At the end of a very sick year our thoughts turn to healing.
“Genji, who was suffering from a recurrent fever, had all sorts of spells cast and healing rites done, but to no avail.”
“Naturally,” we say today. “Of what avail can spells and rites possibly be?” We look to doctors and scientists for cures. We would have seemed very strange to the Japanese of the Heian Period (794-1185). Healing divorced from Taoist lore and Buddhist prayer would have drawn as much scorn from them as their invocations and exorcisms do from us.
Genji is the eponymous hero of court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s classic 11th-century novel, “The Tale of Genji.” He is a son of the reigning emperor — handsome beyond description, artistic beyond compare, amorous beyond restraint, and so winning in all his ways that his very faults become virtues. And he has fallen ill.
His retainers hear of a holy recluse in a mountain cave outside Heian-kyo, the capital, present-day Kyoto. “Last summer,” they tell him, “when the fever was widespread and spells failed to help, he healed many people immediately.” An expedition is arranged. The ascetic, “a most saintly man,” prepares “the necessary talismans” — slips of paper on which are inscribed sacred Sanskrit syllables. Genji swallows them, and the sage “goes through his spells and incantations.” They are effective. The evil spirit withdraws. Genji’s health is restored.
Evil spirits were the bane of premodern people’s lives. They were to them what microorganisms are to us. Holy rites were premodern vaccines. But healers were psychologists too, in their way. The sage ministering to Genji counsels, “It (the fever) is too much on your mind. You must try to think of something else.”
A distraction duly presents itself — herself, rather: a pretty little girl glimpsed in a nearby cottage. Perhaps she merits as much credit for the cure as the sage does. Genji determines to be a father to her, preparatory to being her husband. Heian sexual morality takes a little getting used to.
Decades later she is the love of Genji’s life, his favorite though not his only consort — and she is dying. Her name is Murasaki (not to be confused with the author). Genji, in despair, encourages her in terms that recall the sage: “Everything will be all right if only we manage to think so. When we take the broad easy view we are happy. … It is the calm ones who survive.”
Exorcists, meanwhile, are hard at work. “The malign spirit suddenly yielded after so many tenacious weeks and passed from Murasaki to the little girl who was serving as medium.”
The spirit declares herself. Long dead, she has nurtured in the afterworld the malice that consumed her in life after Genji seduced and then neglected her. Other of Genji’s ladies had died mysteriously, victims of her jealous rage. This time the rites are of such intensity, or the priestly exorcists of such holiness, that her malevolence falters. She is undone. “Pray for me,” she pleads. “Pray that my sins be forgiven. These services, these holy texts, are an unremitting torment.”
Murasaki’s recovery proved short-lived. Within months she was dead. Possession was curable; fate, not.
Life itself, said Buddhism as practiced in Heian, was an illness, a delirium, an illusion, as light as gossamer, as fleeting as dew. Enlightenment, the best cure of all, wakes us from the dream of life. True health is renunciation of the world. It is the quest of all major characters in “Genji,” vigorously or indolently pursued, depending on the character’s inner resources. The world is not easily renounced. Illusory it may be, but its snares are many. Beauty is one; love, of course, another. Love. How healthy we would be if there were no such thing!
There is the example of young Kashiwagi, son of Genji’s best friend, best friend of Genji’s son, a talented and engaging man. An illustrious future beckoned. Fate decreed otherwise. A chance glimpse of Genji’s youngest wife is Kashiwagi’s undoing. He is smitten. Unable to pursue the lady herself, he acquires, instead, her pet cat. “You are here to remind me of someone I long for,” he murmurs as he strokes it.
This can’t be satisfactory for long, and isn’t. Suborning one of the lady’s attendants, he penetrates the sleeping chamber. “His passion was suddenly more than he could control.” The damage done, he dozes off, dreaming of the cat.
The guilt is unbearable. To have cuckolded the great Genji is no small thing. He falls ill. His parents and friends watch helplessly as he declines before their eyes. An ascetic is sent for, “famous as a worker of cures, and the spells and incantations in which he immersed himself might almost have seemed overdone. The symptoms did not point to any specific illness, but Kashiwagi would sometimes weep in great, racking sobs. The soothsayers were agreed that a jealous woman had taken possession of him.”
Kashiwagi knows better. “Listen to them. They seem to have no notion that I might be ill because I misbehaved.” Prayer, rites, spells — “they were not the medicine he needed. He went away like the foam upon the waters.” The lady gives birth to Kashiwagi’s son. Genji had married her grudgingly, to give peace to the soul of her dying father, his brother. He sought to reassure Murasaki. She had no cause for jealousy. His love was hers alone. This new lady, childish rather than childlike, so lacking in character and accomplishments, was no rival.
And yet — how to account for these things? — Kashiwagi died of love for her. And she, for all her inadequacies, succeeded where Genji and so many others had failed. She renounced the world. As a nun, she would spend the rest of her life lost in prayer and reflection on the unreality of life and all the good and bad it brings us. She was saved — cured.
Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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