Karma and Japanese Folklore

Folklore, or a set of customary stories belonging to a specific culture, has contributed to the way that people understand and interpret the world. Within this piece, I will first give a brief summary of the Japanese myth A Bell and the Power of Karma. I will then give a short overview of the Buddhist concept of karma, in order to convey the importance of this notion in Eastern moral thought, so that the reader can better understand how this concept is central to the meaning of this fable. Finally, I will hope to show that this myth is a good parable to know, due to the fact that it stresses the importance of being committed to one’s duties, even when their interests are in opposition to them, as well as the usefulness of karma.

The Japanese legend A Bell and the Power of Karma, is a myth about a young and beautiful tea-house maiden, Kiyo, and a Buddhist priest who becomes intoxicated by her charm. Though this Buddhist priest knows that he is not to engage in any sensual pleasures, such as luxurious food, drink, or frequenting tea-houses, he is nonetheless tempted to do so because of his lust for Kiyo. The priest then visits her at the tea-house, and even though he knows it is a grave sin for him to frequent such a place, he nevertheless visits and his stay results in him and Kiyo succumbing to their passion for one another. Though intense, their relationship does not last long, due to the priest ending his affair with Kiyo, because of his guilty conscience, which especially torments him as he continually ponders how he was so disregarding of his monastic promise to seek true spiritual liberation by giving into the weaknesses of the flesh.

The fable continues with Kiyo, who has now taken notice of the priest’s recent aloofness as well as his lack of frequenting the tea-house, cursing him and wishing that he may die an agonizing death. Though Kiyo tries everything in her power to make the priest love her once more, nothing works, he refuses, and consequently, she visits the Japanese god of wisdom, Fudo, in order to learn how to kill the priest she once loved. After diligent prayer, Fudo leads Kiyo to a shrine of the god Kompira, who can teach Kiyo the ways of sorcery, so that she may be able to put an end to the clergyman’s life. Overtime, Kiyo does learn magic from Kompira, who accustoms her in the ways of being a sorceress, and though she continually calls upon the priest to love her again, he unfortunately refuses and takes refuge in his theological studies. Finally, this not only infuriates Kiyo, who continues to try win over the priest’s heart, it also leads to strengthening her resolve to end the priest’s life.

The last part of this parable begins when Kiyo transforms herself into a dragon-serpent. This is due to her desire to destroy the priest for not loving her in return. With her heightened abilities as a monster, she pursues the priest who is now hiding under a bell. Upon seeing the bell, she destroys it, despite the priest’s brethren praying that Buddha would intervene and end Kiyo’s life, who is now an evil beast bent on annihilation. Finally, this legend ends with the smashing of the bell, which kills the priest, and leaves Kiyo to remain as a dragon-serpent who cannot return to her former beauty, and thus, this fable closes with both characters damaged forever, due to their nefarious acts that contributed to their bad karma.

The Buddhist doctrine of karma, or the belief that one’s actions heavily influence the life they will continue to lead, is not only a religious belief, it is also an integral component needed to understand the workings of the world in Eastern thought. This is important to note, due to the fact that it plays a central role in the aforementioned tale, which I believe displays karma at work in the sad situations people sometimes put themselves into. In a sense, karma can be understood as a fatalism which is based on, yet can be altered by, a person’s actions. Furthermore, karma, which is believed to have a serious impact on the course of one’s life, is also to be in awe of, because it shows both the power of human choice and the power of that which transcends the limited control an individual has over their life.

As a moral law of the universe, karma affects all people, and though in the case of A Bell and the Power of Karma it was proved to be a force to be reckoned with, it can in fact have benevolent effects on a person’s life. For example, if the priest had embraced his duty and had not faltered, one can infer that his life would’ve been contently maintained, due to the good karma that would've resulted from his dedication to his path towards spiritual awareness. Also, if Kiyo had not succumbed to her rage and jealousy, she wouldn’t have sought to learn the ways of sorcery from Kompira, and consequently, would not have the ability to become a dragon-serpent, and thus, may have maintained her ineffable magnificence. Finally, these workings of karma, I believe should be remembered, especially when one analyzes the intricacies of this fable.

I believe there are two karmic lessons which one can take from A Bell and the Power of Karma. These moral lessons include the importance of harnessing the mind to avoid being swayed only by the passions of the body and the utility of honoring karma. In regards to harnessing one’s mind, the character of the priest is supposed to use reason as a tool to quell any slavish infatuation that may tempt him to stray from his path towards spiritual liberation. Also, according to the text, the monastery in which this priest is a member, instructs their clergymen to live a life that is both devout and filled with simplicity. This is important to note, because of the fact that the situation the priest has played a role in is anything but a simple affair. I make this claim because by frequenting the tea-house, which is a mortal sin for a clergyman to do in this Japanese town, the priest unnecessarily complicates his life because he cannot ignore his desire for Kiyo.

It is in my belief, that if this priest had not given into his bodily desires, he would have successfully remained a dutiful priest, and this could’ve been done had he adhered to the instructions of his monastery to refrain from pleasures of various sorts. This is so that as priests, the monastery together can focus on spiritual liberation, which, in Buddhism, is believed to come, in part, from the renunciation of the flesh. Also, the priest, who is haunted by his conscience, for having relations with Kiyo, repents and takes refuge in his priestly duties and prayer, which I believe indicates that he knows that he can exert reason to quell his desires. One can interpret this as an acknowledgment on the part of the priest, that though he failed to stay true to his oath, he knows that bodily desires are not in harmony with the path he has chosen to follow as a religious man.

Furthermore, the anguish he faces as well as his unfortunate death, I believe could’ve been prevented, had he stayed true to his religious duties throughout this parable. Finally, the character of Kiyo, the fairest of all women in the tea-house, is another character who could’ve avoided her predicament, or the punishment of losing her beauty by being stuck in the form of a dragon-serpent, if she had only denied her bodily desire for the priest through the application of reason.

The usefulness of staying true to one’s duties, I believe is adequately described in this folkloric tale. I make this claim because if both characters had stayed true to their duties, their karma would’ve been maintained, and hence, their unfortunate predicaments would’ve never came to be. This is especially true of the character of Kiyo, who, one may recall, did not die, but instead became stuck in her dragon-serpent form, never to be the beautiful tea-house maiden again. In the story, the laurels of her prettiness are vast and it is in my belief that this could’ve remained to be so, if she had stuck to her ways and neglected the advances of the priest.

Furthermore, had she not given into desire, one may infer that she would’ve been spiritually unharmed, due to the fact that there would’ve been no reason for her to dabble in magic, or that which gave her the ability to become a beast. Hence, the usefulness of karma, in relation to the character of Kiyo, who had neglected it, showed itself in a negative way. Yet, this was not the fault of karma, rather it was Kiyo who brought unwanted hardship to herself, which one may claim was useful, at the karmic level, insofar as it taught the other priests of the Buddhist monastery not to fall into the same problems which their fellow priest and Kiyo did

Also, the usefulness of karma can be seen in the actions of the character Kiyo herself. This is interesting to note, due to the fact that it may not be so apparent when one reads this tale. Kiyo who has neglected her duty to be true to herself and to her spiritual purity, unknowingly cursed herself when she transformed into the beast that caused this Japanese town to endure extreme havoc, as she was hunting down the clergyman she became so utterly obsessed with. In turn, she not only suffered from her decision, which brought about her bad karma, she also took karma into her own hands and ended the priest’s life, without having the patience to see what would have been his punishment in the future. The usefulness of karma here, though nefarious in nature, is that it can give power, yet one must remember, there is always a price to pay in return, which may not be beneficial to those who use karma for their own ends. Therefore, it is in my belief that by studying as well as taking notice of the subtle intricacies of the character of Kiyo, one may see the difficulties surrounding the use-value of karma.

It should also be remembered that karma did not play a good role in the lives of the priest and Kiyo once they had chosen to cross this force’s path, so to speak. These events can provide ample reason to remain diligent in the practice of one’s duties and at a deeper level, to not take matters into one’s own hands, especially when it is concerning spiritual issues or spiritual forces. Though saddening, I believe both characters experienced the aftermath of their unwise choices and I can understand the view of those who believe these characters were deserving of their fates, especially in regards to the Buddhist priest. Finally, the importance of keeping one’s oaths, as well as the good reasons to avoid tampering with karma, is supportable by the text of this Japanese folktale, which I believe provides a powerful and at times disturbing insight into the nature of righteousness and its effects at a grander, more universal scale.

With this essay I have tried to adequately describe the Japanese parable A Bell and the Power of Karma, as well as its importance as a piece of moral folklore. I have also briefly described the Buddhist’s concept of karma, in order for the reader to become more accustomed to the ethical understanding of the East. I have then argued that through the application of reason, one may be better able to quell desires, which in turn, has karmic benefits that are useful to maintaining a more peaceful and content life.

Image: Christian Reusch

 

Bibliography:

Burtt, E.A. (ed.), The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha (New York, 1955), pp. 11-241.
Davis, F. Hadland, Myths and Legends of Japan. (London, 1912), pp. 1-396.