Hearn’s “In the Twilight of the Gods”

This is something I wanted to write about for a while, but lacked enough time to sit down and do it. While reading Lafcadio Hearn’s book Kokoro, I was particularly moved by one essay titled “In the Twilight of the Gods”. I am not sure if the essay is based on an actual event, or more of a dramatization, but the story is that Hearn is invited to meet a certain curio who needs his help evaluating some Japanese art. He’s taking to a go-down, where the curio displays an amazing array of statues:

In the dusk of the go-down the spectacle was more than weird: it was apparitional. Arhats and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the shapes of a mythology older than they, filled all the shadowy space; not ranked by hierarchies, as in a temple, but mingled without order, as in a silent panic…I could at first discern little; then, as the dimness cleared, I began to distinguish personalities. I saw Kwannon, of many forms; Jizō, of many names. Shaka [Shakyamuni], Yakushi, Amida, the Buddhas and their disciples.

The curio describes them as josses, which is a pidgin word for Asian “idols” and tells Hearn the cost:

He clapped his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed triumphantly in my ear, “Cost me fifty thousand dollars.”

But the images themselves told me how much more was their cost to forgotten piety, notwithstanding the cheapness of artistic labor. Also they told me of the dead millions whose pilgrim feet had worn hollow the steps leading to shrines, of the buried mothers who used to suspend little baby dresses before their altars, of the generations of children taught to murmur prayers to them, of the countless sorrows and hopes confided to them.

Then the curio points out a statue of note (emphasis added by Hearn, not me):

He pointed to a figure resting upon a triple golden lotos [sic], — Avalokitesvara: she “who looketh down above the sound of prayer.”… Storms give way to her name. Fire is quenched by her name. Demons vanish at the sound of her name. By her name one may stand firm in the sky, like a sun… The delicacy of the limbs, the tenderness of the smile, were dreams of the Indian paradise.

Later the curio talks about selling to the British Museum, but first thought of making money displaying the idols London:

“Well, I first want to get up a show,” he replied. “There’s money to be made by a show of josses in London. London people never saw anything like this in their lives. Then the church folks help that sort of a show, if you manage them properly: it advertises the missions. ‘Heathen idols from Japan!’ …”

They view more beautiful statues: the statue of baby Shakyamuni taking seven steps, the Four Guardian Kings, and so on. The curio mistakes the cross-shaped stand of the statues as a sign they’re trampling on the cross, and thinks to advertise this as from the old Tokugawa-era persecution of Christianity, but Hearn corrects him and points out they’re really just stands. Changing subject to bronze, the curio talks about his attempt to purchase the Great Buddha of Kamakura for its bronze:

“For old bronze?” I queried.

“Yes. We calculated the weight of the metal, and formed a syndicate. Our first offer was thirty thousand. We could have made a big profit, for there’s a good deal of gold and silver in that work. The priests wanted to sell, but the people wouldn’t let them.”

As the two men left Hearn offers a final parting thought that I thought was the most beautiful of all:

Then I fancied them immured somewhere in that vast necropolis of dead gods, under the gloom of a pea-soup-fog, chambered with forgotten divinities of Egypt or Babylon, and trembling faintly at the roar of London,— all to what end? Perhaps to aid another Alma Tadema to paint the beauty of another vanished civilization; perhaps to assist the illustration of an English Dictionary of Buddhism; perhaps to inspire some future laureate with a metaphor startling as Tennyson’s figure of the “oiled and curled Assyrian bull.” Assuredly they would not be preserved in vain. The thinkers of a less conventional and selfish era would teach new reverence for them. Each eidolon shaped by human faith remains the shell of a truth eternally divine; and even the shell itself may hold a ghostly power. The soft serenity, the passionless tenderness, of these Buddha faces might yet give peace of soul to a West weary of creeds transformed into conventions, eager for the coming of another teacher to proclaim, “I have the same feeling for the high as for the low, for the moral as for the immoral, for the depraved as for the virtuous, for those holding sectarian views and false opinions as for those whose beliefs are good and true.

Given the constant debate about the commercialization of Buddhism in the West, I found this essay enlightening and made me rethink some things, especially the final paragraph.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S.  You can read the full story here online at Project Gutenberg.  It’s chapter 9.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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