Extract: from Chapter 44, ‘Spring Snow’, Yukio Mishima

The circumstances that had led so rapidly to her renunciation of the world were as follows. When the Abbess had heard the entire story from Satoko that first morning, she had known at once that she must allow the girl to become a nun. Keenly aware that each of her predecessors at Gesshu had been an imperial princess, she felt bound to revere the Emperor above all else. And so she had come to the decision that she had to allow Satoko to enter even if this involved a temporary thwarting of the imperial will. She had concluded that, given the circumstances, there was no other way to discharge her loyalty to the Emperor. She had happened to uncover a plot directed at him, and she could not allow it to proceed unchecked. She was not one to countenance a breach of loyalty, no matter how elegant the cunning that disguised it.

Thus it was that the normally so discreet and gentle Abbess of Gesshu made up her mind, determined to give in neither to the force of authority nor to the threat of coercion. Even if all the world should be ranged against her, even if she were forced to ignore a particular imperial decree, she would persist in what she had to do — to be a silent guard of the sacred person of His Majesty.

Her resolve had a profound effect on Satoko, who became all the more determined to turn her back on the world. She had not expected the Abbess to grant her request so readily. She had had an encounter with the Lord Buddha, and the Abbess, her eye as keen as a crane’s, had immediately discerned the firmness of the girl’s decision.

Although it was customary for a novice to undergo a year of ascetic discipline before her formal induction as a nun, both Satoko and the Abbess felt that in the present circumstances this period should be dispensed with. But the Abbess could not bring herself to disregard the Ayakuras so completely as to allow Satoko to take the tonsure before the Countess returned from Tokyo. Moreover, there was the matter of Kiyoaki. Would it not be wise, she thought, to allow him and Satoko to bid each other a long farewell before she sacrificed what hair she had spared so far?

Satoko could hardly endure the delay. She came to the Abbess every day and, like a child teasing her mother to give her some candy, begged her to be allowed to take the tonsure. Finally, the Abbess found herself prepared to yield.

“If I were to allow you to take the tonsure.” she asked Atoko, “you would never be allowed to see Kiyoaki again. That wouldn’t trouble you?”

“No.”

“Well, once you make the decision not to see him ever again in this world and so advance to initiation, any later regrets would indeed be bitter ones.”

“I will have no regrets. In this world I shall never set eyes on him again. As for parting, we’ve had farewells enough. So please . . .”

Her voice as she replied was clear and firm.

“Very well. Tomorrow morning, then, I will preside at the tonsure ceremony,” the Abbess replied, allowing one more day of grace.

Countess Ayakura did not return in the interval.

From that first morning at Gesshu, Satoko had plunged herself, of her own volition, into the disciplined routine of convent life. The distinctive character of Hosso Buddhism was in placing greater emphasis on the cultivation of the mind than the practice of religious austerities. Gesshu Temple, futhermore, was traditionally dedicated to praying for the households registered with it as parishoners. Sometimes the Abbess would observe with gentle humour that the “Grace of tears” was something never encountered in Hosso Buddhism, thus underlining the contrast with the more recently arisen Amida cult of Pure Land Buddhism, with its great stress on ecstatic prayers of gratitude.

Then, too, in Mahayana Buddhism in general, there were no precepts to speak of. But for the rules of its monastic life the precepts of Hinayana Buddhism were often borrowed. In convents such as Gesshu, however, the rule was the “Precepts of a Bodhisattva” contained in the Brahamajala Sutra. Its forty-eight prohibitions began with ten major injunctions against such sins as the taking of life, stealing, excess of any sort, and lying, and it concluded with an admonishment against destroying Buddhist teachings.

Far more severe than any commandment, however, was the monastic training. In the brief time she had been at Gesshu, Satoko had already memorized both the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart” and the “Thirty Verses” expounding the doctrine of Yuishiki, Each morning she got up early to sweep and dust the main hall of worship before the Abbess came for her morning devotions, in the course of which she then had an opportunity to practice the chanting of the sutras. She was no longer treated as a guest, and the senior nun, whom the Abbess had placed in charge of her, was now a changed woman in her severity of manner.

On the morning of the initiation ceremony, she carefully performed the prescribed ablutions before putting on the black robes of a nun. In the hall of worship, she sat with her string of beads wrapped around her hands, which she held clasped together in front of her. After the Abbess herself had first taken the razor and begun the tonsuring, the old nun in charge took over. And as she shaved steadily with a skilled hand, the Abbess began to chant the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart,” accompanied by the junior nun.

When she had consummated the works of perfection,
The Five Aggregates of living being became as
Things void before the Bodhisattva Kannon’s eyes,
And stricken from her was the yoke of human suffering.

Satoko, too, took up the chant, her eyes closed. And as she did so, her body became like a boat that is gradually lightened of all its cargo and freed of its anchor, and she felt herself being swept along on the deep swelling wave of chanting voices.

She kept her eyes shut. The main hall had the penetrating chill of an ice house, and so, although she herself was floating free, she imagined a vast expanse of pure ice gripping all the world around her. Suddenly the cry of a shrike came from the garden outside, and a crack raced across this icy plane with the swiftness of a jagged streak of lightning. But it sealed itself almost at once, and the ice became whole once more.

She felt the razor working its way with scrupulous care across her scalp. Sometimes she imagined the frenetic gnawing of a mouse’s tiny white incisors, sometimes the placid grinding of the molars of a horse or cow.

As lock after lock fell away, she felt her scalp begin to tingle with a refreshing coolness that was quite new to her. The razor was shearing off the black hair that had separated her from the world for so long, sultry and heavy with its sorry burden of desire; but her scalp was now being laid bare to a realm of purity whose chill freshness had not been violated by any man’s hand. As the expanse of shaved head broadened, she began to feel the skin coming more and more alive, just as if a cool solution of menthol was spreading over it.

She imagined that the chill must be like the surface of the moon, directly exposed to the vastness of the universe. The world she had known was falling away with each strand. And as it did so, she became infinitely removed from it.

In one sense, it seemed as though her hair were being harvested. Shorn black clumps, still saturated with the stifling brilliance of the summer sun, piled up on the floor around her. But it was a worthless crop, for the very instant that the luxuriant handfuls ceased to be hers, the beauty of life went out of them, leaving only an ugly remnant. Something that had once been an intimate part of her, and aesthetic element of her innermost being, was now being relentlessly thrown aside. As irrevocable as the amputation of a limb, the ties that bound her to the world of transience were being severed.

When her scalp at last shone with a bluish glint, the Abbess addressed her gently.

“The most crucial renunciation is the one that comes after formal renunciation. I have the utmost trust in your present resolution. From this day on, if you seek to purify your heart in the austerities of our life, I have no doubt that you will one day become the glory of our sisterhood.”

*

This was how Satoko’s premature tonsuring came about.

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