Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Battling Tengu, Battling Conceit: Visualizing Abstraction in the Tale of the Handcart Priest

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Battling Tengu, Battling Conceit: Visualizing Abstraction in the Tale of the Handcart Priest

Article excerpt

The sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century Tale of the Handcart Priest tells of an eccentric Zen practitioner's encounter with the legendary Tarobo, a tengu of Mt. Atago who is attracted to the priest because of the priest's excessive pride. This article provides a close reading of The Tale of the Handcart Priest in its historical and literary context, drawing upon such related works as the noh plays Kuruma-zo and Zegai, the otogizoshi Matsuhime monogatari and Itozakura no monogatari, and the puppet play Shuten Doji wakazakari. I discuss the significance of tengu, carts, and handcart priests in Japanese textual and pictorial sources from the twelfth through eighteenth centuries, as well as the possibilities for psychological realism in the larger world of medieval Japanese fiction. Taking a psychoanalytic interpretive approach, I argue that in Kuruma-zo soshi and other medieval and Edo-period literary sources, characters' struggles with tengu can often be read allegorically as externalized depictions of those characters' internal struggles with their own "demons" of conceit.

KEYWORDS: tengu-Zen-otogizoshi-nara ehon-setsuwa-noh-Tarobo- Zegaibo-medieval Buddhist fiction

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At some time in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, an anonymous author composed a short work of fiction known as Kuruma-zo soshi ..., "The Tale of the Handcart Priest." Classified today as an otogizoshi ..., an amorphous and eclectic genre of medieval Japanese prose literature, Kuruma-zo soshi survives in a single illustrated manuscript in the possession of the Kyoto University Library: a colorful, likely seventeenth-century nara ehon ...,1 the pages of which were unbound at an unknown time and mounted to form an exquisite hand scroll. In 1941, the manuscript was reproduced in a fine facsimile edition (with a total of three hundred numbered copies), and in 2002, it was photographically reproduced in a series of books devoted to the Kyoto University Library collection of otogizoshi (Kyoto Teikoku Daigaku 1941; Kyoto Daigaku Bungakubu Kokugogaku Kokubungaku Kenkyushitsu 2002, 80-116). Yet despite its relative fame in Japan, Kuruma-zo soshi is almost wholly unknown in the English-speaking academic world, where, along with most nara ehon, it has been neglected by literary and art historians alike.

Kuruma-zo soshi is the fantastic tale of an eccentric Zen Buddhist practitioner by the name of Kuruma-zo, "the Handcart Priest," who is said to have wandered Japan in a rickety two-wheeled cart. The story is based, in part, upon the noh play Kuruma-zo ..., the first recorded performance of which was held in Nara in the tenth month of 1514,2 a century or more before the transcription of the Kyoto University Kuruma-zo soshi manuscript. Like its source play, Kuruma-zo soshi concerns a day in the life of an itinerant "handcart priest," a type of lowlevel Buddhist renunciant of whom little is now known, but who Tokue Gensei argues was a relatively common figure in late-medieval Japan. Tokue posits that these mendicant beggar-priests employed their carts as both rolling homes and platforms from which to preach, and that in their sermons, they expounded upon the metaphorical implications of their carts as vehicles of Buddhist Truth (Tokue 1962; Tokue 2006, 150 and 164). In Kuruma-zo soshi, the Handcart Priest confronts a succession of hostile tengu ... (anti-Buddhist, supernatural demon-bird-men) who challenge him on the significance of his cart and seek to punish him for his pride. After a protracted battle of wits and magic-a struggle that extends well beyond the range of the noh play Kuruma-zo-the Handcart Priest succeeds in driving offthe tengu horde.

Like many otogizoshi, which are often concerned with otherworldly creatures, magical settings, and improbable events, Kuruma-zo soshi can be seen to function on a symbolic level by depicting Buddhist and psychological abstractions as external, concrete phenomena, allowing audiences the privilege of visualizing the invisible, or seeing the unseen. …

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