Priest Myoe: The Deer, the Island, and the Moon

The history of Buddhism features a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom were quite eccentric. One in particular is Myoe, a priest who lived during the very interesting Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism.

Myoe (1173–1232) was not only eccentric, he was also eclectic. He was ordained in both the Shingon (“True Word”) and Kegon (“Flower Garland”) traditions, and he studied Zen. While he was known as a restorer of Kegon school, he was famous as well for popularizing the Mantra of Light, one of the primary mantras of Shingon Buddhism. Most of all, Myoe was respected for being a very “pure” priest, owing to his strict observance of the precepts.

There are many stories about Myoe. Here is one told by Seikan Hasegawa in The Cave of Poison Grass, Essays on the Hannya Sutra:

One day in the snowy morning a deer wandered into his temple garden. As soon as Priest Myoe saw the deer he picked up a stick to chase it out, shouting, “Go out, go, go!”

The deer ran away beyond the garden house. The disciples of Priest Myoe, however, were watching this sight and they complained.

“Our teacher, why should you chase the deer out? He was sorrowfully cold and hungry on the mountain so he came to the village to find food.”

Priest Myoe replied, “I know about it as well as you. But in this village there are many hunters with bow and arrow. I hope he can escape from these hunters and patiently await the coming of spring.”

Outside Japan, Myoe is probably best known for his “letter to the island.” Most people would consider it a bit odd to write to an island. This didn’t bother Myoe, however. He wrote to the island anyway. In fact, he had a messenger deliver it for him, instructing the messenger to “Simply stand in the middle of Karma Island; shout in a loud voice, ‘This is a letter from Myoe of Tonganoo!’ Leave the letter, and return.”

Myoe lived on this island, which is located in Yusa Bay in Wakayama prefecture, during 1190’s. Here is an excerpt from his letter: [1. Myoe’s entire letter can be found in Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, 1995 and Dharma Rain Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism by Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, 2000]

Portrait of Myoe seated in meditation on a tree housed in the Kaisan-do Hall, Kozan-ji, Kyoto.

Dear Mr. Island:

How have you been since the last time I saw you? After I returned from visiting you, I have neither received any message from you, nor have I sent any greetings to you.

I think about your physical form as something tied to the world of desire, a kind of concrete manifestation, an object visible to the eye, a condition perceivable by the faculty of sight, and a substance composed of earth, air, fire, and water that can be experienced as color, smell, taste, and touch. Since the nature of physical form is identical to wisdom, there is nothing that is not enlightened. Since the nature of wisdom is identical to the underlying principle of the universe, there is no place it does not reach. The underlying principle of the universe is identical to the ultimate body of the Buddha. According to the rule by which no distinctions can be made between things, the underlying principle of the universe is identical to the world of ordinary beings and thus cannot be distinguished from it. Therefore, even though we speak of inanimate objects, we must not think of them as separate from living beings . . .

Why do we need to seek anything other than your physical form as an island since it is the body of the radiant Buddha?

Even as I speak to you this way, tears fill my eyes. Though much time has passed since I saw you so long ago, I can never forget the memory of how much fun I had playing on your island shores . . .

And then there is the large cherry tree that I remember so fondly. There are times when I so want to sent a letter to the tree to ask how it is doing, but I am afraid that people will say that I am crazy to send a letter to a tree that cannot speak . . .

Myoe was 26 when he wrote his letter, and he was no more crazy than Dogen, who lived during the same Kamakura period and who equated rivers and mountains with the body of the Buddha. One of the prime characteristics of Kamakura Buddhism was its fierce sectarianism, but when we scratch below the surface a bit, we find that most of the leading figures of that time were pretty much on the same page. Myoe’s grasp of non-duality is similar to not only Dogen’s Zen thought but also that of Tendai and Shingon.

George J. Tanabe, Jr., who translated the letter, says “Far from being eccentric in writing a letter to an island, Myoe was acting out the central fantasy of Mahayana Buddhism: all things are one.”

Well, there are many incidents in Myoe’s life that point to him being eccentric, or perhaps we could say that he had “crazy wisdom,” not in the sense that term is used today to justify misbehavior, but it does take non-linear, intuitive thinking to truly grasp dharma. I don’t believe I would term non-dualism a fantasy, as Tanabe does (assuming he means it literally), but he is correct in that Mahayana indeed teaches that all things are one. Actually it’s so much a case of oneness, after all, we are not teaching monism, rather, it is that all things are non-differentiated. In the ultimate sense, as Myoe states, no distinctions can be made between things.

Myoe was also a poet. Here are three poems on the winter moon quoted by novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel Lecture [2. Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture can be read in its entirety here.] delivered on December 12, 1968 :

I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.
Night after night we shall keep each other company.

My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.

Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.

Kawabata commented on these poems by saying, “Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature.”

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