The Heian Aristocracy
 


 
The Tale of Genji
& the Language of Japanese Aesthetics

The Heian Period is celebrated for a literary efflorescence that produced works at the core of the canon of classical Japanese literature. Many of their authors are women, an extraordinary development at a time in world history when few women were even literate....The crown jewel of Heian literature is the Tale of Genji, a long fictional narrative by Murasaki Shikibu (fl. late-tenth-early eleventh century), a court lady who served an empress who was one of Michinaga’s daughters. The influence of this work on Japanese culture was enormous and varied. References to the Genji echo throughout Japanese literary history down to the present. [BHJC, 61-4]

Like most of his peers, Genji, at least in his youth, had little official business to occupy him at court, where affairs were controlled by a few leading Fujiwara ministers. Instead, he devoted himself to the gentle arts and especially to the pursuit of love, an endeavor that involved him in a seemingly endless string of romantic entanglements. In Genji’s circle, the typical love affair was conducted according to exacting dictates of taste. Lovers delighted each other by exchanging poems written on fans or on carefully selected and scented stationery, which they adorned with delicate sprays of flowers. A faulty handwriting, a missed allusion, or a poor matching of colors could quickly dampen a courtier’s ardor. On the other hand, the scent of a delicately mixed perfume or the haunting notes of a zither on a soft summer night could excite his greatest passion and launch him recklessly on a romantic escapade whose outcome was more than likely to have embarrassing and even disastrous results both for the lovers and for others among the intimately associated members of Heian courtier society. [Japanese Culture, 65]
  • If Genji is always allowing his passions to get both him and his lovers into trouble, then why is he such a beloved figure—the so-called “shining prince”?

 
Miyabi [courtly refinement] was perhaps the most inclusive term for describing the aesthetics of the Heian period. It was applied mainly to the quiet pleasures that, supposedly at least, could be savored only by the aristocrat whose tastes had been educated to them—a spray of plum blossoms, the elusive perfume of a rare wood, the delicate blending of colors in a robe. In lovemaking, too, the “refined” tastes of the court were revealed. A man might first be attracted to a woman by catching a glimpse of her sleeve, carelessly but elegantly draped from a carriage window, or by seeing a note in her calligraphy, or by hearing her play a lute one night in the dark. Later, the lovers would exchange letters and poems, often attached to a spray of the flower suitable for the season. Such love affairs are most perfectly portrayed in The Tale of Genji and, even if somewhat idealized in that novel, suggest to what lengths a feeling for “refinement” could govern the lives of those at court. [SJT, 199]
 

In this world where aesthetics reigned supreme, great attention was paid to pleasing the eye. Ladies dressed in numerous robes, one over the other (twelve was standard), which they displayed at the wrist in overlapping layers, and the blending of their colors was of the utmost importance in revealing a lady’s taste. Often all a man saw of a lady were her sleeves, left hanging outside her carriage or spread beyond a screen behind which she remained invisible….

This concern for appearance also extended to the features of the gentlemen and ladies. Both sexes used cosmetics, applying a white face powder, which in the case of the women was combined with a rosy tint. The ladies took great pride in their long, flowing, glossy hair but plucked their eyebrows and painted in a new set. Such customs are not unfamiliar to the modern world, but far more difficult for us to appreciate are the blackened teeth of the refined Heian beauty….

...[However,] Heian men often had no clear idea of the appearance of the women they were wooing, hidden as they were behind screens with only their sleeves showing. Men fell in love with a woman’s sense of beauty, her poetic talents, and her calligraphy. As in China, the latter was all-important beacuse it was thought to reveal a person’s character. The Heian version of love at first sight was of a gentleman falling hopelessly in love after catching a glimpse of a few beautifully drawn lines. [BHJC, 67-8]

 

 

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book
Over-refinement?

“[The commoners] looked like so many basket-worms as they crowded together in their hideous clothes, leaving hardly an inch of space between themselves and me. I really felt like pushing them all over sideways.” [BHJC (1st Edition), 55]


Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the novel’s greatest traditional interpreter, admired it above all for its expression of mono-no-aware, a word frequently used by Lady Murasaki for “that power inherent in things to make us respond not intellectually but with an involuntary gasp of emotion.” It could refer to joyous as well as sad experiences, but eventually the implications of melancholy predominated. It involves a realization of the ephemeral quality of beauty, of all that is best in life, indeed, of life itself. Clearly in this concept there are resonances of Buddhist teaching, which views life as an illusion, insubstantial as a dream. To the Japanese, it was a beautiful but fleeting dream, and sadness was itself a necessary dimension of beauty. [BHJC, 64]

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Ki no Tsurayuki, in his preface to the Kokinshu, was the first to describe the workings of this aesthetic(mono-no-aware). For example, when inquiring…whether anyone can resist singing—or composing poetry—upon “hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters,” Tsurayuki said, in effect, that people are emotional entities and will intuitively and spontaneously respond in song and verse when they perceive things and are moved. The most basic sense of mono no aware is the capacity to be moved by things, whether they are the beauties of nature or the feelings of people, a capacity that Tsurayuki, at least, believed would directly lead to aesthetic expression. [Japanese Culture, 61]
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What Confucianism deems good Buddhism may not; and what Buddhism considers good Confucianism might regard as evil. Likewise, references to good and evil in the Tale may not correspond to Confucian or Buddhist concepts of good and evil. Then what is good or evil in the realm of human psychology and ethics according to the Tale of Genji? Generally speaking, those who know the meaning of the sorrow of human existence, i.e., those who are in sympathy and in harmony with human sentiments, are regarded as good; and those who are not aware of the poignancy of human existence, i.e., those who are not in sympathy and not in harmony with human sentiments, are regarded as bad....Man’s feelings do not always follow the dictates of his mind. They arise in man in spite of himself and are difficult to control. In the instance of Prince Genji, his interest in and rendezvous with Utsusemi, Oborozukiyo, and the Consort Fujitsubo are acts of extraordinary iniquity and immorality according to the Confucian and Buddhist points of view. It would be difficult to call Prince Genji a good man, however numerous his other good qualities. But the Tale does not dwell on his iniquitous and immoral acts, but rather recites over and over again his profound awareness of the sorrow of existence, and represents him as a good man who combines in himself all good things in man. [Sources of Japanese Tradition (1st edition), 533-4]
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Heian Religion
In religion...the two great movements inaugurated in the early eighth century, the Tendai Buddhism introduced by Saicho and the Esoteric Buddhism ably propagated by Kukai, were imports from China significantly adapted by their Japanese proponents. Nevertheless, their progress was advanced by close association with the court, and their characteristic forms of expression increasingly reflected the court’s prevailing attitudes and manner of life. Thus, although both these forms of Buddhism were egalitarian in theory—that is, as outgrowths of the Mahayana teaching, they stressed that all men had the potential for Buddhahood—in the Japanese setting, their activities were strongly conditioned by the aristocratic nature of court society. [SJT, 124]
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When Emperor Kanmu turned his back on Nara and moved his capital at the end of the eighth century, he curtailed the political power of the old schools, but Buddhism continued to grow and flourish. It also continued to enjoy imperial patronage. Kanmu himself supported the priest Saicho (767-822) who, dissatisfied with the worldliness of the Nara priesthood, had founded a small temple in 788 on Mt. Hiei northeast of Kyoto. In 804 Saicho traveled to China to advance his understanding of the faith....[I]n China he studied the doctrines of the Tendai (Tiantai) school....

Saicho was more skilled as an organizer than as a theoretician. He laid solid foundations for the subsequent expansion of what he had built, and eventually his little temple grew to a vast complex of some 3000 buildings. It flourished on Mt. Hiei until it was destroyed in the sixteenth century for political reasons. In keeping with the syncretic nature of Tendai, the Buddhism propagated on Mt. Hiei was broad and accommodating, so much so that it remained the source of new developments in Japanese Buddhism even after the temple community had departed from the earnest religiosity of its founder. [BHJC, 56-7]
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Contemporary with Saicho was Kukai (774-835), founder of the other major school of Heian Buddhism, Shingon. He, too, studied in China and benefited from imperial patronage, although in his case it came not from Emperor Kanmu but from that emperor’s successors. Like Saicho, he established his main monastery on a mountain, choosing Mt. Koya on the Kii Peninsula, far removed from the capital....Central to Shingon teachings and observances is Dainichi (Vairocana), the cosmic Buddha whose....name Dainichi (Great Sun) invited identification with the Sun Goddess claimed as ancestress by the imperial family, and Shingo proved hospitable to local deities through its concept of duality. This concept held that a single truth manifests itself under two aspects, the noumenal and the phenomenal, so Dainichi and the Sun Goddess could be considered as two forms of one identical truth....
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From the eighth century onward, and increasingly during the Heian Period, aspects of kami worship were combined with new and old Buddhist doctrines and deities, producing new configurations of ritual practice, sacred space, and systems of thought. All of these were strongly influenced by the esoteric practice of incorporating other beliefs into the Shingon spiritual hierarchy. [BHJC, 61]
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...One reason for the appeal of Shingon was the mystery of its rites. From the beginning, people in Japan had been drawn to Buddhism at least partly by the magical elements connected with Buddhist observances, such as incantations, divination, exorcism, and medicinal use of herbs. Now they were impressed by the mysterious elements in the secret rituals performed in the interior of Shingon temples, hidden from all but the most deeply initiated of the priests. The elites of Heian Japan, with their taste for pageantry, were also attracted by the richness of the colorful Shingon rites. [BHJC, 57-8]