Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 40

Our Friends the Bonzes

September 2d.

Fate has favored us with a friendship as strange as it is rare: that of the head bonzes of the temple of the jumping Tortoise, where we witnessed last month such a surprising pilgrimage.

The approach to this place is as solitary now as it was thronged and bustling on the evenings of the festival; and in broad daylight one is surprised at the deathlike decay of the sacred surroundings which at night had seemed so full of life. Not a creature to be seen on the time-worn granite steps; not a creature beneath the vast, sumptuous porticoes; the colors, the gold-work are dim with dust. To reach the temple one must cross several deserted courtyards terraced on the mountain-side, pass through several solemn gateways, and up and up endless stairs rising far above the town and the noises of humanity into a sacred region filled with innumerable tombs. On all the pavements, in all the walls, are lichen and stonecrop; and over all the gray tint of extreme age spreads like a fall of ashes.

In a side temple near the entrance is enthroned a colossal Buddha seated in his lotus — a gilded idol from forty-five to sixty feet high, mounted on an enormous bronze pedestal.

At length appears the last doorway with the two traditional giants, guardians of the sacred court, which stand the one on the right hand, the other on the left, shut up like wild beasts, each in an iron cage. They are in attitudes of fury, with fists upraised as if to strike, and features atrociously fierce and distorted. Their bodies are covered with bullets of crumbled paper, which have been aimed at them through the bars, and which have stuck to their monstrous limbs, producing an appearance of white leprosy: this is the manner in which the faithful strive to appease them, by conveying to them their prayers written upon delicate leaflets by the pious bonzes.

Passing between these alarming scarecrows, one reaches the innermost court. The residence of our friends is on the right, the great hall of the pagoda is before us.

In this paved court are bronze torch-holders as high as turrets. Here, too, stand, and have stood for centuries, cyca palms with fresh, green plumes, their numerous stalks curving with a heavy symmetry, like the branches of massive candelabra. The temple, which is open along its entire length, is dark and mysterious, with touches of gilding in distant corners melting away into the gloom. In the very remotest part are seated idols, and from outside one can vaguely see their clasped hands and air of rapt mysticism; in front are the altars, loaded with marvellous vases in metalwork, whence spring graceful clusters of gold and silver lotus. From the very entrance one is greeted by the sweet odor of the incense-sticks unceasingly burned by the priests before the gods.

To penetrate into the dwelling of our friends the bonzes, which is situated on the right side as you enter, is by no means an easy matter.

A monster of the fish tribe, but having claws and horns, is hung over their door by iron chains; at the least breath of wind he swings creakingly. We pass beneath him and enter the first vast and lofty hall, dimly lighted, in the corners of which gleam gilded idols, bells, and incomprehensible objects of religious use.

Quaint little creatures, choir-boys or pupils, come forward with a doubtful welcome to ask what is wanted.

“Matsou-San!! Dondta-San!!” they repeat, much astonished, when they understand to whom we wish to be conducted. Oh! no, impossible, they can not be seen; they are resting or are in contemplation. “Orimas! Orimas!” say they, clasping their hands and sketching a genuflection or two to make us understand better. (“They are at prayer! the most profound prayer!")

We insist, speak more imperatively; even slip off our shoes like people determined to take no refusal.

At last Matsou-San and Donata-San make their appearance from the tranquil depths of their bonze-house. They are dressed in black crape and their heads are shaved. Smiling, amiable, full of excuses, they offer us their hands, and we follow, with our feet bare like theirs, to the interior of their mysterious dwelling, through a series of empty rooms spread with mats of the most unimpeachable whiteness. The successive halls are separated one from the other only by bamboo curtains of exquisite delicacy, caught back by tassels and cords of red silk.

The whole wainscoting of the interior is of the same wood, of a pale yellow shade made with extreme nicety, without the least ornament, the least carving; everything seems new and unused, as if it had never been touched by human hand. At distant intervals in this studied bareness, costly little stools, marvellously inlaid, uphold some antique bronze monster or a vase of flowers; on the walls hang a few masterly sketches, vaguely tinted in Indian ink, drawn upon strips of gray paper most accurately cut but without the slightest attempt at a frame. This is all: not a seat, not a cushion, not a scrap of furniture. It is the very acme of studied simplicity, of elegance made out of nothing, of the most immaculate and incredible cleanliness. And while following the bonzes through this long suite of empty halls, we are struck by their contrast with the overflow of knickknacks scattered about our rooms in France, and we take a sudden dislike to the profusion and crowding delighted in at home.

The spot where this silent march of barefooted folk comes to an end, the spot where we are to seat ourselves in the delightful coolness of a semi-darkness, is an interior veranda opening upon an artificial site. We might suppose it the bottom of a well; it is a miniature garden no bigger than the opening of an oubliette, overhung on all sides by the crushing height of the mountain and receiving from on high but the dim light of dreamland. Nevertheless, here is simulated a great natural ravine in all its wild grandeur: here are caverns, abrupt rocks, a torrent, a cascade, islands. The trees, dwarfed by a Japanese process of which we have not the secret, have tiny little leaves on their decrepit and knotty branches. A pervading hue of the mossy green of antiquity harmonizes all this medley, which is undoubtedly centuries old.

Families of goldfish swim round and round in the clear water, and tiny tortoises (jumpers probably) sleep upon the granite islands, which are of the same color as their own gray shells.

There are even blue dragon-flies which have ventured to descend, heaven knows whence, and alight with quivering wings upon the miniature water-lilies.

Our friends the bonzes, notwithstanding an unctuousness of manner thoroughly ecclesiastical, are very ready to laugh — a simple, pleased, childish laughter; plump, chubby, shaven and shorn, they dearly love our French liqueurs and know how to take a joke.

We talk first of one thing and then another. To the tranquil music of their little cascade, I launch out before them with phrases of the most erudite Japanese, I try the effect of a few tenses of verbs: ‘desideratives, concessives, hypothetics in ba’. While they chant they despatch the affairs of the church: the order of services sealed with complicated seals for inferior pagodas situated in the neighborhood; or trace little prayers with a cunning paint-brush, as medical remedies to be swallowed like pills by invalids at a distance. With their white and dimpled hands they play with a fan as cleverly as any woman, and when we have tasted different native drinks, flavored with essences of flowers, they bring up as a finish a bottle of Benedictine or Chartreuse, for they appreciate the liqueurs composed by their Western colleagues.

When they come on board to return our visits, they by no means disdain to fasten their great round spectacles on their flat noses in order to inspect the profane drawings in our illustrated papers, the ‘Vie Parisienne’ for instance. And it is even with a certain complacency that they let their fingers linger upon the pictures representing women.

The religious ceremonies in their great temple are magnificent, and to one of these we are now invited. At the sound of the gong they make their entrance before the idols with a stately ritual; twenty or thirty priests officiate in gala costumes, with genuflections, clapping of hands and movements to and fro, which look like the figures of some mystic quadrille.

But for all that, let the sanctuary be ever so immense and imposing in its sombre gloom, the idols ever so superb, all seems in Japan but a mere semblance of grandeur. A hopeless pettiness, an irresistible effect the ludicrous, lies at the bottom of all things.

And then the congregation is not conducive to thoughtful contemplation, for among it we usually discover some acquaintance: my mother-in-law, or a cousin, or the woman from the china-shop who sold us a vase only yesterday. Charming little mousmes, monkeyish-looking old ladies enter with their smoking-boxes, their gayly daubed parasols, their curtseys, their little cries and exclamations; prattling, complimenting one another, full of restless movement, and having the greatest difficulty in maintaining a serious demeanor.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36