Translation Project: The Tale of the Mother in Hell Freed by the Lotus Sutra

May 28, 2009

So for my final translation project I wanted to do something crazy and modern like a couple of chapters from Yoshi’s Deep Love, one of the most popular cell phone novels in Japan. But the course focused on pre-modern Japan and, though the professor would have let me get away with it, I felt weird doing something modern when the rest of the class was way back in time. So I went way back in time with them and chose a story from the Konjaku Monogatari, or, as it is commonly translated, Anthology of Tales from the Past.

Now, we’re talking majorly old here so there was no way I could translate the original. I have enough trouble with modern Japanese. But I chose this story because the modern Japanese translation could be easily found here. Looking at the tiny print in their tiny books, I don’t know how the more myopic Japanese do it. How can they possiblyread a book if so many kanji are tiny black blobs? But I haven’t been to my optometrist since before my study abroad in Japan so maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this story. It’s a pretty typical Japanese folk tale with a typical Japanese folk tale format that firmly establishes where the story happened, tells the story, and then gives a little bit of proof that the story was real. I added a few translation notes at the end.

Konjaku Monogatari Volume 14 Story 8
The Tale of the Mother in Hell Freed by the Lotus Sutra

Once upon a time, in the country of Etchu, there lived an embassy clerk. He had three sons. Morning and night, the clerk attended to the official business of the capital. However, this clerk’s wife suddenly became ill and, after several days in bed, died. Weeping and mourning, her husband and children held a memorial service for her spirit. A number of monks confined themselves to that house to carry out her funeral, dedicating themselves to a forty nine day Buddhist memorial service to satisfy the family.

Before long, the forty nine days were over, but their grief continued on. The family simply could not forget her. The brothers debated amongst themselves where their mother was now and longed to see her once more. Well, in this country, there was a place called Tate Mountain. It was a truly sacred, deep mountain. Making a simple pilgrimage through that steep mountain path was difficult. Inside the mountain, there were the boiling waters of the various hells, presenting a truly terrible sight.

One day, this clerk’s three children spoke amongst themselves. “Though we have been mourning our mother nonstop, our hearts have not been relieved in the slightest. How about this? Let’s go to Tate Mountain once to see the burning of hell. Then we shall imagine Mother’s current circumstances and try to console our hearts.” This said, they all decided to make the journey. An exalted holy man accompanied them.

Though they walked through hell one by one, no words can describe how absolutely dreadful it was. The whole surface was covered in burning flames. Truthfully, the boiling water lolled, the smoke rose and surged, and the heat was such that even a person viewing from afar would find it unbearable. This is not to mention the definite anguish of the people being boiled in iron kettles. Finding it incredibly sad, they spoke to the monk, and, after they had him wield his bishop’s staff and read the Lotus Sutra, it seemed the flames of hell had calmed slightly. In this manner, they walked around hell ten times. Whenever they came to an especially dreadful point, the monk would raise his staff and read the sutra like before and the flames would seem to calm slightly.

At that moment, from a rock crevice, the disembodied voice of their dearly missed mother called her eldest son’s name. Because hearing this was so unexpected, the eldest son thought he heard wrong and did not respond, so the voice called him again.

Thereupon, he said, nervously, “Who is this person who keeps calling?”

The voice from the crevice replied, “What are you saying? What kind of son doesn’t know his own mother’s voice? I committed a sin in the previous world because I never gave anything to anyone. Now I have just fallen into this hell and shall suffer unknown torments for eternity.”

Hearing this, the children considered the voice doubtfully. Though there were many instances in which divine revelations were related in dreams, they had never heard of receiving such a message in reality. But be that as it may, there was no doubt that this was their mother’s voice. So the children said, “What kind of good deed may we perform so that our mother might escape from this torment?”

The voice from the crevice said, “Because my sins were so grave, escaping from these torments is difficult. Because you are poor and lack power, you cannot possibly perform such a grand deed. As far as my eternity is concerned, I shall never be able to escape from this hell.”

The children asked, “Nevertheless, how many good deeds must we perform to free you from hell?”

The voice from the crevice responded, “Unless, in one day, you transcribe a thousand Lotus Sutras during a memorial service, I will never be able to escape this anguish.”

The children said, “Even transcribing one Lotus Sutra during a memorial service would be difficult for a rich man. This is to say nothing of ten or a hundred – to say as many as a thousand is inconceivable. But we cannot return home peacefully after seeing our mother suffer so. We shall also enter hell to relieve our mother’s suffering.”

Hearing this, the monk with them said, “Only in the previous world can a child relieve a parent’s suffering. In the realm of the dead, each is punished according to their actions in their previous lives and relief is impossible. You can only return home and do what you can there. Even if you can only manage one Lotus Sutra, your mother’s suffering may be lightened a little.”

So they tearfully returned home and informed their father, the embassy clerk, what they had learned. When the clerk heard this, he said, “This is a truly sorrowful situation for there is no way we can manage a thousand Lotus Sutras. Nevertheless, I must do as much as I possibly can.” And he first set about planning for the transcription and presentation of three hundred Lotus Sutras.

At this point, he spoke with the provincial governor about the matter. The provincial governor was a man of high moral character and when this story spread, he summoned the embassy clerk to question him directly. The embassy clerk told him the whole story from beginning to end.

Hearing this aroused the provincial governor’s compassion and he said, “I shall offer my cooperation in this undertaking.” He also requested the help of the neighboring countries. The provincial governor moved the hearts of these countries and, at last, one thousand Lotus Sutras were transcribed and, in one day, the memorial was accomplished.

With that, the children’s hearts were calm for the first time. They began to think, “Our mother has now escaped from the agonies of hell.”

Then their mother appeared in the eldest son’s dream, dressed in beautiful clothing. “Thanks to that pious act, I have been released from hell and reborn in the heavenly realm of the god Taishakuten,” she said and ascended to the heavens before the eldest son awoke.

Afterwards, people far and wide discussed this dream and it brought them great joy. A short time later, the children visited Tate Mountain and once again walked around the hell there, but this time they could not hear the voice from the crevice. It is said that that hell is still in Tate Mountain.

According to one story, there is an elderly priest in Mount Hiei, now 80 years old, who went down to Etchu when he was young. “I also went to Etchu and wrote a sutra,” he says. More than sixty years have passed from that time.

This is rare story indeed. Until now, we have never heard of a person falling into Hell and telling of it outside of dreams or prophecy. But this is how the story is passed down and this is how it is told.

Translator’s Notes

Perhaps the most obvious difference here from the original is the number of paragraph breaks I added. I decided to do this for both aesthetic and grammatical reasons – having one huge block of dialogue is not only unattractive and difficult to read, it is an atrocious grammatical faux pas in the English language. I also added paragraph breaks in a few other places in order to give it a better flow.

The eldest son is called “太郎 ” in the original, but I chose to merely call him “the eldest son” as there is no name that immediately implies his position in the family in English.

As for “植えれば嘆きを忘れるという忘れ草もこの家には生い育たないであろう,” I wrestled with this sentence for some time before deciding that there simply was not a way to translate the literal meaning in English without sounding painfully awkward. In English, a 忘れ草 is simply a type of daylily and has no connotations of forgetfulness. The closest thing I could think of was something like, “It seemed no flowers of forgetfulness were grown in this house.” However, I chose to go with a simpler, more straightforward sentence that conveyed the full meaning of the original without the clumsy flower imagery: “The family simply could not forget her.”

But the most difficulty came with translating 一日に法華経一部を書写供養 , particularly the 書写供養. I understood the basic concept – the sons had to hold a Buddhist memorial service in which the Lotus Sutra would be copied down a thousand times in one day – but I had a great deal of trouble finding a concise way to put it. In the end, I went with “transcribe a thousand Lotus Sutras during a memorial service,” but I must admit I am still not satisfied with it. However, I think it adequately conveys just what the sons must do to free their mother from Hell.

I am still unhappy with the mother’s statement, “I committed a sin in the previous world because I never gave anything to anyone.” I think if I knew a bit more about Buddhism and sins, I would be able to translate this better, but this is the best I could do. I am assuming here that she sinned by being uncharitable.

However, I did enjoy translating the part before that: “What are you saying? What kind of son doesn’t know his own mother’s voice?” It is nice to see that, even in ancient Japanese stories about horrific hells inside deep mountains, mothers will always be mothers.

The original text may be seen at http://www5.tok2.com/home/byakuran/y2/yume61.htm.


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