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The Buddha at Kamakura -- Rudyard Kipling

       
(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?
-- Rudyard Kipling
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.

16 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

nolan_mark_e said...

Tophet is a place in a valley SW of Jerusalem. Not sure exactly what is
derived from what, but it is also the name of the shrine of Moloch (on
that spot) where parents sacrificed their children. Also a generic name
for a place of child sacrifice or the burial of sacrificial victims (as
in Carthage).

gmason said...

This is for "The Buddha at Kamakura" by Rudyard Kipling.:

Kipling was criticised by the establishment of the Empire at the time of his writing for being too close to the native and too close to the native's aspirations. Now he is criticised for being right-wing and imperialistic.

When both sides criticise, I think you have it right.

The poem evokes respect, not merely for the statue, but for Buddhism. It captures the thoughts and answers them of anyone who sees the Buddha at Kamakura. It was true then and true now.

The typical Kipling verse form addresses all emotion and all the cultures surrounding the viewing of the Buddha and at just the right level. Intended, possibly, as a guide for the behaviour of British Soldiers of the Raj when in the vicinity of Buddhist Shrines anywhere, its gentle language and honest advice, turn slowly to a forceful appreciation of, and respect for, a symbol and a belief.

A brilliant poem, scattered with allusions and strong with rhythm, yet wise and humble.

Kipling was a brilliant writer - and here, on his subject of The East, he could not be better.

Kipling used selected verses from the poem to introduce the first 3 chapters of "Kim".

Edward Little said...

Many thanks for explanatory comments to this great poem
which has many references not familiar to the western mind.
And for the accurate appreciations of Kipling, a great poet
and a great man. Any one who reads Kim must see that he
loved India and Eastern cultures. Likewise this poem.

For Tophet there is a good (brief) reference in the Columbia
Encyclopedia , at least in the 1950 ed.). The Shwe-Dagon is
a great temple in Burma. What are the "joss sticks" that
"turn to scented smoke?" Ritual, of course, but - ?

BEm004176B Adcrafters said...

Thanks for all the help with this great poem of Kipling's. My bit of knowledge is that a "joss" is a 19th-c British slang word for a "heathen" god, and a joss-stick is incense, obviously burned in honor of that god.

Any idea on how to pronounce "htee" and "Shwe-Dagon"? And are the "butterflies" the monks?

Thanks again,
Diana

Jeffrey McNabb said...

i journeyed to Kamakura in 1962 at 11 yrs old; in awe of the wonder of
Amitabha, I scarcely new what the Buddha world meant;
I returned to Kamakura in 1980 on a trip back from India; now a
buddhist, I realized 'what' I saw as an 11yr old boy;

Honor, justice, compassion, kindness - the code of my life forever
more.

Thank you

Jeffrey McNabb

John van V said...

Kipling had a weird concept, the middle path of European conciousness.

He called it the "White Man's Burden"

He was a hell of a poet !!

Edward Cherlin said...

The "butterflies" are indeed the priests, wearing Chinese style
robes (koromo), with sleeves a yard wide and long that do
sometimes look like wings. Over the koromo they wear the kesa,
the colored robe of the precepts that they have taken as their
life's training. The kesa leaves the right shoulder
uncovered--thus "sashes".

I have not been to Kamakura, but I trained in Japanese
monasteries.

Kay and Phil Cogswell said...

One usage of "Tophet," according to my old Webster's New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), was as a literary allusion to Hell, I assume because of the terrible nature of the Old Testament place where children were sacrificed. So I think the first verse is properly construed as being addressed to the English Christian who walks the narrow way between Hell's fires ("Tophet-flare") and Judgement Day.
My visit to the the Kamakura Buddha was totally due to this poem. As a young Navy officer in 1965, I and some colleagues were taking the train from the Navy base at Yokuska to Tokyo when I noticed we were passing into Kamakura. All I knew was that Kipling had written about a Buddha there and so I persuaded my friends to get off the train and look for it. Immediately I was worried that maybe there would be no Buddha any more or that it would be hard to find, but as it turned out there was a sign at the station "to the Buddha" and the statue was only a short walk away.
More than 40 years later, it remains one of the most memorable works I have ever seen, both the statue itself and the sense of of history and veneration that the site projected.
Phil

Anonymous said...

If Kamakura impresses you, I suggest a visit to Nara, about 40 miles from Kyoto. Especially during great festivals, when the Buddha can be seen as if peering through a window of the building. Light some incense and say a prayer for all of us. The largest bell ever cast in Japan is there. I believe it formerly was at a temple in Kyoto. At that time I was privileged to be able to help pull on the rice straw rope and swing the log striker. I have pictures.

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