Sacred Texts  Japan  Index  Previous  Next 

Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, [1918], at

p. 215

Mad Joan, Though Muttering, is Dead and a Skeleton
Click to enlarge

Mad Joan, Though Muttering, is Dead and a Skeleton



AT the foot of Mount Shumongatake, up in the northwestern province of Echigo, once stood, and probably even still stands in rotten or repaired state, a temple of some importance, inasmuch as it was the burial-ground of the feudal Lord Yamana's ancestors. The name of the temple was Fumonji, and many high and important priests kept it up generation after generation, owing to the early help received from Lord Yamana's relations. Among the priests who presided over this temple was one named Ajari Joan, who was the adopted son of the Otomo family.

Ajari was learned and virtuous, and had many followers; but one day the sight of a most attractive girl called Kiku, 1 whose age was eighteen, upset all his religious equilibrium. He fell desperately in love with her, offering to sacrifice his position and reputation if she Would only listen to his prayer and marry him; but the lovely O Kiku San refused all his entreaties. A year later she was taken seriously ill with fever and died, and

p. 216

whispers went abroad that Ajari the priest had cursed her in his jealousy and brought about her illness and her death. The rumour was not exactly without reason, for Ajari went mad within a week of O Kiku's death. He neglected his services, and then got worse, running wildly about the temple, shrieking at night and frightening all those who came near. Finally, one night he dug up the body of O Kiku and ate part of her flesh.

People declared that he had turned into the Devil, and none dared go near the temple; even the younger priests left, until at last he was alone. So terrified were the people, none approached the temple, which soon ran to rack and ruin. Thorny bushes grew on the roof, moss on the hitherto polished and matted floors; birds built their nests inside, perched on the mortuary tablets, and made a mess of everything; the temple, which had once been a masterpiece of beauty, became a rotting ruin.

One summer evening, some six or seven months later, an old woman who owned a tea-house at the foot of Shumongatake Mountain was about to close her shutters when she was terrified at the sight of a priest with a white cap on his head approaching. 'The Devil Priest! The Devil Priest!' she cried as she slammed the last shutter in his face. 'Get away, get away! We can't have you here.'

'What do you mean by "Devil Priest"? I am a travelling or pilgrim priest, not a robber. Let me in at once, for I want both rest and refreshment,' cried the voice from outside. The old woman looked through a crack in the shutters, and saw that it was not the dreaded maniac, but a venerable pilgrim priest: so she

p. 217

opened the door and let him in, profuse in her apologies, and telling him how they were all frightened out of their wits by the priest of Fumonji Temple who had gone mad over a love-affair.

'Oh, sir, it is truly terrible! We hardly dare go within half a mile of the temple now, and some day the mad priest is sure to come out of it and kill some of us.'

'Do you mean to tell me that a priest has so far forgotten himself as to break through the teachings of Buddha and make himself the slave of worldly passions?' asked the traveller.

'I don't know about the worldly passions,' cried the old lady; 'but our priest has turned into a devil, as all the people hereabouts will tell you, for he has even dug up and eaten of the flesh of the poor girl whom he caused to die by his cursing!'

'There have been instances of people turning devils,' said the priest; 'but they are usually common people and not priests. A courtier of the Emperor So's turned into a serpent, the wife of Yosei into a moth, the mother of Ogan into a Yasha 1; but I have never heard of a priest turning into a devil. Besides, Ajari Joan, your priest at Fumonji Temple, was a virtuous and clever man, I have always heard. I have cone here, in fact, to do myself the honour of meeting him, and to-morrow I shall go and see him.'

The old lady served the priest with tea and begged him to think of no such thing; but he persisted, and said that on the morrow he would do as he mentioned,

p. 218

and read the mad priest a lecture; and then he laid himself down to rest for the night.

Next afternoon the old priest, true to his word, started for the Fumonji Temple, the old lady accompanying him for the first part of the walk, to the place where the path which led to the temple turned up the mountain, and there she bade him good-bye, refusing to go another step.

The sun was beginning to set as the priest came in sight of the temple, and he saw that the place was in great disorder. The gates had tumbled off their hinges, withered leaves were thickly strewn everywhere and crumpled under his feet; but he walked boldly on, and struck a small temple-bell with his staff. At the sound came many birds and bats from the temple, the bats flapping round his head; but there was no other sign of life. He struck the bell again with renewed force, and it boomed and clanged in echoes. At last a thin, miserable-looking priest came out, and, looking wildly about, said:

'Who are you, and why have you come here? The temple has long since been deserted, for some reason which I cannot understand. If you want lodging you must go to the village. There is neither food nor bedding here.'

'I am a priest from Wakasa Province. The pretty scenery and clear streams have caused me to linger long on my journey. It is too late now to go to the village, and I am too tired: so please let me remain for the night,' said the priest. The other made answer:

'I cannot order you away. This place is no longer more than a ruined shed. You can stay if you like; but you can have neither food nor bedding.' Having said

p. 219

this, he sat on the corner of a rock, while the pilgrim priest sat on another, close by. Neither spoke until it was dark and the moon had risen. Then the mad priest said, 'Find what place you can inside to sleep. There are no beds; but what there is of the roof keeps the mountain dew from falling on you during the night, and it falls heavily here and wets you through.' Then he went into the temple—the pilgrim priest could not tell where, for it was dark and he could not follow, the place being littered with idols and beams and furniture which the mad priest had hacked to pieces in the early stages of his madness. The pilgrim, therefore, felt his way about until he found himself between a large fallen idol and a wall; and here he decided to spend the night, it being as safe a place in which to hide from the maniac as any he could find without knowing his way about or having a light. Fortunately for himself, he was a strong and healthy old man and was well able to do without food, and also to stand unharmed the piercing and damp cold. The pilgrim priest could hear the sound of the many streams which gurgled down the mountain-side. There was also the unpleasant sound of squeaking rats as they chased and fought, and of bats which flew in and out of the place, and of hooting owls; but beyond this nothing—nothing of the mad priest. Hour after hour passed thus until one o'clock, when suddenly, just as the pilgrim felt himself dozing off, he was aroused by a noise. The whole temple seemed as if it were being knocked down. Shutters were slammed with such violence that they fell to the floor; right and left idols and furniture were being hurled about. In and out ran the sound of

p. 220

the naked pattering feet of the crazed priest, who shouted:

'Oh, where is the beautiful O Kiku, my sweetly beloved Kiku? Oh, where, oh, where is she? The gods and the devils have combined to defraud me of her, and I care for neither and defy them all. Kiku, Kiku, come to me!'

The pilgrim, thinking his cramped position would be dangerous if the maniac came near him, availed himself of an opportunity, when the latter was in a far-off part of the temple, to get out into the grounds and hide himself again. It would be easier to see what went on, thought he, and to run if necessary.

He hid himself first in one part of the grounds and then in another. Meanwhile the mad priest paid several rushing visits to the outsides of the temple, keeping up all the time his awful cries for O Kiku. Towards morning he retired once more to the part of the temple in which he lived, and no more noise was made. Our pilgrim then went forth from his hiding, and seated himself on the rock which he had occupied the evening before, determined to see if he could not force a conversation with the demented man and read him a lesson from the sacred teachings of Buddha. He sat patiently on until the sun was high; but all remained silent. There was no sign of the mad priest.

Towards midday the pilgrim heard sounds in the temple; and by and by the madman came out, looking as if he had just recovered from a drunken orgy. He appeared dazed and was quiet, and started as he saw the old priest seated on the rock as he had been the night before. The old man rose, and approaching him said:

p. 221

'My friend, my name is Ungai. I am a brother priest—from the Temple of Daigoji, in Wakasa Province. I came hither to see you, hearing of your great wisdom; but last night I heard in the village that you had broken your vows as a priest and lost your heart to a maiden, and that from love of her you have turned into a dangerous demon. I have in consequence considered it my duty to come and read you a lecture, as it is impossible to pass your conduct unnoticed. Pray listen to the lecture and tell me if I can help you.'

The mad priest answered quite meekly:

'You are indeed a Buddha. Please tell me what I can do to forget the past, and to become a holy and virtuous priest once more.'

Ungai answered:

'Come out here into the grounds and seat yourself on this rock.' Then he read a lecture out of the Buddhist Bible, and finished by saying, 'And now, if you wish to redeem your soul, you must sit on this rock until you are able to explain the following lines, which are written in this sacred book: 'The moon on the lake shines on the winds between the pine trees, and a long night grows quiet at midnight! Having said this, Ungai bowed low and left the mad priest, Joan, seated on the rock reflecting.

For a month Ungai wandered from temple to temple, lecturing. At the end of that time he came back by way of Fumonji Temple, and thought he would go up to it and see what had happened to mad Joan. At the teahouse at which he had first put up he asked the old landlady if she had seen or heard any more of the crazy priest.

'No,' she said: 'we have neither seen nor heard of

p. 222

him. Some people say he has left; but no one knows, for none dare go up to the temple to see.'

'Well,' said Ungai, 'I will go up to-morrow morning -and find out.'

Next morning Ungai went to the temple, and found Joan still seated exactly as he had left him on the rock muttering the words: 'The moon on the lake shines on the winds between the pine trees, and a long night grows quiet at midnight!' Joan's hair and beard had become long and grey in the time, and he appeared to be miserably thin and almost transparent. Ungai was struck with pity at Joan's righteous determination and patience, and tears came to his eyes.

'Get up, get up,' said he, 'for indeed you are a holy and determined man.'

But Joan did not move. Ungai poked him with his staff, to awaken him, as he thought; but, to his horror, Joan fell to pieces, and disappeared like a flake of melting snow.

Ungai stayed in the temple for three days, praying for the soul of Joan. The villagers, hearing of this generous action, rebuilt the temple and made him their priest. Their temple had formerly belonged to the Mitsu sect; but now it was transferred to Ungai's 'Jo do' sect, and the title or name of 'Fumonji' was changed to 'Hakkotsuzan' (White Bone Mountain). The temple is said to have prospered for hundreds of years after.


215:1 Chrysanthemum.

217:1 Vampire bat.

Next: XXXVI. A Stormy Night's Tragedy