Tales of Old Japan
The Gift of Gold Lacquer
A THOUSAND years ago the Great Buddha's gospel came to Japan to make the rough people gentle and the cruel kind. Human beings at once began to care for animals.
The nobles and common folks alike were glad to hear the good news and learn how to help one another and the dumb brutes.
The Empress ordered that a pagoda should be built in every province and a temple in every village. So happy was every one to see arising in his village so grand a building, that even the boys and girls helped in the work. Some carried stones and wood, others brought clay and plaster. Even the ladies cut off their long black hair and had it made into ropes to haul the materials. The big tree trunks cut in the forest were drawn to the carpenters, who smoothed and shaped them into temple columns.
Soon, in many a village, tall and stately edifices rose high above the thatched cottages of the humble folks. The long sloping roof, instead of being covered with rice straw, was handsomely shingled and the new timber gave out a sweet smell. When the ridge pole was put up the builders set a bow and arrow at each end hoping to shoot and kill any demons that should come near, but they were most afraid of fire that might burn down the building and thus make all their work come to naught. So at the end of the gable they fixed the great devil's tile on which were moulded figures of the water weed to put out the flames. To guard against sparks that might fly out of the chimneys of houses near by, they planted rows of tall trees to act as a wall of defense. Thus they hoped to keep lord Buddha's temple standing for a thousand years.
Then the men that could carve and paint and work metal came up from the capital city to make the inside glorious to behold. Soon the lights and the incense, the shining brass, the burning candles and brilliant altar furniture, the lofty columns made of whole camphor trees, the ceiling of grained wood, the silken rolls of writing on the reading desk, the intoning of the sacred books and the chanting of the priests who were dressed in silk robes, made a splendid sight and a charming sound.
"Isn't it delightful!" said one wrinkled old granny. "I feel quite young again, for I can see and hear and smell as never before."
"Yes, such music and sweet odors and such glory to look upon, I never expected to see," said her daughter, who was a mother and had brought her boy Toko with her.
As for the temple itself, it was full of grown people and children, admiring everything. They felt grateful for the good doctrine taught by the learned priests, some of whom had traveled across the sea from Korea. The first sermon of the bonze was on being kind to all creatures. It was our duty, said he, to love even the worms, and the crickets.
All the beasts of the field and the birds of the air also rejoiced that Buddha's doctrine had come to the Mikado's realm, for now human beings were kinder than ever to their dumb friends with wings or on four feet. Even during the winter, no bird froze or deer starved. Farmers were patient, even with the monkeys that were so numerous as to be mischievous. In the field the white heron could walk unfrightened in the furrows behind the plowman, picking up its food joyfully.
These simple folk were easily pleased, for as yet there was no gilding, or varnish, or fine art, but only plain wood and metal. There was no gold leaf or shining vermilion or violet lacquer yet. Rough and nude enough, the sacred building might seem to a traveler, for it could not compare for a moment with gorgeous temples in India, the gilded ceilings of Korea, or the porcelain pagodas of China.
Happy though they were, yet every one of the villagers wondered how they could make their temple still more lovely. Some even dreamed at night of the far off pagodas, of which their bonze told them. One farmer, who was very kind to the cranes and who carefully refrained from ever killing even an insect, was especially eager to transfer the sheen of the beetles and the gloss of feathers to common wood, and long he pondered on how to do it. He would have the brilliancy of the dragon-fly cover up the knot marks, and the metallic lustre of the pheasant's wings on plain pine. But how to compass the mystery filled him with care.
One night weary with his work in the rice-field, as he slept, a beautiful white bird with black tips on its wing feathers appeared to him and talked about making the tables and altars glossy and rich in color.
"I am the spirit of the lacquer-tree that grows in the deep forest. I poison the men that wound me. My trunk has a milk-white sap. Tap it and stir up the juice in a wooden vessel. Then when it becomes thick, apply it to wood. Then the temple columns will shine like jet. Be wise, and don't laugh when I tell you a secret. It must dry in a wet atmosphere. Guard yourself, for there is danger. Put not your hands in the liquid. Persevere. Be clean. Farewell!"
The farmer woke up and wondered what all this meant, but tired and sleepy his eyes were soon closed again. Not till the raven croaked to tell the sun was risen, did he wake up again. Then remembering the vision, he sallied forth axe in hand with his boy who carried a pail into the forest. Coming to a tree he gave it a blow and out trickled a white juice. It made his nose and eyes tingle, but collecting a pint or so of the stuff, he took it home, and, after agitating it in a platter, left it quiet over bight.
The next morning everybody in the house was growling. Noses, eyes and lips smarted. What was the cause? The now dark fluid was not yet suspected. Another night and their mouths and eyelids felt as if hornets had stung them. On the third day, with their eyes nearly closed, they fumbled about like blind folks. For the first time, they suspected the tree juice, now very black and ugly, and were tempted to throw it away. Nevertheless, though suffering, the farmer lad and father kept their temper and were kinder than ever to the birds in the field.
At night in his dreams the spirit of the tree, in the form of a white crane, again appeared to the farmer.
"Try again and be not discouraged. For your faithfulness in keeping the tree juice, even when you were poisoned, I shall reveal to you another secret, even that of colors and to your son that of gold. This art shall not be born in the fire, like that of the clay which makes cup and vase. I shall show you what water can do. Go forth again. Have more patience."
They obeyed, and this time the father brought also his fair daughter. Behold the three, armed with axe, sap-spout and bucket, going forth among the bamboo and into the forest. Selecting a fat trunk, the trio ranged themselves in line a few yards apart. Then praying first to the spirit of the tree, and begging pardon for wounding its body, the man ran forward and gave a resounding whack which seemed to stun the tree and make it weep. Drops fell like tears. At the same moment there rose out of the top branches the same white crane which he had seen in his dream.
The memory of the stinging poisonous sap made the boy hesitate to rush forward and insert the spout, so that the sap should not be wasted. As if to encourage the lad, the crane flew down lower and lower and then in circles round the boy's head. So plucking up courage, he dashed up and squeezed the spout into the gaping wound made by the axe. Nearly blinded by the acrid fumes, father and son at a distance waited to see the girl trip forth bravely with the bucket.
Only one circling of the encouraging crane around the maiden's head was necessary to give her nerve. In a moment, into the vessel, which she placed on the ground, the white sap fell. Drip, drip, like milk it issued until the bucket was nearly full, but she and her father and brother kept at a distance.
They waited at home until the stars were out and gone again before approaching the tree again to bring in the twenty-four hours' yield.
"Let us this morning make ourselves pure by cleansing ourselves carefully," said the father, "as the tree spirit said." Fresh from the bath and in clean clothes they sallied forth and brought home their prize.
Night after night the feather-robed spirit of the tree spoke to both father and son in vision, each time commending their faithfulness. Slowly, day by day, the soreness and poisonous effect of the fresh juice, now made into shining lacquer, passed off. They learned to apply it skilfully, clothing common wood with a hard glossy armor. Their wooden bowls, set to dry on shelves sopped with a wet cloth, became like glazed porcelain and their little breakfast table like enamel. Yet the mystery of gloss was not gained in fire but by water. With each opening of the morning glory, the elder gained fresh patience and the younger more skill. Neither heat nor cold, salt or sour hurt lacquer, and common wood seemed like metal. Out of paper covered with this hard varnish laid on in many coats, the warriors made coats as tough as iron.
It was now the boy's turn in his dreams to be told fresh secrets from the crane. He learned to mix the varnish with many colors. When he laid away his work in moisture the lustre became dazzlingly brilliant. One day adding gold leaf, he found the noble mixture made extraordinary beauty. So still keeping his secret he traveled to Nara, the capital, and learned drawing and painting from the Korean artists.
Toko now became a decorator of temples and a maker of altar furniture. He fashioned writing boxes for poetry parties and desks for the learned monks. On a cabinet of drawers for his mother he drew and finished in gold lacquer a picture of his native village and the fields and hills toward the west. The fame of his skill reached the ears of the Emperor, who invited him to make a splendid picnic box, for which he paid him a thousand rolls of silk. A tray for the Empress was the wonder of all in the palace. With gold leaf and lacquer the village temple now looked like an Imperial shrine. Pilgrims traveled from all over the empire to admire its splendor and take back home stories of a beauty they had never dreamed of before.
Yet all this time, even when the golden wind-bells, tinkling in the mouths of the phoenixes that hung along the temple eaves, seemed to sing his fame in the evening breezes, did not the artist forget the tree spirit that first told him to be pure and to persevere. But one night in a dream, when sleeping under the old home roof, the silvery white crane again appeared to him, yet this time silent, with no message.
"Speak," said the once farmer lad, now a great master, who had many pupils in art. "How can I express my grateful heart for your kindness to me? I have fame, honor, and wealth, besides the joy of serving the lord Buddha in making his temples beautiful, and the Emperor's palace glorious, besides caring for my old father and mother. What may I do for thee, my guardian spirit?"
"Lord Buddha will ever incline the children of Japan to treat gently the snowy heron and the silk-white cranes forever; but do you and your successors, on the panel, the tray, the screen, and the writing box make the crane and heron comrades of the gold-lacquered mountains and trees, the landscape and the rice-fields. Let them preen their feathers, or soar in the air, or bask in the red disk of the morning sun, or amid the curling spray of the ocean disport themselves in joy. Thus let all the world, for a whole banzai, or a thousand generations, be grateful for the gift of the lacquer tree."
And to this day it is appointed that dull clay can win a glistening robe only in the kiln while the tree juice finds its body in moisture. Shining gold and brilliant colors rise out of the fire, while lacquer owes its richest lustre to the mystery of water. Even yet, alike on the landscape warmed by the sun and on the picture wrought by the artist, the snowy heron steps daintily and the white crane flies to the mountain. So shall it ever be in Everlasting Great Japan.
The text came from:
Fairy Tales of Old Japan. London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1911.