People of the Books: Tale of the Heike trans. by Helen Craig McCullough

This doesn’t so much count as a religious book, but then it does, but then it doesn’t, but then it does…

Here’s the thing—The Tale of the Heike (or Heike monogatari) is a history.  Specifically, it’s the epic of the downfall of the Taira clan in medieval Japan, mostly because of the arrogance (in the West it would likely be hubris) of the clan leader, Taira no Kiyomori.  Kiyomori is a fool who challenges the universe to defy his awesomeness.

Spoiler alert:  it does.

The religious aspect of it is so part and parcel that the epic won’t stand without it.  Medieval Japan was Buddhist (in case you didn’t know), and this whole poem (it is a poem, although this particular translation is in prose, which is kind of great because I heart poetry but not for 430 pages) hinges on the Buddhist theme of impermanence.  In fact, the opening lines about impermanence are super famous:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.  The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.  (23)

There’s a pretty solid overview of the poem here, if you’re interested.  It is pretty neat to see how medieval Japanese civil wars have made their way into poetry, but then, I’m a medievalist.  Warning:  The Tale of the Heike is really long.  It just is.  It covers nearly one hundred years of happenings as the Taira and Minamoto clans battle for supremacy in the Japanese government, and there are SO MANY moments of dramatic irony that it hurts.  Lots of yelling at the TV screen, if there were a TV, not to walk down that hallway.  And Westerners will have a rough time of it because there are a ton of name changes and little side stories that don’t connect to an overarching narrative (in any direct way, at least), but the annotations and footnotes of this edition are actually really helpful. Also, I found it make my life easier to have a post-it note for each book with a one-sentence summary of each section; that way, when someone would pop up after having been absent for 56 pages, I could go back and remind myself why that guy was important.

Along the way, there are great stories of love, horror, battle, song, beauty, an awful lot of people taking up the religious life, and poems galore. I appreciate that McCullough kept the Japanese with the poems, even though I don’t understand a lick of Japanese, because so much of the importance of poetry here is borrowing and punning and sound pattern, which gets lost in translation.  All in all, this is a solid translation of this, and I do recommend it.

The way it qualifies as a religious book (beyond that freaking everyone becomes a monk at some point, I feel) is the underlying theme of pushing against that arrogance/hubris.  The gods are the gods and we are most decidedly not, and it’s Kiyomori’s decision that he can play on their scale that crashes the whole dynasty.

This is a tale of the effects of karma.  Karma, or (業)Gō, is where past deeds affect current ones; it relies on the idea that death happens, but it’s a temporary thing.  So Taira no Kiyomori, who becomes a tyrant under the illustrious desire for power, started as a Buddhist teacher uncomprehending of the nature of evil.  He figured it out, and it devours him as his actions for himself overwhelm his actions for others and the gods.

As everywhere, religion is not detached from ordinary lives and political struggles. Warrior monks are wily players in this ongoing struggle, often competing in very earthly struggles for allegiance and manipulating events by using their monk statuses.  So this is also a tale about how religion can be a tool like everything else and that following faith doesn’t necessarily make you untouchably pious.

This book is a huge deal in Japanese culture; parts of it have been adapted to Noh plays and various performances.  It’s kind of the Japanese Iliad in its applicability and staying power.  It has some beautiful little stories within the larger narrative.  For certain, this is tragedy and wonder and poetry and nature appreciation and totally worth the read.  It’s sort of like Ecclesiastes; depressing as all get out, but beautiful in its own sad and inevitable way.


Rating:  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print  4/5 stars

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