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August 2, 2008

"The Roof Tile of Tempyo" by Inoue Yasushi (Book review)

When I studied at Nanjing University in 1979-80, at one time the university organized a trip to a nearby city, Yangzhou. I think it was in the early spring of 1980. Especially the Japanese students (three "Mitsubishi boys", young salarymen from the large trading company studying Chinese for a posting to China) were told to join as this was supposed to be a special China-Japan friendship event. Interested foreign students were herded into a white minibus and off we were, transported to Yangzhou over an only partially finished highway. We stopped at the Damingsi Temple and joined the huge crowd of Chinese streaming inside. Finally, we reached a Memorial Hall, and inside we found a small but very fine statue of a blind monk, Jianzhen... and then we were pushed outside again by the surging crowd. The statue was on loan from a  temple in Japan.

It was only a few years later, after coming to Japan and visiting Toshodaiji in Nara, the temple of the statue, that I realized the importance of this event. Jianzhen (688-763), called Ganjin in Japan, was a Chinese priest who after many hardships had managed to journey to Japan to establish an orthodox Buddhist lineage in that country and introduce the correct monastic rules. Toshodaiji was the temple the Japanese government built for him, and the statue I saw in China was a life-like image, made just after his death (in Toshodaiji, it is not normally on view). One can also visit Jianzhen's grave in Toshodaiji. Since then, I have repeatedly visited Toshodaiji, which is one of the most beautiful temples of Nara. The original 8th c. Golden Hall still exists, as does the wonderful set of wooden statues carved by the Chinese artisans who followed Ganjin to Japan.

It was again a year or five later that I first read The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Inoue Yasushi. This historical novel, written in 1958, is a faithful account of Ganjin's tribulations, based on the The Record of the Eastward Journey of the Great Monk of Tang by one of Ganjin's disciples. There is little plot and no drama in this understated novel, but it is imbued with a sense of Buddhist serenity and resignation. Although emotions are kept in check, there is a strong sense of determination in the hearts of the protagonists, both the young monks from Japan who come to China for study and the venerable master Ganjin, who does not give up his endeavor to reach Japan and spread orthodoxy.

The “Tempyo” in the title is the name for an era (729-749) when Japan was engaged in her first attempt to acquire the culture of a more advanced civilization, the Tang empire of China. The young monks who make the dangerous journey to China with one of the Japanese embassies sent in that period, experience this first hand. Some “go native,” others long so much for Japan that they are of no use anymore, but most of them, especially Fusho and Yoei, try to do something that will benefit their country – in this case, bringing back a Vinaya master like Ganjin. Another one, Gogyo, devotes his life to copying a whole library of books still unknown in Japan. The only pathos in the novel is that these scrolls are eventually lost at sea, showing the futility of individual human endeavors.

Why was it important to bring “Vinaya-master” Ganjin to Japan? Because the orthodox transmission of the Law in Buddhism is from master to disciple. That disciple, after passing his tests, is then officially ordinated on an ordination platform, where a certain number of officially ordinated elder priests (three masters and seven attestors) has to be present. By bringing Ganjin with a number of his already ordained followers to Japan, the “orthodox transmission” of Buddhism was finally established on Japanese soil.

The determination Ganjin shows is most impressive. In the eleven years from 743 to 754, Ganjin attempted some six times to travel to Japan. Five times, he is thwarted by unfavorable weather conditions and government intervention (the Chinese at first did not want this important monk to leave). In 748, during the fifth attempt, the ship is blown so far off course that Ganjin lands in Hainan. This journey alone, including the long trek back to Yangzhou, takes a full three years and costs Ganjin his eyesight due to an infection.

In 753 at long last an official Japanese embassy again visits China, and Ganjin now can travel with this group. They land in Kyushu and in 754 arrive in the Japanese capital of Nara, where they are welcomed by the Emperor. A large ordination platform is built at Todaiji and thus, finally, takes place the orthodox transmission of Buddhism to Japan.

Through skillful linking Inoue brings many of the renowned figures of the age on the stage. These are, for example, Abe no Nakamaro, the Japanese poet and scholar who lived most of his life at the court of the Chinese emperor, and Yang Guifei, the most celebrated beauty in Chinese history, who met a tragic fate.

By the way, the "roof tile" of the title is a shibi, an end tile in the form of a mythical sea monster. This tile is sent from China to Fusho after his return - he does not even know by whom. He has the tile installed on Toshodaiji and so it becomes a symbol of the spread of Buddhism from China to Japan.

Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was a prolific writer active in many genres: short stories, novels both modern and historical, essays, travel writing and poetry. He wrote more historical fiction about China, such as Confucius and Dunhuang. The Blue Wolf is about Kublai Khan. Fine are also short stories as Loulan. He started his career by winning the Akutagawa prize in 1950 with The Bull Fight.

I feel close to this story because I am interested in both China and Japan, so I like to see cultural bridges built as this novel by Inoue Yasushi has done. And I was once a student too in China, although only for one year and under very different circumstances, but it is easy for me to imagine the wonder with which Fusho and the other Japanese beheld this vast and wonderful country...

P.S. By the way, the first account by a Japanese about China was The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law by Ennin, a Japanese priest from Enryakuji on Mt Hiei who traveled through China from 838 to 847. His travel diary has been translated by Edwin O. Reischauer under the title Ennin's Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law (Ronald Press, New York: 1955). Ennin did not write about his personal impressions, but rather gives a factual account of religious matters and Chinese life under the later Tang Dynasty. His diary has been called a good source on the practice of popular Buddhism in China.
The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Yasushi Inoue, translated by James T. Araki (University of Tokyo Press, 1981)