Book Review: A Bell and the Power of Karma

Written by Rocco Astore.

Folklore, or a set of customary stories belonging to a specific culture, has contributed to the way that people understand and interpret the world. Within this piece, I will first give a brief summary of the Japanese myth A Bell and the Power of Karma. I will then give a short overview of the Buddhist concept of karma, in order to convey the importance of this notion in Eastern moral thought, so that the reader can better understand how this concept is central to the meaning of this fable. Finally, I will hope to show that this myth is a good parable to know, due to the fact that it stresses the importance of being committed to one’s duties, even when their interests are in opposition to them, as well as the usefulness of karma.

The Japanese legend A Bell and the Power of Karma, is a myth about a young and beautiful tea-house maiden, Kiyo, and a Buddhist priest who becomes intoxicated by her charm. Though this Buddhist priest knows that he is not to engage in any sensual pleasures, such as luxurious food, drink, or frequenting tea-houses, he is nonetheless tempted to do so because of his lust for Kiyo. The priest then visits her at the tea-house, and even though he knows it is a grave sin for him to frequent such a place, he nevertheless visits and his stay results in him and Kiyo succumbing to their passion for one another. Though intense, their relationship does not last long, due to the priest ending his affair with Kiyo, because of his guilty conscience, which especially torments him as he continually ponders how he was so disregarding of his monastic promise to seek true spiritual liberation by giving into the weaknesses of the flesh.

The fable continues with Kiyo, who has now taken notice of the priest’s recent aloofness as well as his lack of frequenting the tea-house, cursing him and wishing that he may die an agonizing death. Though Kiyo tries everything in her power to make the priest love her once more, nothing works, he refuses, and consequently, she visits the Japanese god of wisdom, Fudo, in order to learn how to kill the priest she once loved. After diligent prayer, Fudo leads Kiyo to a shrine of the god Kompira, who can teach Kiyo the ways of sorcery, so that she may be able to put an end to the clergyman’s life. Overtime, Kiyo does learn magic from Kompira, who accustoms her in the ways of being a sorceress, and though she continually calls upon the priest to love her again, he unfortunately refuses and takes refuge in his theological studies. Finally, this not only infuriates Kiyo, who continues to try win over the priest’s heart, it also leads to strengthening her resolve to end the priest’s life.

The last part of this parable begins when Kiyo transforms herself into a dragon-serpent. This is due to her desire to destroy the priest for not loving her in return. With her heightened abilities as a monster, she pursues the priest who is now hiding under a bell. Upon seeing the bell, she destroys it, despite the priest’s brethren praying that Buddha would intervene and end Kiyo’s life, who is now an evil beast bent on annihilation. Finally, this legend ends with the smashing of the bell, which kills the priest, and leaves Kiyo to remain as a dragon-serpent who cannot return to her former beauty, and thus, this fable closes with both characters damaged forever, due to their nefarious acts that contributed to their bad karma.

The Buddhist doctrine of karma, or the belief that one’s actions heavily influence the life they will continue to lead, is not only a religious belief, it is also an integral component needed to understand the workings of the world in Eastern thought. This is important to note, due to the fact that it plays a central role in the aforementioned tale, which I believe displays karma at work in the sad situations people sometimes put themselves into. In a sense, karma can be understood as a fatalism which is based on, yet can be altered by, a person’s actions. Furthermore, karma, which is believed to have a serious impact on the course of one’s life, is also to be in awe of, because it shows both the power of human choice and the power of that which transcends the limited control an individual has over their life.

As a moral law of the universe, karma affects all people, and though in the case of A Bell and the Power of Karma it was proved to be a force to be reckoned with, it can in fact have benevolent effects on a person’s life. For example, if the priest had embraced his duty and had not faltered, one can infer that his life would’ve been contently maintained, due to the good karma that would’ve resulted from his dedication to his path towards spiritual awareness. Also, if Kiyo had not succumbed to her rage and jealousy, she wouldn’t have sought to learn the ways of sorcery from Kompira, and consequently, would not have the ability to become a dragon-serpent, and thus, may have maintained her ineffable magnificence. Finally, these workings of karma, I believe should be remembered, especially when one analyzes the intricacies of this fable.

I believe there are two karmic lessons which one can take from A Bell and the Power of Karma. These moral lessons include the importance of harnessing the mind to avoid being swayed only by the passions of the body and the utility of honoring karma. In regards to harnessing one’s mind, the character of the priest is supposed to use reason as a tool to quell any slavish infatuation that may tempt him to stray from his path towards spiritual liberation. Also, according to the text, the monastery in which this priest is a member, instructs their clergymen to live a life that is both devout and filled with simplicity. This is important to note, because of the fact that the situation the priest has played a role in is anything but a simple affair. I make this claim because by frequenting the tea-house, which is a mortal sin for a clergyman to do in this Japanese town, the priest unnecessarily complicates his life because he cannot ignore his desire for Kiyo.

It is in my belief, that if this priest had not given into his bodily desires, he would have successfully remained a dutiful priest, and this could’ve been done had he adhered to the instructions of his monastery to refrain from pleasures of various sorts. This is so that as priests, the monastery together can focus on spiritual liberation, which, in Buddhism, is believed to come, in part, from the renunciation of the flesh. Also, the priest, who is haunted by his conscience, for having relations with Kiyo, repents and takes refuge in his priestly duties and prayer, which I believe indicates that he knows that he can exert reason to quell his desires. One can interpret this as an acknowledgment on the part of the priest, that though he failed to stay true to his oath, he knows that bodily desires are not in harmony with the path he has chosen to follow as a religious man.

Furthermore, the anguish he faces as well as his unfortunate death, I believe could’ve been prevented, had he stayed true to his religious duties throughout this parable. Finally, the character of Kiyo, the fairest of all women in the tea-house, is another character who could’ve avoided her predicament, or the punishment of losing her beauty by being stuck in the form of a dragon-serpent, if she had only denied her bodily desire for the priest through the application of reason.

The usefulness of staying true to one’s duties, I believe is adequately described in this folkloric tale. I make this claim because if both characters had stayed true to their duties, their karma would’ve been maintained, and hence, their unfortunate predicaments would’ve never came to be. This is especially true of the character of Kiyo, who, one may recall, did not die, but instead became stuck in her dragon-serpent form, never to be the beautiful tea-house maiden again. In the story, the laurels of her prettiness are vast and it is in my belief that this could’ve remained to be so, if she had stuck to her ways and neglected the advances of the priest.

Furthermore, had she not given into desire, one may infer that she would’ve been spiritually unharmed, due to the fact that there would’ve been no reason for her to dabble in magic, or that which gave her the ability to become a beast. Hence, the usefulness of karma, in relation to the character of Kiyo, who had neglected it, showed itself in a negative way. Yet, this was not the fault of karma, rather it was Kiyo who brought unwanted hardship to herself, which one may claim was useful, at the karmic level, insofar as it taught the other priests of the Buddhist monastery not to fall into the same problems which their fellow priest and Kiyo did

Also, the usefulness of karma can be seen in the actions of the character Kiyo herself. This is interesting to note, due to the fact that it may not be so apparent when one reads this tale. Kiyo who has neglected her duty to be true to herself and to her spiritual purity, unknowingly cursed herself when she transformed into the beast that caused this Japanese town to endure extreme havoc, as she was hunting down the clergyman she became so utterly obsessed with. In turn, she not only suffered from her decision, which brought about her bad karma, she also took karma into her own hands and ended the priest’s life, without having the patience to see what would have been his punishment in the future. The usefulness of karma here, though nefarious in nature, is that it can give power, yet one must remember, there is always a price to pay in return, which may not be beneficial to those who use karma for their own ends. Therefore, it is in my belief that by studying as well as taking notice of the subtle intricacies of the character of Kiyo, one may see the difficulties surrounding the use-value of karma.

It should also be remembered that karma did not play a good role in the lives of the priest and Kiyo once they had chosen to cross this force’s path, so to speak. These events can provide ample reason to remain diligent in the practice of one’s duties and at a deeper level, to not take matters into one’s own hands, especially when it is concerning spiritual issues or spiritual forces. Though saddening, I believe both characters experienced the aftermath of their unwise choices and I can understand the view of those who believe these characters were deserving of their fates, especially in regards to the Buddhist priest. Finally, the importance of keeping one’s oaths, as well as the good reasons to avoid tampering with karma, is supportable by the text of this Japanese folktale, which I believe provides a powerful and at times disturbing insight into the nature of righteousness and its effects at a grander, more universal scale.

With this essay I have tried to adequately describe the Japanese parable A Bell and the Power of Karma, as well as its importance as a piece of moral folklore. I have also briefly described the Buddhist’s concept of karma, in order for the reader to become more accustomed to the ethical understanding of the East. I have then argued that through the application of reason, one may be better able to quell desires, which in turn, has karmic benefits that are useful to maintaining a more peaceful and content life.

Image: Christian Reusch

Bibliography

Burtt, E.A. (ed.), The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha (New York, 1955), pp. 11-241.

Davis, F. Hadland, Myths and Legends of Japan. (London, 1912), pp. 1-396.

Fertility in the Early Middle Ages: The Dangers of Folklore

What did an early medieval bishop see when he looked up at the stars? In tenth-century Italy Atto of Vercelli saw divine fingerprints.

God had arranged constellations in the heavens, he explained in a sermon, for our benefit on earth. Stars help us to mark the passing of time, to map journeys over sea or land. When Atto looked back down from heavenly bodies to those who gazed at them, however, he glimpsed a more troubling spectacle. Astrologers claimed to predict the future through the stars. They could foretell births and arrange suitable marriages. Countless couples carefully attuned their sex lives to the rhythms of stars and other signs in the hope of conceiving a child. Or so Atto said. His real point was to discredit such ideas. Was anyone really claiming, he asked sarcastically, to have gotten a child by observing the stars?

Perhaps coordinating moments of intimacy with the movements of the immense night sky formed part of fertility lore in the early middle ages. Scattered across an array of early medieval texts are what look like other tiny glimpses into this lore: fertility boosting herbs administered in drinks or pessaries; amulets, charms and prayers for conceiving children; special sites, from shrines to springs, tinged with the aura of fecundity; and much else besides.

In the Etymologies, a hugely popular proto-encyclopaedia widely read for centuries, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) wrote of waters in Campania which cured infertile women and insane men, and two springs in Sicily which rendered, respectively, the sterile fertile and the fertile sterile. (Anyone interested in tracking down the Greek fountain in Boeotia which boosts memory should beware; another fountain there induces forgetfulness). A more unusual Old English text in an eleventh-century manuscript carefully described omens in pregnancy. Want to find out if a child will be a boy or girl? A pregnant woman should be offered a lily and a rose. If she takes the lily, she will bear a boy; and if she takes the rose, she will bear a girl. And no nuts or acorns or fresh fruit from the fourth month or the child could end up being ‘foolish’. And so on.

It is tempting to scour texts for these references and to gather them into a compendium of early medieval folk beliefs and practices surrounding reproduction. The constellations of fertility lore would make for quite a spectacle. But the panoramic view is misleading. It smudges the boundaries of place and time. Taking small snippets from everywhere amounts to a bigger picture of nowhere in particular. This is one of the dangers of folklore.

Those small snippets merit closer inspection. At first sight, they may not yield much. Take Atto’s sermon. Retrieving any further details on how childless couples used stars and other signs in the quest for conception is impossible. Literally. Here, we can almost claim the dog ate our homework. The sole surviving manuscript of Atto’s sermon is mutilated – who’d have predicted? – right in the middle of the sentence on childless couples resorting to stars and signs. (It’s not even an intriguingly deliberate mutilation, which sometimes happens when later readers of manuscripts don’t like what they read; other chunks of text are missing in a disappointingly random pattern).

But, if we can’t find anything to add about childless couples at Vercelli, we can at least say a little more about who was preaching to them. In the early middle ages, authors of sermons and other pastoral texts plagiarised with abandon. They borrowed and recycled formulaic condemnations of all sorts of practices like augury, divination, astrology, use of amulets and charms, and more. As the sheer scale of repetition has become clearer and clearer historians have become increasingly wary of regarding preachers’ manuals as clear windows onto the beliefs and practices of their congregations.

This is why Atto’s sermon is intriguing. It is both typical and atypical. Not all authors of sermons leaned quite so heavily on older material. Atto’s critical dissection of fertility lore does not look like wholesale recycling of older tropes. There is little by way of precedent. In all likelihood, as a historian has recently (and, I think, rightly) concluded, Atto was addressing what some of his contemporaries thought and did.

More precisely, distorting and exaggerating what they did. Needless to say, the likes of Atto were not impartial observers who dutifully tell us about early medieval society as it really was. For example, in our sermon Atto sneeringly attributed belief in star signs to what he called rustici, country bumpkins. It may be tempting to conclude that it was rural peasants who tended to believe in this sort of stuff. Perhaps they did. But preachers often resorted to these smears precisely when their audience was anything but rustic. In preaching, the rustici label was often a rhetorical strategy specifically designed for criticising an urban (and even urbane) audience. Earlier in the sermon Atto outlined an intellectual genealogy of astrological beliefs originating in the imaginings of ‘ancients and pagans’. Superstitiones formed part of the preacher’s vocabulary and one literal meaning was survivals. To dress contemporary practices up as ancient aberrations which were now resurfacing was a preaching reflex conditioned for centuries before Atto spoke to his congregation in Vercelli.

In our broad-brush panorama of fertility lore, details from Atto’s sermon blend nicely into the warm pastel colours of beliefs as old as fields and forests. But, on closer inspection, perhaps we are being seduced by rhetoric. My point is not to endorse uber-scepticism over sounding out any beliefs and practices whatsoever beyond those of the loud minority that authored our texts. But if we can sound out beliefs and practices from Atto’s sermon, they might well be the beliefs and practices of the well-heeled in an Italian town, not peasants in the countryside. Atto does not offer us an internal perspective designed to explain astrology and its uses by the childless, but an external perspective designed to debunk. That’s why he associated it with rustici and ancient pagans. This, then, is another danger of folklore. Beneath the label folklore lie beliefs and practices that are distorted in the written record because authors deemed them dangerous or delusional, and many authors were more skilled at what they did than first meets the eye.

Historians and their different intellectual frameworks produce other distortions. Ancient and later medieval medicine produced treatises that theorized the causes of sterility and barrenness. Early medieval medicine did not. The dearth of theory makes early medieval medicine look rough and ready in comparison with what came before and after – and, indeed, in comparison with contemporary medicine further east in Byzantine and Islamic societies. This is one reason why few historians brave this field and why the best introduction to it is an article entitled ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’. It may also be a reason why early medieval medicine is so much more susceptible to being interpreted in terms of folklore.

Several medieval manuscripts contain a short gynaecological text listing pessaries and other remedies for women. Some of these remedies made use of plants like artemisia (incidentally, the plant also used to produce absinthe) or myrtle ‘so that a woman can conceive’. Another remedy took a different approach:

“So that a woman conceives even if she has never conceived. After a she-goat has given birth, before her kid … begins to suckle, milk [her] and make a small cheese from this and bind it in a small cloth hung from her left arm so the woman can carry it. But if she wants to go into a bath, she should carefully leave it at home. She should keep it with her at all other hours.”

Until not that long ago, this is the kind of detail that made a certain kind of medical historian fidgety. They would instinctively speak of primitivism and superstition, and voice disappointment that medicine, once vigorous and healthy in classical antiquity, had now been contaminated with new strains of folk medicine. Putting a more positive spin on it, perhaps we can try to imagine how such a remedy, an attempt to rub off animal fertility on humans, might have emanated from ordinary folk in a largely agrarian society.

Ironically, whether meant positively or negatively, this reading misconstrues learned culture for folk belief. The remedy originated in a work composed in late antiquity, a work which drew on older, classical medical traditions. (A possible Greek influence on its author recommended that goat’s milk should be the first thing a newborn sups on after recovering from birth). Nor, then, is the remedy early medieval; in fact, it mainly survives in later medieval manuscripts. Perhaps ideas found in texts such as these informed beliefs and practices outside learned circles. A recent study of medieval ideas surrounding impotence has highlighted various moments when learned authors tapped into popular culture. The interfaces between learned culture and folk practice deserve much more attention. But, far from giving us a direct glimpse of folk medicine in the early middle ages, the goat’s cheese remedy represents learned medical traditions across a longer time span.

In early medieval history, there is always a risk of setting the bar too high. That is, of assuming that the disgust or disinterest of sources largely written by elites creates a vast, unbridgeable distance from beliefs and practices of the non-elite. But there is also a risk of setting the bar too low. In trying to retrieve these beliefs and practices, the distortions of elitist texts can easily be mistaken for the real thing when refracted through the label ‘folklore’. If we want to begin to try to imagine how ordinary people made sense of their world, then we need to read the likes of Atto every bit as suspiciously as they read the beliefs and practices of their contemporaries.

Image: Judy Schmidt

Bibliography

Barney, Stephen (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, 2010).

Horden, Peregrine, ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), pp.5-25.

Liuzza, Roy, Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London British Library, Ms Cotton Tiberius A.III (Cambridge, 2010).

Meens, Rob, ‘A preaching bishop: Atto of Vercelli and his sermon collection’, in M. Diesenberger et al. (eds), Sermo Doctorum: Compilers, Preachers, and their Audiences in the Early Medieval West (Turnhout, 2013), pp. 263-82.

Rider, Catherine, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Rose, Valentin (ed.), Sorani Gynaeciorum vetus translatio Latina (Leipzig, 1893).