Japanese Buddhist Proverbs
by Lafcadio Hearn
As representing that general quality of moral experience which
remains almost unaffected by social modifications of any
sort, the proverbial sayings of a people must always possess a
special psychological interest for thinkers. In this kind of
folklore the oral and the written literature of Japan is rich to
a degree that would require a large book to exemplify. To the
subject as a whole no justice could be done within the limits of
a single essay. But for certain classes of proverbs and
proverbial phrases something can be done within even a few pages;
and sayings related to Buddhism, either by allusion or
derivation, form a class which seems to me particularly worthy of
study. Accordingly, with the help of a Japanese friend, I have
selected and translated the following series of examples,—
choosing the more simple and familiar where choice was possible,
and placing the originals in alphabetical order to facilitate
reference. Of course the selection is imperfectly representative;
but it will serve to illustrate certain effects of Buddhist
teaching upon popular thought and speech.
1.—Akuji mi ni tomaru.
All evil done clings to the body.*
*The consequence of any evil act or thought never,—so long as
karma endures,—will cease to act upon the existence of the
person guilty of it.
2.—Atama soru yori kokoro wo sore.
Better to shave the heart than to shave the head.*
*Buddhist nuns and priests have their heads completely shaven.
The proverb signifies that it is better to correct the heart,—to
conquer all vain regrets and desires,—than to become a
religious. In common parlance the phrase "to shave the head"
means to become a monk or a nun.
3.—Au wa wakare no hajime.
Meeting is only the beginning of separation.*
*Regret and desire are equally vain in this world of
impermanency; for all joy is the beginning of an experience that
must have its pain. This proverb refers directly to the sutra-
text,—Shoja bitsumetsu e-sha-jori,—" All that live must surely
die; and all that meet will surely part."
4.—Banji wa yume.
All things* are merely dreams.
*Literally, "ten thousand things."
5.—Bonbu mo satoreba hotoke nari.
Even a common man by obtaining knowledge becomes a Buddha.*
*The only real differences of condition are differences In
knowledge of the highest truth.
All lust is grief.*
*All sensual desire invariably brings sorrow.
7—Buppo to wara-ya no ame, dete kike.
One must go outside to hear Buddhist doctrine or the sound of
rain on a straw roof.*
*There is an allusion here to the condition of the sbuhhl
(priest): literally, "one who has left his house." The proverb
suggests that the higher truths of Buddhism cannot be acquired by
those who continue to live in the world of follies and desires.
8.—Bussho en yori okoru.
Out of karma-relation even the divine nature itself grows.*
*There is good as well as bad karma. Whatever hap-piness we enjoy
is not less a consequence of the acts and thoughts of previous
lives, than is any misfortune that comes to us. Every good
thought and act contributes to the evolution of the Buddha-nature
within each of us. Another proverb [No. 10],—En naki shujo wa
doshi gatashi,—further illustrates the meaning of this one.
9.—Enko ga tsuki wo toran to suru ga gotoshi.
Like monkeys trying to snatch the moon's reflection on water.*
*Allusion to a parable, said to have been related by the Buddha
himself, about some monkeys who found a well under a tree, and
mistook for reality the image of the moon in the water. They
resolved to seize the bright apparition. One monkey suspended
himself by the tail from a branch overhanging the well, a second
monkey clung to the first, a third to the second, a fourth to the
third, and so on,—till the long chain of bodies had almost
reached the water. Suddenly the branch broke under the
unaccustomed weight; and all the monkeys were drowned.
10.—En naki shujo wa doshi gatashi.
To save folk having no karma-relation would be difficult indeed!*
*No karma-relation would mean an utter absence of merit as well
as of demerit.
11.—Fujo seppo suru hoshi wa, biratake ni umaru.
The priest who preaches foul doctrine shall be reborn as a
12.—Gaki mo ninzu.
Even gaki (pretas) can make a crowd.*
*Literally: "Even gaki are a multitude (or, 'population')." This
is a popular saying used in a variety of ways. The ordinary
meaning is to the effect that no matter how poor or miserable the
individuals composing a multitude, they collectively represent a
respectable force. Jocosely the saying is sometimes used of a
crowd of wretched or tired-looking people,—sometimes of an
assembly of weak boys desiring to make some demonstration,—
sometimes of a miserable-looking company of soldiers.—Among the
lowest classes of the people it is not uncommon to call a
deformed or greedy person a "gaki."
13.—Gaki no me ni midzu miezu.
To the eyes of gaki water is viewless.*
*Some authorities state that those pretas who suffer especially
from thirst, as a consequence of faults committed in former
lives, are unable to see water.—This proverb is used in speaking
of persons too stupid or vicious to perceive a moral truth.
14.—Gosho wa daiji.
The future life is the all-important thing.*
*The common people often use the curious expression "gosho-daiji"
as an equivalent for "extremely important."
15.—Gun-mo no tai-zo wo saguru ga gotoshi.
Like a lot of blind men feeling a great elephant.*
*Said of those who ignorantly criticise the doctrines of
Buddhism.—The proverb alludes to a celebrated fable in the
Avadanas, about a number of blind men who tried to decide the
form of an elephant by feeling the animal. One, feeling the leg,
declared the elephant to be like a tree; another, feeling the
trunk only, declared the elephant to be like a serpent; a third,
who felt only the side, said that the elephant was like a wall; a
fourth, grasping the tail, said that the elephant was like a
16.—Gwai-men nyo-Bosatsu; nai shin nyo-Yasha.
In outward aspect a Bodhisattva; at innermost heart a demon.*
*Yasha (Sanscrit Yaksha), a man-devouring demon.
17.—Hana wa ne ni kaeru.
The flower goes back to its root.
*This proverb is most often used in reference to death,—
signifying that all forms go back into the nothingness out of
which they spring. But it may also be used in relation to the law
18.—Hibiki no koe ni ozuru ga gotoshi.
Even as the echo answers to the voice.*
*Referring to the doctrine of cause-and-effect. The philosophical
beauty of the comparison will be appreciated only if we bear in
mind that even the tone of the echo repeats the tone of the
19.—Hito wo tasukéru ga sbukhé no yuku.
The task of the priest is to save mankind.
20.—Hi wa kiyuredomo to-shin wa kiyedzu.
Though the flame be put out, the wick remains.*
*Although the passions may be temporarily overcome, their sources
remain. A proverb of like meaning is, Bonno no inn o?4omo sara u:
"Though driven away, the Dog of Lust cannot be kept from coming
21.—Hotoke mo motowa bonbu.
Even the Buddha was originally but a common man.
22.—Hotoke ni naru mo shami wo beru.
Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.
23.—Hotoke no kao mo sando.
Even a Buddha's face,—only three times.*
*This is a short popular form of the longer proverb, Hotoke no
kao mo sando nazureba, hara wo tatsu: "Stroke even the face of a
Buddha three times, and his anger will be roused."
24.—Hotoke tanonde Jigoku e yuku.
Praying to Buddha one goes to hell.*
*The popular saying, Oni no Nembutsu,—"a devil's praying,"—has
a similar meaning.
25.—Hotoke tsukutte tamashii iredzu.
Making a Buddha without putting in the soul.*
*That is to say, making an image of the Buddha without giving it
a soul. This proverb is used in reference to the conduct of those
who undertake to do some work, and leave the most essential part
of the work unfinished. It contains an allusion to the curious
ceremony called Kai-gen, or "Eye-Opening." This Kai-gen is a kind
of consecration, by virtue of which a newly-made image is
supposed to become animated by the real presence of the divinity
26. Ichi-ju no kage, ichi-ga no nagare, tasho no en.
Even [the experience of] a single shadow or a single flowing of
water, is [made by] the karma-relations of a former life.*
*Even so trifling an occurrence as that of resting with another
person under the shadow of a tree, or drinking from the same
spring with another person, is caused by the karma-relations of
some previous existence.
27. Ichi-mo shu-mo wo hiku.
One blind man leads many blind men.*
*From the Buddhist work Dai-chi-do-ron.—The reader will find a
similar proverb in Rhys-David's "Buddhist Suttas" (Sacred Books
of the East), p. 173,—together with a very curious parable,
cited in a footnote, which an Indian commentator gives in
28.—Ingwa na ko.
*A common saying among the lower classes in reference to an
unfortunate or crippled child. Here the word ingwa is used
especially in the retributive sense. It usually signifies evil
karma; kwaho being the term used in speaking of meritorious karma
and its results. While an unfortunate child is spoken of as "a
child of ingwa," a very lucky person is called a "kwaho-mono,"—
that is to say, an instance, or example of kwaho.
29.—Ingwa wa, kuruma no wa.
Cause-and-effect is like a wheel.*
*The comparison of karma to the wheel of a wagon will be familiar
to students of Buddhism. The meaning of this proverb is identical
with that of the Dhammapada verse:—"If a man speaks or acts
with an evil thought, pain follows him as the wheel follows the
foot of the ox that draws the carriage."
30.—Innen ga fukai.
The karma-relation is deep.*
*A saying very commonly used in speaking of the attachment of
lovers, or of the unfortunate results of any close relation
between two persons.
31.—Inochi wa fu-zen no tomoshibi.
Life is a lamp-flame before a wind.*
*Or, "like the flame of a lamp exposed to the wind." A frequent
expression in Buddhist literature is "the Wind of Death."
32.—Issun no mushi ni mo, gobu no tamashii.
Even a worm an inch long has a soul half-an-inch long.*
*Literally, "has a soul of five bu,"—five bu being equal to half
of the Japanese inch. Buddhism forbids all taking of life, and
classes as living things (Ujo) all forms having sentiency. The
proverb, however,—as the use of the word "soul" (tamashii)
implies,—reflects popular belief rather than Buddhist
philosophy. It signifies that any life, however small or mean, is
entitled to mercy.
33.—Iwashi* no atama mo shinjin kara.
Even the head of an iwashi, by virtue of faith, [will have power
to save, or heal].
*The iwashi is a very small fish, much resembling a sardine. The
proverb implies that the object of worship signifies little, so
long as the prayer is made with perfect faith and pure intention.
The fruit of ones own deeds [in a previous state of existence].
*Few popular Buddhist phrases are more often used than this. Jigo
signifies ones own acts or thoughts; jitoku, to bring upon
oneself,—nearly always in the sense of misfortune, when the word
is used in the Buddhist way. "Well, it is a matter of Jigo-
jitoku," people will observe on seeing a man being taken to
prison; meaning, "He is reaping the consequence of his own
35.—Jigoku de hotoke.
Like meeting with a Buddha in hell.*
*Refers to the joy of meeting a good friend in time of
misfortune. The above is an abbreviation. The full proverb is,
Jigoku de hotoke ni ota yo da.
36.—Jigoku Gokuraku wa kokoro ni ari.
Hell and Heaven are in the hearts of men.*
*A proverb in perfect accord with the higher Buddhism.
37.—Jigoku mo sumika.
Even Hell itself is a dwelling-place.*
*Meaning that even those obliged to live in hell must learn to
accommodate themselves to the situation. One should always try to
make the best of circumstances. A proverb of kindred
signification is, Sumeba, My'ako: "Wheresoever ones home is, that
is the Capital [or, imperial City]."
38.—Jigoku ni mo shirts bito.
Even in hell old acquaintances are welcome.
39.—Kagé no katachi ni shitagau gotoshi.
Even as the shadow follows the shape.*
*Referring to the doctrine of cause-and-effect. Compare with
verse 2 of the Dhammapada.
40.—Kane wa Amida yori bikaru.
Money shines even more brightly than Amida.*
*Amitabha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light. His image in the
temples is usually gilded from head to foot.—There are many
other ironical proverbs about the power of wealth,—such as
Jigoku no sata mo kane shidai: "Even the Judgments of Hell may be
influenced by money."
41.—Karu-toki no Jizo-gao; nasu-toki no Emma-gao.
Borrowing-time, the face of Jizö; repaying-time, the face of
Emma.* [Figs. 2 & 3]
*Emma is the Chinese and Japanese Yama,—in Buddhism the Lord of
Hell, and the Judge of the Dead. The proverb is best explained by
the accompanying drawings, which will serve to give an idea of
the commoner representations of both divinities.
42.—Kiite Gokuraku, mite Jigoku.
Heard of only, it is Paradise; seen, it is Hell.*
*Rumor is never trustworthy.
43.—Koji mon wo idezu: akuji sen ni wo hashiru.
Good actions go not outside of the gate: bad deeds travel a
44.—Kokoro no koma ni tadzuna wo yuru-suna.
Never let go the reins of the wild colt of the heart.
45.—Kokoro no oni ga mi wo semeru.
The body is tortured only by the demon of the heart.*
*Or "mind." That is to say that we suffer only from the
consequences of our own faults.—The demon-torturer in the
Buddhist hell says to his victim:—"Blame not me!—I am only the
creation of your own deeds and thoughts: you made me for this!"—
Compare with No. 36.
46.—Kokoro no shi to wa nare; kokoro wo shi to sezare.
Be the teacher of your heart: do not allow your heart to become
47.—Kono yo wa kari no yado.
This world is only a resting-place.*
*"This world is but a travellers' inn," would be an almost
equally correct translation. Yado literally means a lodging,
shelter, inn; and the word is applied often to those wayside
resting-houses at which Japanese travellers halt during a
journey. Kari signifies temporary, transient, fleeting,—as in
the common Buddhist saying, Kono yo kari no yo: "This world is a
fleeting world." Even Heaven and Hell represent to the Buddhist
only halting places upon the journey to Nirvana.
48.—Kori wo chiribame; midzu ni égaku.
To inlay ice; to paint upon water.*
*Refers to the vanity of selfish effort for some merely temporary
Naku wa yamada no
Chichi niteya aran,
Haha niteya aran.
The bird that cries korokoro in the mountain rice-field I know to
be a hototogisu;—yet it may have been my father; it may have
been my mother.*
*This verse-proverb is cited in the Buddhist work Wojo Yosbu,
with the following comment:—"Who knows whether the animal in the
field, or the bird in the mountain-wood, has not been either his
father or his mother in some former state of existence?"—The
hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo.
50.—Ko wa Sangai no kubikase.
A child is a neck-shackle for the Three States of Existence.*
*That is to say, The love of parents for their child may impede
their spiritual progress—not only in this world, but through all
their future states of being,—just as a kubikasi, or Japanese
cangue, impedes the movements of the person upon whom it is
placed. Parental affection, being the strongest of earthly
attachments, is particularly apt to cause those whom it enslaves
to commit wrongful acts in the hope of benefiting their
offspring.—The term Sangai here signifies the three worlds of
Desire, Form, and Formlessness,—all the states of existence
below Nirvana. But the word is sometimes used to signify the
Past, the Present, and the Future.
51.—Kuchi wa wazawai no kado.
The mouth is the front-gate of all misfortune.*
*That is to say, The chief cause of trouble is unguarded speech.
The word Kado means always the main entrance to a residence.
52.—Kwaho wa, nete mate.
If you wish for good luck, sleep and wait.*
*Kwaho, a purely Buddhist term, signifying good fortune as the
result of good actions in a previous life, has come to mean in
common parlance good fortune of any kind. The proverb is often
used in a sense similar to that of the English saying: "Watched
pot never boils." In a strictly Buddhist sense it would mean, "Do
not be too eager for the reward of good deeds."
53.—Makanu tane wa haenu.
Nothing will grow, if the seed be not sown.*
*Do not expect harvest, unless you sow the seed. Without earnest
effort no merit can be gained.
54.—Mateba, kanro no hiyori.
If you wait, ambrosial weather will come.*
*Kanro, the sweet dew of Heaven, or amrita. All good things come
to him who waits.
55.—Meido no michi ni O wa nashi.
There is no King on the Road of Death.*
*Literally, "on the Road of Meido." The MeldS is the Japanese
Hades,—the dark under-world to which all the dead must journey.
56.—Mekura hebi ni ojizu.
The blind man does not fear the snake.*
*The ignorant and the vicious, not understanding the law of
cause-and-effect, do not fear the certain results of their folly.
Having waxed, wanes.*
*No sooner has the moon waxed full than it begins to wane. So the
height of prosperity is also the beginning of fortunes decline.
58.—Mon zen no kozo narawanu kyo wo yomu.
The shop-boy in front of the temple-gate repeats the sutra which
he never learned.
*Kozo means "acolyte" as well as "shop-boy,""errand-boy," or
"apprentice;" but in this case it refers to a boy employed in a
shop situated near or before the gate of a Buddhist temple. By
constantly hearing the sutra chanted in the temple, the boy
learns to repeat the words. A proverb of kindred meaning is,
Kangaku-In no suzume wa, Mogyu wo sayezuru: "The sparrows of
Kangaku-In [an ancient seat of learning] chirp the Mogyu,"—a
Chinese text formerly taught to young students. The teaching of
either proverb is excellently expressed by a third:—Narau yori
wa narero: "Rather than study [an art], get accustomed to it,"—
that is to say, "keep constantly in contact with it." Observation
and practice are even better than study.
59.—Mujo no kaze wa, toki erabazu.
The Wind of Impermanency does not choose a time.*
*Death and Change do not conform their ways to human expectation.
60.—Neko mo Bussho ari.
In even a cat the Buddha-nature exists.*
*Notwithstanding the legend that only the cat and the mamushi (a
poisonous viper) failed to weep for the death of the Buddha.
61.—Neta ma ga Gokuraku.
The interval of sleep is Paradise.*
*Only during sleep can we sometimes cease to know the sorrow and
pain of this world. (Compare with No. 83.)
62.—Nijiu-go Bosatsu mo sore-sore no yaku.
Even each of the Twenty-five Bodhisattvas has his own particular
duty to perform.
63.—Nin mite, no toke.
[First] see the person, [then] preach the doctrine.*
*The teaching of Buddhist doctrine should always be adapted to
the intelligence of the person to be instructed. There is another
proverb of the same kind,—Ki ni yorite, ho wo toke: "According
to the understanding [of the person to be taught], preach the
64.—Ninshin ukegataku Buppo aigatashi.
It is not easy to be born among men, and to meet with [the good
fortune of hearing the doctrine of] Buddhism.*
*Popular Buddhism teaches that to be born in the world of
mankind, and especially among a people professing Buddhism, is a
very great privilege. However miserable human existence, it is at
least a state in which some knowledge of divine truth may be
obtained; whereas the beings in other and lower conditions of
life are relatively incapable of spiritual progress.
65.—Oni mo jiu-hachi.
Even a devil [is pretty] at eighteen.*
*There are many curious sayings and proverbs about the oni, or
Buddhist devil,—such as Oni no me ni mo namida, "tears in even a
devil's eyes;"—Oni no kakuran, "devil's cholera" (said of the
unexpected sickness of some very strong and healthy person),
etc., etc.—The class of demons called Oni, properly belong to
the Buddhist hells, where they act as torturers and jailers. They
are not to be confounded with the Ma, Yasha, Kijin, and other
classes of evil spirits. In Buddhist art they are represented as
beings of enormous strength, with the heads of bulls and of
horses. The bull-headed demons are called Go-zu; the horse-headed
66.—Oni mo mi, naretaru ga yoshi.
Even a devil, when you become accustomed to the sight of him, may
prove a pleasant acquaintance.
67.—Oni ni kanabo.
An iron club for a demon.*
*Meaning that great power should be given only to the strong.
68.—Oni no nyobo ni kijin.
A devil takes a goblin to wife.*
*Meaning that a wicked man usually marries a wicked
69.—Onna no ke ni wa dai-zo mo tsunagaru.
With one hair of a woman you can tether even a great elephant.
70.—Onna wa Sangai ni iye nashi.
Women have no homes of their own in the Three States of
71.—Oya no ingwa ga ko ni mukuu.
The karma of the parents is visited upon the child.*
*Said of the parents of crippled or deformed children. But the
popular idea here expressed is not altogether in acco~l with the
teachings of the higher Buddhism.
72.—Rakkwa eda ni kaerazu.
The fallen blossom never returns to the branch.*
*That which has been done never can be undone: the past cannot be
recalled.—This proverb is an abbreviation of the longer Buddhist
text: Rakkwa eda ni kaerazu; ha-kyo futatabi terasazu: "The
fallen blossom never returns to the branch; the shattered mirror
never again reflects."
73.—Raku wa ku no tane; ku wa raku no tane.
Pleasure is the seed of pain; pain is the seed of pleasure.
74.—Rokudo wa, me no mae.
The Six Roads are right before your eyes.*
*That is to say, Your future life depends upon your conduct in
this life; and you are thus free to choose for yourself the place
of your next birth.
There is no rest within the Three States of Existence.
76.—Sangai ni kaki nashi;—Rokudo ni hotori nashi.
There is no fence to the Three States of Existence;—there is no
neighborhood to the Six Roads.*
*Within the Three States (Sangai), or universes, of Desire, Form,
and Formlessness; and within the Six Worlds, or conditions of
being,—Jigokudo (Hell), Gakido (Pretas), Chikushodo (Animal
Life), Shurado (World of Fighting and Slaughter), Ningendo
(Mankind), Tenjodo (Heavenly Spirits)—all existence is included.
Beyond there is only Nirvana. "There is no fence," "no
neighborhood,"—that is to say, no limit beyond which to escape,
—no middle-path between any two of these states. We shall be
reborn into some one of them according to our karma.—Compare
with No. 74.
77.—Sange ni wa sannen no tsumi mo horobu.
One confession effaces the sins of even three years.
78.—San nin yoreba, kugai.
Where even three persons come together, there is a world of
*Kugai (lit.: "bitter world") is a term often used to describe
the life of a prostitute.
79.—San nin yoreba, Monju no chie.
Where three persons come together, there is the wisdom of Monju.*
*Monju Bosatsu [Mandjus'ri Bodhisattva] figures in Japanese
Buddhism as a special divinity of wisdom.—The proverb signifies
that three heads are better than one. A saying of like meaning
is, Hiza to mo danko: "Consult even with your own knee;" that is
to say, Despise no advice, no matter how humble the source of it.
80.—Shaka ni sekkyo.
Preaching to Sakyamuni.
81.—Shami kara choro.
To become an abbot one must begin as a novice.
82.—Shindareba, koso ikitare.
Only by reason of having died does one enter into life.*
*I never hear this singular proverb without being re-minded of a
sentence in Huxley's famous essay, On the Physical Basis of
Life:—"The living protoplasm not only ultimately dies and is
resolved into its mineral and lifeless constituents, but is
always dying, and, strange as the paradox may sound, could not
live unless it died."
83.—Shiranu ga, hotoke; minu ga, Gokuraku.
Not to know is to be a Buddha; not to see is Paradise.
84.—Shobo ni kidoku nashi.
There is no miracle in true doctrine.*
*Nothing can happen except as a result of eternal and irrevocable
85.—Sho-chie wa Bodai no samatage.
A little wisdom is a stumbling-block on the way to Buddhahood.*
*Bodai is the same word as the Sanscrit Bodhi, signifying the
supreme enlightenment,—the knowledge that leads to Buddhahood;
but it is often used by Japanese Buddhists in the sense of divine
bliss, or the Buddha-state itself.
86.—Shoshi no kukai hetori nashi.
There is no shore to the bitter Sea of Birth and Death.*
*Or, "the Pain-Sea of Life and Death."
87.—Sode no furi-awase mo tasho no en.
Even the touching of sleeves in passing is caused by some
relation in a former life.
88.—Sun zen; shaku ma.
An inch of virtue; a foot of demon.*
*Ma (Sanscrit, Marakayikas) is the name given to a particular
class of spirits who tempt men to evil. But in Japanese folklore
the Ma have a part much resembling that occupied in Western
popular superstition by goblins and fairies.
89.—Tanoshimi wa hanasimi no motoi.
All joy is the source of sorrow.
90.—Tonde hi ni iru natsu no mushi.
So the insects of summer fly to the flame.*
*Said especially in reference to the result of sensual
91.—Tsuchi-botoke no midzu-asobi.
*That is to say, "As dangerous as for a clay Buddha to play with
water." Children often amuse themselves by making little Buddhist
images of mud, which melt into shapelessness, of course, if
placed in water.
92.—Tsuki ni murakumo, hana ni kaze.
Cloud-wrack to the moon; wind to flowers.*
*The beauty of the moon is obscured by masses of clouds; the
trees no sooner blossom than their flowers are scattered by the
wind. All beauty is evanescent.
93.—Tsuyu no inochi.
Human life is like the dew of morning.
94.—U-ki wa, kokoro ni ari.
Joy and sorrow exist only in the mind.
95.—Uri no tsuru ni nasubi wa naranu.
Egg-plants do not grow upon melon-vines.
96.—Uso mo hoben.
Even an untruth may serve as a device.*
*That is, a pious device for effecting conversion. Such a device
is justified especially by the famous parable of the third
chapter of the Saddharma Pundarika.
97.—Waga ya no hotoke tattoshi.
My family ancestors were all excellent Buddhas.*
*Meaning that one most reveres the hotoke—the spirits of the
dead regarded as Buddhas—in one's own household-shrine. There is
an ironical play upon the word hotoke, which may mean either a
dead person simply, or a Buddha. Perhaps the spirit of this
proverb may be better explained by the help of another: Nigeta
sakana ni chisai wa nai; shinda kodomo ni warui ko wa nai—"Fish
that escaped was never small; child that died was never bad."
98.—Yuki no hate wa, Nehan.
The end of snow is Nirvana.*
*This curious saying is the only one in my collection containing
the word Nehan (Nirvana), and is here inserted chiefly for that
reason. The common people seldom speak of Nehan, and have little
knowledge of those profound doctrines to which the term is
related. The above phrase, as might be inferred, is not a popular
expression: it is rather an artistic and poetical reference to
the aspect of a landscape covered with snow to the horizon-line,
—so that beyond the snow-circle there is only the great void of
99.—Zen ni wa zen no mukui; aku ni wa aku no mukui.
Goodness [or, virtue] is the return for goodness; evil is the
return for evil.*
*Not so commonplace a proverb as might appear at first sight; for
it refers especially to the Buddhist belief that every kindness
shown to us in this life is a return of kindness done to others
in a former life, and that every wrong inflicted upon us is the
reflex of some injustice which we committed in a previous birth.
100.—Zense no yakusoku-goto.
Promised [or, destined] from a former birth.*
*A very common saying,—often uttered as a comment upon the
unhappiness of separation, upon sudden misfortune, upon sudden
death, etc. It is used especially in relation to shinju, or
lovers' suicide. Such suicide is popularly thought to be a result
of cruelty in some previous state of being, or the consequence of
having broken, in a former life, the mutual promise to become
husband and wife.
I had the privilege of meeting him in Tokyo, where he was making
a brief stay on his way to India;—and we took a long walk
together, and talked of Eastern religions, about which he knew
incomparably more than I. Whatever I could tell him concerning
local beliefs, he would comment upon in the most startling
manner,—citing weird correspondences in some living cult of
India, Burmah, or Ceylon. Then, all of a sudden, he turned the
conversation into a totally unexpected direction.
"I have been thinking," he said, "about the constancy of the
relative proportion of the sexes, and wondering whether Buddhist
doctrine furnishes an explanation. For it seems to me that, under
ordinary conditions of karma, human rebirth would necessarily
proceed by a regular alternation."
"Do you mean," I asked, "that a man would be reborn as a woman,
and a woman as a man?"
"Yes," he replied, "because desire is creative, and the desire of
either sex is towards the other."
"And how many men," I said, "would want to be reborn as women?"
"Probably very few," he answered. "But the doctrine that desire
is creative does not imply that the individual longing creates
its own satisfaction,—quite the contrary. The true teaching is
that the result of every selfish wish is in the nature of a
penalty, and that what the wish creates must prove—to higher
knowledge at least—the folly of wishing."
"There you are right," I said; "but I do not yet understand your
"Well," he continued, "if the physical conditions of human
rebirth are all determined by the karma of the will relating to
physical conditions, then sex would be determined by the will in
relation to sex. Now the will of either sex is towards the other.
Above all things else, excepting life, man desires woman, and
woman man. Each individual, moreover, independently of any
personal relation, feels perpetually, you say, the influence of
some inborn feminine or masculine ideal, which you call 'a
ghostly reflex of countless attachments in countless past lives.'
And the insatiable desire represented by this ideal would of
itself suffice to create the masculine or the feminine body of
the next existence."
"But most women," I observed, "would like to be reborn as men;
and the accomplishment of that wish would scarcely be in the
nature of a penalty."
"Why not?" he returned. "The happiness or unhappiness of the new
existence would not be decided by sex alone: it would of
necessity depend upon many conditions in combination."
"Your theory is interesting," I said;—"but I do not know how far
it could be made to accord with accepted doctrine…. And what of
the person able, through knowledge and practice of the higher
law, to remain superior to all weaknesses of sex?"
"Such a one," he replied, "would be reborn neither as man nor as
woman,—providing there were no pre-existent karma powerful
enough to check or to weaken the results of the self-conquest."
"Reborn in some one of the heavens?" I queried,—"by the
"Not necessarily," he said. "Such a one might be reborn in a
world of desire,—like this,—but neither as man only, nor as
"Reborn, then, in what form?" I asked.
"In that of a perfect being," he responded. "A man or a woman is
scarcely more than half-a-being,—because in our present
imperfect state either sex can be evolved only at the cost of the
other. In the mental and the physical composition of every man,
there is undeveloped woman; and in the composition of every woman
there is undeveloped man. But a being complete would be both
perfect man and perfect woman, possessing the highest faculties
of both sexes, with the weaknesses of neither. Some humanity
higher than our own,—in other worlds,—might be thus evolved."
"But you know," I observed, "that there are Buddhist texts,—in
the Saddharma Pundarika, for example, and in the Vinayas,—which
"Those texts," he interrupted, "refer to imperfect beings—less
than man and less than woman: they could not refer to the
condition that I have been supposing…. But, remember, I am not
preaching a doctrine;—I am only hazarding a theory."
"May I put your theory some day into print?" I asked.
"Why, yes," he made answer,—"if you believe it worth thinking
And long afterwards I wrote it down thus, as fairly as I was
able, from memory.