon and started off for home. But when he reached his house he found himself unable to understand any of the things he saw around him nor did those whom he met or met see him or know him either. Then realizing how long a time had passed since his departure for Dragon Island, Urashima felt sad at heart thinking that he would never be able to return to the Realm of Kwannon.

But, behold! as he stood outside his dwelling wondering what to do next there suddenly appeared before him an ugly, old crone bearing a basket full of sea water on her back. Then Urashima was greatly amazed so much so that he could hardly believe his own eyes. For it was just as though he were meeting an old acquaintance face to face after many years of separation. And this old crone addressed him saying:—"O foolish man! what are you doing standing there like one dazed? Know you not your own wife?"

Then said Urashima:—"Is this indeed my old wife or has she become an old crone like thyself? If it is indeed she then I pray you lead me at once to her dwelling."

The old woman turned round at once and led him into his own house where lo! there stood his wife sweeping the floor just as she used to do ever since she had become his bride. And when she saw Urashima standing before her she was greatly astonished, for it was just as though she were seeing a ghost from the realm of death; so after gazing at Urashima for some time she fell backward onto the floor swooning away in such great fear that Urashima thought she had actually died. But after a little while she came to herself again when Urashima spoke these glad-hearted words:—"O my beloved wife! It is very wrong of you indeed not to know your own husband any more when you see him!"

And as soon as these words had passed his lips Urashima's heart grew very light within himself so much so that he forgot all about yesterday's sorrows remembering only how happy they had been together during their youth before they themselves were changed into two ugly crabs,—how happy they were after they returned from their wedding trip intoxicated with happiness; how happy they were until all those bitter days ago when through no fault of his own Urashima found himself cast away alone upon Dragon Island where during six nights spent alone there without seeing a living soul nor even an animal nor any plant growing upon its shores excepting only one tall pine tree under whose shade he slept every night,—how happy they were and still are to this day.

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