(Poem #379) The Buddha at Kamakura
"And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura" O ye who tread the Narrow Way By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day, Be gentle when the 'heathen' pray To Buddha at Kamakura! To him the Way, the Law, apart, Whom Maya held beneath her heart, Ananda's Lord, the Bodhisat, The Buddha of Kamakura. For though he neither burns nor sees, Nor hears ye thank your Deities, Ye have not sinned with such as these, His children at Kamakura. Yet spare us still the Western joke When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke The little sins of little folk That worship at Kamakura -- The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies That flit beneath the Master's eyes. He is beyond the Mysteries But loves them at Kamakura. And whoso will, from Pride released, Contemning neither creed nor priest, May feel the Soul of all the East About him at Kamakura. Yea, every tale Ananda heard, Of birth as fish or beast or bird, While yet in lives the Master stirred, The warm wind brings Kamakura. Till drowsy eyelids seem to see A-flower 'neath her golden htee The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly From Burmah to Kamakura, And down the loaded air there comes The thunder of Thibetan drums, And droned -- "Om mane padme hums" -- A world's-width from Kamakura. Yet Brahmans rule Benares still, Buddh-Gaya's ruins pit the hill, And beef-fed zealots threaten ill To Buddha and Kamakura. A tourist-show, a legend told, A rusting bulk of bronze and gold, So much, and scarce so much, ye hold The meaning of Kamakura? But when the morning prayer is prayed, Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade, Is God in human image made No nearer than Kamakura?
1892. I don't know if Kipling ever made the trip to Kamakura to gaze upon the Great Buddha, but his poem upon the subject remains, in my opinion, one of the most perfect evocations ever of 'the Soul of all the East'. Indeed, I can hardly read it without hearing Tibetan drums and scenting joss sticks and seeing saffron-clad monks going about their morning prayers... It's a profoundly religious poem, but no less universal or accessible for that; in fact, I would call it, rather, a wonderful exaltation of humanism and a call for gentleness and understanding. The philosophy may not be 'deep', but it's certainly very moving. 'The Buddha at Kamakura' should also serve as a rebuttal to those who continue to view Kipling as a heavy-handed imperialist, a relic of bygone colonial days. It's true he sings the praises of the British Empire (more specifically, of the soldiers and scribes who built that Empire), but he is also more tolerant, more honourable, and above all, more _universal_ than many of his contemporaries and latter-day critics. And he had a rare gift of words - his verse, whether the Cockney slang of Tommy Atkins or the pulsing rhythms of the Jungle Book or the archaic patternings of today's poem, is always vibrant and alive, and it sticks in the memory. On a personal note: I made the pilgrimage to the Daibutsu (the Great Buddha) at Kamakura last weekend, and I must say it's a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. For one thing, it's _big_ - it towers over the hordes of tourists that infest the place. And it's incredibly, incredibly beautiful - the expression on the Buddha's face is serene, calm, compassionate, wise... ineffable. The statue is in the open (the wooden structure that housed it was washed away in a tsunami, many hundreds of years ago) (which in itself is a sobering thought), and it sits in quiet repose through wind and rain, sun and shade. Sitting zazen in the temple grounds really brought the power of today's poem home to me. thomas. [History Lesson] Kamakura was the capital of Japan in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was chosen because it was easy to defend, with densely-wooded hills on three sides and the sea on the fourth. The first Shogun of the Kamakura period, Yoritomo Minamoto, died and both of his sons were assassinated; power then passed to the Hojo clan (to which one of his wives belonged). The construction of the Great Buddha was started at the behest of this wife; it was completed around 1250. The statue itself is hollow and made of bronze; it's 44 feet high and perfectly proportioned. In addition to the Daibutsu, Kamakura has literally dozens of small shrines and temples; in that sense, it's like a smaller version of Japan's other ancient capital, Kyoto. The Kamakura period ended in 1333, when the Emperor's troops successfully laid seige to it. No less than 800 warriors of the Hojo and allied clans committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in the precincts of the Engakuji temple. Yes, Japan had a very bloody feudal history. [Tidbit #1] 'The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613' includes the following passage: The Countrey betwixt Surnunga [ed. 'Suruga', a province of Japan] and Edoo [ed. 'Edo', the old name for Tokyo] is well inhabited. We saw many Fotoquise [ed 'Hotoke-san'?, translates to 'Our Lord Buddha'] or Temples as we passed, and amongst others one Image of especiall note, called Dabis [ed. 'Daibutsu', or 'Great Buddha'], made of Copper, being hollow within, but of very substantiall thicknesse. It was in height, as wee ghessed, from the ground about one and twentie or two and twentie foot, in the likeness of a man kneeling upon the ground, with his buttockes resting on his heeles [ed. This is not accurate], his arms of wondefull largeness, and the whole body proportionable. He is fashioned wearing of a Gowne. This Image is much reverenced by Travellers as they passe there. -- filched from the Web, [broken link] http://www-swiss.ai.mit.edu/~bentz/buddha.html [Tidbit #2] NOTICE KOTOKU-IN MONASTERY KAMAKURA Stranger, whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the Temple of the Buddha and the Gate of the Eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence. BY ORDER OF THE PRIOR. [Notes] The Narrow Way is a reference to Christianity; contrast the 'Eight-fold Path' of Buddhism and the 'Middle Way' of Confucianism. Tophet is, I presume, a place, but I don't know where. Maya was Gautama's mother. Ananda is the faithful chela (disciple) who features in many tales of the Buddha. A Bodhisat (Bodhisattva) is a soul who reaches enlightenment and then devotes his/her life to helping others do the same. 'htee' is not a typo; it's in italics in the original. I don't know what it refers to (as always, pointers appreciated). The Shwe-Dagon pagoda is in Burma. 'Om mane padme hum' is a meditation chant. Brahmans are the hereditary Hindu priestly caste. Benaras is the holy city of Varanasi, at the junction of the Ganges and the Yamuna. Buddh-gaya is the spot at which Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.