Sunday, January 24, 2010

Konjaku Monogatari 今昔物語

今昔物語 has always been my source of imagination. Perhaps not mine, but Japanese, who lived before 12th century. This I share with the person I admire - Akutagawa Ryuunosuke (芥川龍之介).

Konjaku Monogatari is a large collection of setsuwa, very short stories on different matters. It was combined in over 30 scrolls, but unfortunately not every scroll managed to survive up to today. This is interesting fact. One of the scrolls that vanished is the scroll on Imperial Family, their genealogy, facts and myths (I guess more myths, since nobody in his right senses would believe that Japan had been founded in 660 BC)and it is believed that shinto (神道)facts were not in line with Buddhist thoughts and teachings. Konjaku stories were compiled around 1177 (in some other publications I found the date as late as first half of 13th Century, and as early as 1056, but this one is complete nonsense)either by the Emperor and his trusted men, or by a monk on Emperors wish.
There are few ways of divide the huge collection (over 1000 stories!). Two main divisions come to mind.
First: Geographical: stories take place in three different countries: India, China, Japan. Stories from India are the least numerous, then from China and the majority is from Japan. India section of Konjaku tells the stories of Buddha Siakjamuni, his disciples, and community, and also his teachings, explains karmic relations.
Stories from China: they tell the stories of founders of Chinese Empires, great Buddhist monks, sutras, etc.
Japan: the largest part, in itself can be divided into few categories: religious and secular. Religious ones depict Buddhist teaching, monks community, sutras, founding of the temples, karmic laws etc. The most interesting is the secular part. It draws before our eyes the complete picture of Japanese society in late Heian period. We have: emperors, empresses, carpenters, farmers, soldiers, workers, maids, in other word - every social class, neglected in traditional Heian literature (this is no place in explaining what was the main topic in "court literature" in Heian, but we can imagine it wasn't dirty life of "commoners"). Stories on love, revenge, wrongful doings, crimes, ghost and demons, relationships, and so on. Konjaku Monogatari is written in spoken Japanese from 12th century. Sometimes stories are nearly vulgar, sometimes immersed in feelings.
Worth reading. For those who know Japanese, only few of them are translated into English.