A story of Faith in Kwannon, the Manifestation of Mercy (popularly known as the Goddess of Mercy)
Note.—The Amida Buddha of the Shinshu sects of Japanese Buddhism is the only Deity, and the Original and the Unoriginated Buddha, Lord of Boundless Life and Light. Amida promises to all, who with full trust and confidence draw near and invoke His name, the safe Heaven of freedom from sin and evil.
KWANNON is the Embodiment of Amida’s Compassion, capable of manifestation in many shapes for purposes of practical succour. He is never manifested except for a suffering creation.
The late Professor Lloyd says that it is a mistake to speak of Kwannon as a female deity, that he is the son of Amida, capable of appearing in many forms, male or female, human or animal, according to circumstances.
See “Shinran and his Work” (Lloyd, p. 21).
The shrine of Tsubosaka, where this popular story is placed, has been celebrated for answers to prayers from ancient times. Tradition relates that when the fiftieth Emperor Kwammu lived in the capital of Nara, he was smitten with eye trouble. The head priest, Doki Shonin, of the Tsubosaka shrine offered up prayers to Kwannon, the Manifestation of Mercy, for one hundred and seven days for the Emperor’s recovery. The prayer was efficacious and His Majesty’s sight was restored. Since that time Tsubosaka has been known as a holy place to which pilgrims journey to pray for blessings and especially for health in time of illness.
In a certain village in the province of Yamato in Japan, close by the hill of Tsubo, there lived a blind man named Sawaichi and his wife, O Sato.
Sawaichi was a honest, good-natured fellow, who earned a bare living by giving lessons on the koto and samisen. O Sato was a faithful loving woman, who by washing and sewing, and such odd work, earned many an honest penny towards the maintenance of their poor little home.
For some time things had not gone well with the couple; they were growing poorer and poorer, and even the joyful singing of birds, and the sound of the temple bell, near by, emphazised their own wretchedness, and filled their souls with melancholy.
One morning Sawaichi got out his samisen, and striking some chords, began to play.
“Oh, Sawaichi San, what are you doing?” said O Sato, “I am glad to see that you feel in better spirits to-day. It is good to hear you play the samisen again,” and she laughed as cheerfully as she could.
“Oh, oh, O Sato, do I look as if I were playing the samisen for amusement? Indeed, I am in no such mood. I am so depressed that I wish I could die. Nay, I am so choked with trouble that I feel as if I were going to die. Now, O Sato, I have something to say that I have been brooding over for a long time, so please sit down and listen to me.”
O Sato sank softly on the mats near Sawaichi, and as she looked at the blind man, trying tenderly and carefully to divine what was troubling him, she saw that he was unusually moved, and the tears of pity rose to her eyes.
Sawaichi cleared his throat, after waiting for a moment, and then went on: “How rapid is the passing of time. The proverb is true that ‘Time flies like an arrow.’ Three years have passed since our marriage, and I have meant to ask you this many times, O Sato! Why do you hide your secret from me so long? We have been betrothed since our youth upward, and we know each other well. There is no need of secrecy between us. Why not tell me your secret frankly?”
O Sato stared at him helplessly. She could not in the least understand what was the meaning of these mysterious words. At last she said, hesitatingly: “Whatever is the matter with you to-day, Sawaichi San? What are you talking about? I don’t in the least understand. In the whole of our married life I have never had any secret to keep from you. If you find anything in me that does not please you, tell me, and I will try to mend. Is not this the way between husband and wife?”
“Well, then,” said Sawaichi, “I will tell you all since you ask me.”
“Tell me everything,” said O Sato, “whatever it is that is troubling you. I cannot bear to think that you are unhappy,” and she drew closer to her poor blind husband.
“Oh, oh, O Sato, I will tell you all—I cannot bear it longer. It hurts me. Listen carefully! We have been married just three years now. Every night between three and four o’clock I awake, and stretch out my arms to you as you lie in your bed, but I have never been able to find you, not even once. I am only a poor blind fellow and smallpox has disfigured me hopelessly. It is quite natural that you cannot love such an ugly creature as myself. I do not blame you for this. But if you will only tell me plainly that you love another, I will not be angry with you, only tell me! I have often heard people say, ‘O Sato is a beautiful woman!’ It is, therefore, natural that you should have a lover.
I am resigned to my fate and shall not be jealous, therefore tell me the truth—it will be a relief to know it.”
It was a pitiful sight to see the afflicted man, for though he spoke quietly and with evident resignation, yet the despair in his heart caused the tears to overflow his sightless eyes.
O Sato could not bear to see her husband racked by these terrible doubts. His words pierced her heart with pain. She clung to him sorrowfully.
“Oh, Sawaichi San! how cruel your suspicions are’! However low and mean I may be, do you think that I am the kind of woman to leave you for another man? You are too unjust to say such things. As you know, my father and mother died when I was a child, and my uncle, your father, brought us up together. You were just three years older than I. While we were thus growing up as boy and girl together, you took smallpox and became blind, alas! and your misfortunes accumulating, you were reduced to poverty. But even so, once betrothed, I will go through fire and water with you, and nothing shall ever part us. Not only do I feel that we are united till death, but it has been my one great hope to cure your blindness. To this end, ever since we were wedded, I have risen with the dawn and left the room stealthily, not wishing to disturb you. Thinking nothing of the steep mountain road, I have climbed to the top of Tsubosaka every morning before it was light to pray to Kwannon Sama to restore your sight. Lately I have felt disappointed with Kwannon Sama, for my prayer is never answered, though I have prayed earnestly for three years, rising before the dawn to climb to her temple on the hill. Knowing nothing of all this you condemn me as being faithless to you. It makes me angry, Sawaichi San!” and here poor O Sato burst into tears and sobbed aloud.
Sawaichi realized how false his suspicions had been, and how unworthy they were of his devoted wife. At first he could not speak but stammered pitifully. At last he found his voice and burst out: “Oh, my wife, my wife! I will say nothing more. I have talked nonsense like the poor blind fellow that I am. Forgive me, forgive me! How could I know what was in your heart?” and here he joined his hands together, raising them in a gesture of entreaty, and then, with his sleeve, wiped away the tears from his eyes.
“Ah—no, no—not this! Do not ask pardon of your own wife, it is too much!” said O Sato, in distress. “I can face even death if your doubts are dispelled.”
“The more you say, the more I am ashamed before you. Though you pray so earnestly, O Sato, my eyes will never recover their sight.”
“What are you saying? Oh! what are you saying?” exclaimed O Sato. “It is only for you that I have borne all this, walking barefoot to the Shrine of Kwannon Sama every day for three years, thinking nothing of the wind or snow or frosts these wintry dawns.”
“I am, indeed, grateful to you for your devotion. But as I harboured suspicions of you for a long time, thinking evil of your good, even if I pray, my prayers to Kwannon can only be rewarded by punishment, and my eyesight will never be restored.”
“No, no, Sawaichi San, do not say such things,” answered O Sato. “My body is the same as your body. Talk nonsense no more, but control your mind with firmness and come with me to Kwannon Sama and let us pray together.”
Sawaichi rose from the mats, the tears falling from his eyes.
“Oh, my good wife, I am indeed grateful to you. If you are so determined I will follow. It is said that the grace of Buddha can make a dead tree to blossom. My eyes are like a dead tree … oh, oh, if only they might blossom into sight! But though I am a great sinner … who knows? Perhaps in the next world? .. Now my wife, lead me as ever by the hand!”
O Sato busied herself opening the tansu and getting out Sawaichi’s best clothes. She helped him to change, speaking encouraging words the while. Then they set out together and climbed the steep ascent of Tsubosaka, Sawaichi leaning on the staff in his right hand.
The couple at last reached the temple, breathless after the hard climb.
“Here we are, Sawaichi San,” said O Sato, “we have come to the temple, we are now before the gate … though prayer and devotion are important in the recovery of health, they say illness is often due to nerves. If you allow yourself to be so low-spirited, your eyes will only grow worse. Therefore, at such a time, how would it be for you to sing some song to cheer yourself?”
“Yes, yes, O Sato, as you say, anxious brooding over my troubles is not good for my eyes. I will sing some song.” Then beating time with his stick tapping the ground, he began to hum: “Chin—chin—tsu: chin—chin: tsu—chin—chin—tsu,” tinkling in imitation of the samisen.
Sawaichi cleared his throat and began to sing: Is suffering the cause of love? Or love the cause of suffering? My love must vanish like the dew … Aita … ta … ta …
The words of the song were suddenly broken by a cry of pain as Sawaichi entered the gate of the temple and tripped on a stone.
“Oh, dear, I nearly fell over that stone … I have forgotten the rest of the song … what does it matter now … ho—ho—ho,” and he laughed to himself strangely and softly.
They had by this time come to the main temple and stood outside, O Sato gazing at the altar where Amida Buddha and Kwannon, the Manifestation of Mercy, reigned above the lotus flowers in the fragrant mists of incense. “Sawaichi San, we have now come to Kwannon Sama.”
“Oh, indeed! Are we already there?” answered Sawaichi, “how grateful I am!” then turning his sightless face towards the altar he lifted beseeching hands, and bowing his head reverently, he repeated the Buddhist invocation: “Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Dai Butsu!” (All hail, Great Buddha!)
“Listen, Sawaichi,” said O Sato, earnestly, “this night let us stay together here and pray through the night without ceasing.”
Then they both began to pray. The chanting of their supplication rose up clearly in the stillness of the evening hour, and it seemed as if the sand of Tsubosaka might become the golden streets of Paradise.
Suddenly Sawaichi stopped and clutched hold of his wife.
“O Sato,” he said, “I must tell you the truth. I cannot believe. I came simply because it was your wish. But I shall never recover my sight, of that I feel sure.”
“Why do you say such sad things?” answered O Sato, clasping her hands. “Listen! When the Emperor Kwammu was in Nara, the ancient capital, he suffered with his eyes as you do. Then he prayed to Kwannon Sama and in a short time he was healed. Therefore, pray without ceasing. Kwannon will make no difference between the Emperor and ourselves, though we are as poor as worms. Believers must be patient and go forward slowly, and with quiet minds trust devoutly in the mercy of Kwannon. So great is his benevolence that He hears all prayers. Worship! Pray! Sawaichi San! Pray! instead of wasting time in vain talk.”
Thus did O Sato encourage her husband. Sawaichi nodded his head and replied: “What you say is convincing. From to-night I will fast for three days. You must return home, shut up the house and come again. The next three days will decide my fate, whether I recover or not.”
“Oh,” said O Sato, joyfully, “now you speak wisely. I will go back at once and arrange everything for a three days’ absence. But,” she added anxiously, “Sawaichi San, remember that this mountain is very steep, and higher up one comes to the top, which falls on the right into a deep precipice. On no account must you leave the temple!”
“Oh, no, never fear, I will put my arms round Kwannon to-night—ho, ho, ho!” and he laughed to himself.
O Sato, never dreaming of what was in her husband’s mind, hurried homewards, blissfully content, thinking that her yearning hopes were realized and that he at last believed.
Sawaichi listened to her retreating footsteps. When he could hear them no more, he knew himself to be alone. He fell flat to the earth and cried aloud in the bitterness and darkness of his soul.
“Oh! my wife, you will never know how grateful I am to you for all your devotion to me these long years. Though gradually reduced to the straits of poverty, you have never once lost sympathy with me. You have faithfully loved such a miserable blind wretch as myself. Alas! knowing nothing of what was in your heart I even doubted your fidelity. Forgive me, O Sato. Forgive me! If we part now we may never meet again. Oh, the pity of it!”
Sawaichi lay on the ground and gave vent to the pent-up misery in his heart. After a few minutes he raised a despairing face and said aloud: “I will not grieve any more. O Sato has prayed devoutly for three years, and yet Kwannon gives no sign of hearing her supplication. What is the use of living any longer? There is only one thing I can do to show my gratitude to you, O Sato! and that is to die and set you free. May you live long, O Sato! and make a happy second marriage! Now, I remember that O Sato told me that there was a deep precipice on the right at the top of the hill. That is the best place for me to die. If I die in this holy place, I may hope to be saved in the next world. Lucky it is that the night is far gone, and that there is no one about … oh, oh!”
With these words Sawaichi rose to his feet. The temple bell, the last before the dawn, rang out in the silence. Sawaichi knew that there was no time to lose. Groping his way with his stick he hastened to the top of the hill. Stopping to listen, he heard the sound of distant water flowing in the valley beneath. In his distraught state of mind it sounded to him like a call from Buddha. With the prayer “Namu Amida Butsu!” on his lips, he planted his stick on the edge of the hill, and with a desperate leap threw himself out as far as he could over the side of the abyss.
For a few moments the sound of the body crashing through the trees and undergrowth was heard as it fell in its progress of increasing impetus down the precipice: gradually growing fainter and fainter, the noise at last altogether ceased; then all was still on the lonely mountain side.
Knowing nothing of all this, O Sato was hurrying back to her husband, slipping and stumbling along the familiar road in her anxiety to get to him quickly. At last she reached the temple and looked round eagerly. Sawaichi was nowhere to be seen.
“Sawaichi San!” she called again and again. “Sawaichi San!”
Receiving no answer to her repeated cries she hunted round the temple courtyard, but with no result. Becoming fearful of what might have befallen him, she called louder than before: “Sawaichi San! Sawaichi San!”
Running distractedly from the temple precincts, she hastened to the crest of the hill, and there she tripped over her husband’s stick. She now knew what he had done. Frantically she rushed to the precipice and gazed far down into the abyss beneath. There in the grey light of the breaking dawn she could see the lifeless form of her husband stretched upon the ground.
“Oh! what shall I do? This is too dreadful!” she cried aloud in her anguish. Her body trembled in a paroxysm of pain. She called to her husband, but only the mountain echoes answered her.
“Oh, my husband, my husband! You are too cruel—too cruel! Only with the hope of saving you from blindness did I persevere in prayer for so long to Kwannon Sama. Alas! what will become of me, now that you have left me alone? Now I remember there was something strange in your manner when you sang that sad song coming up the hill. It may be that you had already made up your mind to die. But how could I know? Oh! Sawaichi San, if only I had known I would never have persuaded you to come to this place. Forgive me, oh, forgive me! There is no such miserable woman in the world as myself. No one but God could know that Death would separate us now. Blind man as you are, who cannot see in this world, how will you travel alone amidst the dark shadows down the road of Death? Who will lead you by the hand now? I feel as if I could see you wandering and groping there all by yourself.”
Heartbrokenly she sobbed for some time. At last she shook herself with resolution; then raised her tear-stained face to the seemingly unresponsive heaven above.
“Oh, oh, I will lament no more. Everything that happens in this life is the result of sin and affinity in our previous state of existence. I will die too, and join Sawaichi in death.”
With clasped hands she repeated the Buddhist prayer, “Namu Amida Butsu,” and then, gathering all her strength for the fatal leap, sprang over the precipice and was gone.
The February morning broke clear and bright. Nor in the temple nor on the hillside was there any trace of the pitiful tragedy that had taken place during the night. The mists in the valley and over the mountains dispersed as the sun’s rays, advancing swiftly from the east, touched the world with the transforming magic of splendour of day. Then suddenly a strange thing happened. In the rose and golden glory of the unfolding pageant of the early rushing morning, there was wafted over the Tsubosaka valley the most wonderful and uplifting strains of music, and above the bodies of Sawaichi and O Sato appeared the holy and yearningly compassionate form of Kwannon shining in a great, all-space-illuminating radiance.
“Listen, Sawaichi!” said the Heavenly Voice, “Your blindness is the result of sin in your former life. The end of this life had come for you both, but through the faith of your wife and the merits of her accumulated prayers, your lives shall be prolonged. Therefore believe and devote your lives to prayer, and make a pilgrimage to the thirty-three holy places, where you must offer up thanks for the grace of Buddha. Awake, O Sato! O Sato! Sawaichi! Sawaichi!”
With these words the divine vision disappeared; the temple bell pealed forth the hour of morning prayer, the birds began to sing, the priests to beat their gongs and drums, and to chant their orisons, and over the hillside villages and in the temple the world woke once more to life and work.
The two bodies lying in the valley rose up, wondering whether the vision which had restored them to life were a dream. Vaguely they remembered the events of the night. O Sato gazed at Sawaichi: “Sawaichi San! My husband! Your eyes are open!”
“Yes, yes, my eyes are open indeed! Oh, oh, my eyes are open, open, open! My eyes are open at last! I can hardly believe it,” cried Sawaichi, joyfully.
“Remember that it is due to the mercy of Kwannon Sama,” said O Sato.
“I am thankful, thankful, thankful!” exclaimed Sawaichi. Then looking at his wife, he asked: “But who are you?”
“Why, I am your wife O Sato, of course!” answered O Sato.
“Oh, you are my wife, are you? How happy I am! This is the first time I see you. But how wonderful it all is. When I threw myself over the precipice, I knew nothing more till Kwannon appeared to me in a great and marvellous light and told me that my blindness was the result of misdeeds in a former life.”
“I, too,” said O Sato, “followed you to death and leaped into the valley where I saw you lying all alone. I, too, knew nothing till Kwannon Sama called me. Your eyes are really open, Sawaichi San! Does it not seem a dream!”
“No, no,” said Sawaichi, “it is no dream. The most merciful Kwannon called me back to life and by a miracle restored my sight. Ha, ha, ha! As deep as the sea is my gratitude to Kwannon.”
Taking each other by the hand and smiling happily, they climbed to the temple where they had prayed so despairingly the night before. As they went along Sawaichi raised his hands in worship towards the sunlight.
To this poor couple, now so happily restored to life and joy and hope, the hill of Tsubosaka did indeed seem Paradise through the mercy of KWANNON, the Embodiment of Amida’s Compassion.
 The Japanese harp.
 The Japanese banjo.
Tsubosaka – Romances of Old Japan