The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

On my birthday last week I ordered a zafu and zabuton”a meditation cushion and pad. They arrived yesterday and I tried them out this morning.  For a while they felt good, aids to being comfortable and maintaining position.  Then my right knee started hurting and I had to shift.

Yesterday, I finished reading Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which Jan selected to present to her book group.  It’s a heavily fictionalized account of the arson of a 500 year-old World Heritage site by a psychotic young Zen monk in 1950. The protagonist-narrator, Mizoguchi’s description of the building recalled my encounter with the reconstructed edifice last March in Kyoto:

Thanks to the power of memory, the various aesthetic details began to glitter one by one out of the surrounding darkness; then the glittering spread wider and wider, until gradually the entire temple had emerged before me under that strange light of time itself, which is neither day nor night¦As my eyes took in the entire prospect, I could perceive the temple’s structure and the clear outline of its motif, I could see the painstaking repetition and decoration of the details whereby this motif was materialized, I saw the effects of contrast and of symmetry.  The two lower stories, the Hosui-in and the Choondo, were of the same width and, though thwere was a slight difference between them, they were protected by the same extensive eave; one story rested on top of its companion so that they looked like a pair of closely related dreams or like memories of two very similar pleasures that we have enjoyed in the past.  These twin stories had been crowned by a third story, the Kukyocho, which abruptly tapered off.  And high on top of the shingled roof the gilt bronze phoenix was facing the long, lightless night.

I was prompted to pull up  pictures I’d taken there to capture a bit of that encounter’s  power.


His account of the ascent of Beauty from the pool of sensual desire to the gilded phoenix at the apex of the roof reminds me of Plato’s ladder of love in the Symposium, the primary text of Western mysticism, reimagined here in a Japanese Buddhist framework.

The vast power of sensual desire that shimmered on the surface of this pond was the source of the hidden force that had constructed the Golden Temple; but, after this power had been put in order and the beautiful  three storied tower formed, it could no longer bear to dwell there and nothing was left for it but to escape¦back to the surface of the pond, back to the endless shimmering of sensual desire, back to its native land¦.



Plato refers to desire as the offspring of Plenty and Penury, the appetite for the possession of beauty propelled by incompletion, leading to ever more elevated objects.  Mishima’s character imagines each satisfaction generating a more expansive need.

If one examined the beauty of each individual detail”the pillars, the railings, the shutters, the framed doors, the ornamented windows, the pyramidal roof, the Hosui-in, the Choondo, the Kukyocho, the Sosei”the shadow of the temple on the ond, the little islands, the pine trees, yes, even the mooring place for the temple boat”the beauty was never completed in any single detail of the temple; for each detail adumbrated the beauty of the succeeding detail.  The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness.  It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion and was invariably lured on to thenext beauty, the unknown beauty.

But whereas Plato envisions ultimate perfection as the concentration of all being into pure unadulterated substance–the Form of Forms–Mizoguchi defines the final object as nothingness:

Such adumbrations were the signs of nothingness.  Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.  ¦this delicate building, wrought of the most slender timber, was trembling in anticipation of nothingness, like a jeweled necklace trembling in the wind.

In doing so he seems to be adhering to orthodox Buddhist doctrine.  I think I can grasp the paradox of identifying ultimate being with ultimate nothingness, but what makes this novel so disturbing is Mishima’s habitual connection of salvation with the human destructiveness that brings nothingness into the world.  Mizoguchi’s crime turns out to be his redemption. He’s finally encouraged to go forward with the deed by his memory of another orthodox Zen injunction repeated to him earlier in the novel by his philosophically inclined friend, Kashiwagi.

“Face the back, face the outside, and if ye meet, kill instantly!”
Yes the first sentence went like that.  The famous passage in that chapter of the Rinsairoku.  Then the remaining words emerged fluently: “When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of the 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.”  257-8

This is confirmed by the spiritual vacuity of all the Buddhist institutions and traditions the book portrays while strangely omitting any reference to the experience of meditation.  Such fiery iconoclasm also permeates the apocalyptic utterances of the old and new testament prophets, where Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jesus excoriate the traditional religious institutions and authorities of their times.

On the last page of the novel, as he sits on a mountain top watching the Temple burning below, Mizoguchi lights a cigarette.  For the first time in his life he feels good about himself and wants to go on living.

Mishima’s death-loving life and art are diametrically opposed to the gratitude and service centered values that I aspire to, but while reading the book, my revulsion sometimes yielded to wonder and even inspiration.   If I remain on the path that led to Japan and Hollyhock, I may be meeting him again along the road.

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