"The face of the beloved and the face of the risen sun cannot be looked at."-Japanese Proverb.


Modern science assures us that the passion of first love, so far as the individual may be concerned, is "absolutely antecedent to all relative experience whatever(1)." In other words, that which might well seem to be the most strictly personal of all feelings, is not an individual matter at all. Philosophy discovered the same fact long ago, and never theorized more attractively than when trying to explain the mystery of the passion. Science, so far, has severely limited itself to a few suggestions on the subject. This seems a pity, because the metaphysicians could at no time give properly detailed explanations, - whether teaching that the first sight of the beloved quickens in the soul of the lover some dormant prenatal remembrance of divine truth, or that the illusion is made by spirits unborn seeking incarnation. But science and philosophy both agree as to one all-important fact, that the lovers themselves have no choice, that they are merely the subjects of an influence. Science is even the more positive on this point: it states quite plainly that the dead, not the living, are responsible. There would seem to be some sort of ghostly remembrance in first loves. It is true that science, unlike Buddhism, does not declare that under particular conditions we may begin to recollect our former lives. That psychology which is based upon physiology even denies the possibility of memory-inheritance in this individual sense. But it allows that something more powerful, though more indefinite, is inherited, - the sum of ancestral memories incalculable, - the sum of countless billions of trillions of experiences. Thus can it interpret our most enigmatical sensations, - our conflicting impulses,-our strangest intuitions; all those seemingly irrational attractions or repulsions, - all those vague sadnesses or joys, never to be accounted for by individual experience. But it has not yet found leisure to discourse much to us about first love, - although first love, in its relation to the world invisible, is the very weirdest of all human feelings, and the most mysterious.

In our Occident the riddle runs thus. To the growing youth, whose life is normal and vigorous, there comes a sort of atavistic period in which he begins to feel for the feebler sex that primitive contempt created by mere consciousness of physical superiority. But it is just at the time when the society of girls has grown least interesting to him that he suddenly becomes insane. There crosses his life-path a maiden never seen before, - but little different from other daughters of men, - not at all wonderful to common vision. At the same instant, with a single surging shock, the blood rushes to his heart; and all his senses are bewitched. Thereafter, till the madness ends, his life belongs wholly to that new-found being, of whom he yet knows nothing, except that the sun's light seems more beautiful when it touches her. From that glamour no mortal science can disenthrall him. But whose the witchcraft? Is it any power in the living idol? No, psychology tells us that it is the power of the dead within the idolater. The dead cast the spell. Theirs the shock in the lover's heart; theirs the electric shiver that tingled through his veins at the first touch of one girl's hand.

But why they should want her, rather than any other, is the deeper part of the riddle. The solution offered by the great German pessimist will not harmonize well with scientific psychology. The choice of the dead, evolutionally considered, would be a choice based upon remembrance rather than on prescience. And the enigma is not cheerful.

There is, indeed, the romantic possibility that they want her because there survives in her, as in some composite photograph, the suggestion of each and all who loved them in the past. But there is the possibility also that they want her because there reappears in her something of the multitudinous charm of all the women they loved in vain.

Assuming the more nightmarish theory, we should believe that passion, though buried again and again, can neither die nor rest. They who have vainly loved only seem to die; they really live on in generations of hearts, that their desire may be fulfilled. They wait, perhaps though centuries, for the reincarnation of shapes beloved, - forever weaving into the dreams of youth their vapory composite of memories. Hence the ideals unattainable, - the haunting of troubled souls by the Woman-never-to-be-known.

In the Far East thoughts are otherwise; and what I am about to write concerns the interpretation of the Lord Buddha.

(1) Herbert Spencer, Principles of Psychology: "The Feelings."


A priest died recently under very peculiar circumstances. He was the priest of a temple, belonging to one of the older Buddhist sects, in a village near Osaka. (You can see that temple from the Kwan-Setsu Railway, as you go by train to Kyoto.)

He was young, earnest, and extremely handsome - very much too handsome for a priest, the women said. He looked like one of those beautiful figures of Amida made by the great Buddhist statuaries of other days.

The men of his parish thought him a pure and learned priest, in which they were right. The women did not think about his virtue or his learning only: he possessed the unfortunate power to attract them, independently of his own will, as a mere man. He was admired by them, and even by women of other parishes also, in ways not holy; and their admiration interfered with his studies and disturbed his meditations. They found irreproachable pretexts for visiting the temple at all hours, just to look at him and talk to him; asking questions which it was his duty to answer, and making religious offerings which he could not well refuse. Some would ask questions, not of a religious kind, that caused him to blush. He was by nature too gentle to protect himself by severe speech, even when forward girls from the city said things that country-girls never would have said, - things that made him tell the speakers to leave his presence. And the more he shrank from the admiration of the timid, or the adulation of the unabashed, the more the persecution increased, till it became the torment of his life(1).

His parents had long been dead; he had no worldly ties: he loved only his calling, and the studies belonging to it; and he did not wish to think of foolish and forbidden things. His extraordinary beauty - the beauty of a living idol - was only a misfortune. Wealth was offered him under conditions that he could not even discuss. Girls threw themselves at his feet, and prayed him in vain to love them. Love-letters were constantly being sent to him, letters which never brought a reply. Some were written in that classical enigmatic style which speaks of "the Rock-Pillow of Meeting," and "waves on the shadow of a face," and "streams that part to reunite." Others were artless and frankly tender, full of the pathos of a girl's first confession of love.

For a long time such letters left the young priest as unmoved, to outward appearance, as any image of that Buddha in whose likeness he seemed to have been made. But, as a matter of fact, he was not a Buddha, but only a weak man; and his position was trying.

One evening there came to the temple a little boy who gave him a letter, whispered the name of the sender, and ran away in the dark. According to the subsequent testimony of an acolyte, the priest read the letter, restored it to its envelope, and placed it on the matting, beside his kneeling cushion. After remaining motionless for a long time, as if buried in thought, he sought his writing-box, wrote a letter himself, addressed it to his spiritual superior, and left it upon the writing-stand. Then he consulted the clock, and a railway time-table in Japanese. The hour was early; the night windy and dark. He prostrated himself for a moment in prayer before the altar; then hurried out into the blackness, and reached the railway exactly in time to kneel down in the middle of the track, facing the roar and rush of the express from Kobe. And, in another moment, those who had worshiped the strange beauty of the man would have shrieked to see, even by lantern-light, all that remained of his poor earthliness, smearing the iron way.

The letter written to his superior was found. It contained a bare statement to the effect that, feeling his spiritual strength departing from him, he had resolved to die in order that he might not sin.

The other letter was still lying where he had left it on the floor, - a letter written in that woman-language of which every syllable is a little caress of humility. Like all such letters (they are never sent through the post) it contained no date, no name, no initial, and its envelope bore no address. Into our incomparably harsher English speech it might be imperfectly rendered as follows: -

To take such freedom may be to assume overmuch; yet I feel that I must speak to you, and therefore send this letter. As for my lowly self, I have to say only that when first seeing you in the period of the Festival of the Further Shore, I began to think; and that since then I have not, even for a moment, been able to forget. More and more each day I sink into that ever-growing thought of you; and when I sleep I dream; and when, awaking and seeing you not, I remember there was no truth in my thoughts of the night, I can do nothing but weep. Forgive me that, having been born into this world a woman, I should utter my wish for the exceeding favor of being found not hateful to one so high. Foolish and without delicacy I may seem in allowing my heart to be thus tortured by the thought of one so far above me. But only because knowing that I cannot restrain my heart, out of the depth of it I have suffered these poor words to come, that I may write them with my unskillful brush, and send them to you. I pray that you will deem me worthy of pity; I beseech that you will not send me cruel words in return. Compassionate me, seeing that this is but the overflowing of my humble feelings; deign to divine and justly to judge, - be it only with the least of kindliness, - this heart that, in its great distress alone, so ventures to address you. Each moment I shall hope and wait for some gladdening answer.

Concerning all things fortunate, felicitation.

To-day, - from the honorably-known, to the longed-for, beloved, august one, this letter goes.

(1) Actors in Japan often exercise a similar fascination upon sensitive girls of the lower classes, and often take cruel advantage of the power so gained. It is very rarely, indeed, that such fascination can be exerted by a priest.


I called upon a Japanese friend, a Buddhist scholar, to ask some questions about the religious aspects of the incident. Even as a confession of human weakness, that suicide appeared to me a heroism.

It did not so appear to my friend. He spoke words of rebuke. He reminded me that one who even suggested suicide as a means of escape from sin had been pronounced by the Buddha a spiritual outcast, - unfit to live with holy men. As for the dead priest, he had been one of those whom the Teacher called fools. Only a fool could imagine that by destroying his own body he was destroying also within himself the sources of sin.

"But," I protested, "this man's life was pure.... Suppose he sought death that he might not, unwittingly, cause others to commit sin?"

My friend smiled ironically. Then he said: - "There was once a lady of Japan, nobly torn and very beautiful, who wanted to become a nun. She went to a certain temple, and made her wish known. But the high-priest said to her, 'You are still very young. You have lived the life of courts. To the eyes of worldly men you are beautiful; and, because of your face, temptations to return to the pleasures of the world will be devised for you. Also this wish of yours may be due to some momentary sorrow. Therefore, I cannot now consent to your request.' But she still pleaded so earnestly, that he deemed it best to leave her abruptly. There was a large hibachi - a brazier of glowing charcoal - in the room where she found herself alone. She heated the iron tongs of the brazier till they were red, and with them horribly pierced and seamed her face, destroying her beauty forever. Then the priest, alarmed by the smell of the burning, returned in haste, and was very much grieved by what he saw. But she pleaded again, without any trembling in her voice: 'Because I was beautiful, you refused to take me. Will you take me now?' She was accepted into the Order, and became a holy nun.... Well, which was the wiser, that woman, or the priest you wanted to praise?"

"But was it the duty of the priest," I asked, "to disfigure his face?"

"Certainly not! Even the woman's action would have been very unworthy if done only as a protection against temptation. Self-mutilation of any sort is forbidden by the law of Buddha; and she transgressed. But, as she burned her face only that she might be able to enter at once upon the Path, and not because afraid of being unable by her own will to resist sin, her fault was a minor fault. On the other hand, the priest who took his own life committed a very great offense. He should have tried to convert those who tempted him. This he was too weak to do. If he felt it impossible to keep from sinning as a priest, then it would have been better for him to return to the world, and there try to follow the law for such as do not belong to the Order."

"According to Buddhism, therefore, he has obtained no merit?" I queried.

"It is not easy to imagine that he has. Only by those ignorant of the Law can his action be commended."

"And by those knowing the Law, what will be thought of the results, the karma of his act?"

My friend mused a little; then he said, thoughtfully: - "The whole truth of that suicide we cannot fully know. Perhaps it was not the first time."

"Do you mean that in some former life also he may have tried to escape from sin by destroying his own body?"

"Yes. Or in many former lives."

"What of his future lives?"

"Only a Buddha could answer that with certain knowledge."

"But what is the teaching?"

"You forget that it is not possible for us to know what was in the mind of that man."

"Suppose that he sought death only to escape from sinning?"

"Then he will have to face the like temptation again and again, and all the sorrow of it, and all the pain, even for a thousand times a thousand times, until he shall have learned to master himself. There is no escape through death from the supreme necessity of self-conquest."

After parting with my friend, his words continued to haunt me; and they haunt me still. They forced new thoughts about some theories hazarded in the first part of this paper. I have not yet been able to assure myself that his weird interpretation of the amatory mystery is any less worthy of consideration than our Western interpretations. I have been wondering whether the loves that lead to death might not mean much more than the ghostly hunger of buried passions. Might they not signify also the inevitable penalty of long-forgotten sins?