The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima – The (Mostly) True Story of a Budding Buddhist Pyromaniac

The protagonist Mizoguchi – an ugly, troubled boy with a horrendous stammer – is a Zen Buddhist acolyte at the much-enamoured Golden Temple in Kyoto after the war. Growing up with such terrible afflictions, he comes to both love and hate the Golden Temple  – the perfect conception of Beauty and the source of his torment. Though a seemingly amoral character, Mizoguchi tries to rationalise the hatred he begins to feel for the Golden Temple, ultimately leading him to burn it down. He does this using Zen aphorisms – the Koan.

The following passage in the Rinsairokyu is used three times throughout the book and is repeated right before Mizoguchi does the terrible deed:

“When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”.

He explains his abject hatred for the material world also when he talks of Tsukumogami-ki and opening “the eyes of men” to the spiritless nature of objects and material things. He implies that objectifying beauty in the Golden Temple only deceives the “hearts of men”, and in order to free men from their attachments to the material world, the Golden Temple must to be destroyed.

Contrary to the suggestion of Nancy Wilson Ross in the introduction, this is not simply the fault of “dogmatic teaching methods” or “modern conventions” in Zen Buddhism, because it is grounded in the doctrinal core of the “self-enlightenment” project and the contempt for the material world embodied within. I commend Mishima and Mizoguchi for shining a light and a fire on this apocalyptic nihilism and its Buddhist underpinnings.

Both Mishima and his translator, Ivan Morris, manage to pull off some brilliant description in the book. That said, I know not Morris, but Mishima is to blame for some of the drawn-out superfluous description in parts, particularly at the climax where Mishima dedicates nearly a whole page to the non-sequitur issue of a faulty alarm bell and the Deacon’s attempts to arrange for a competent repairman to fix it. It rather slowed everything down a little, I thought.

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