Buddha-nature of the Horse
Head throbbing, throat parched, mouth tasting like heíd been sucking
on his feet, the rogue samurai Hasegawa Torakage came awake and felt
for his small sword. It was there beside him, black iron hilt guard
without ornamentation, and he lifted himself up on one elbow and
peered out at this man-deceiving world of error and delusion through
pain-stricken, red-rimmed eyes. You, Koda? he called, and received
There was no display alcove in the shabby little room, no floor
mats, no brazier, not even a tobacco box, and the wall plaster had
fallen away in places to reveal the support-lattice of bamboo strips
like a fabrication of flattened bones. A hokku by Old Master Bashō
had been painted on one wall in an exuberant if shaky hand:
Morning dew on the damp earth, and the muddy melons seem cool.*
The borrowed inkstone and calligraphy brush he must have used to
write it were left lying nearby.
Koda? he called again and was again met with silence.
Hasegawa lay back to settle the pounding in his head. The wine had
seemed cloudy and unclean, and he recalled confiding as much to his
cousin the night before but then forgetting this sensible evaluation
as the evening progressed and the good-fellowship shared among
travelers on the walking road led him from folly to folly.
Koda would have said nothing. He himself drank only water and ate
very little, as if his diminutive bodyís refusal to grow relieved
him of any responsibility for coddling it. Koda practiced
mountain-monk austerities in order to extend and perfect his
dreadful skill as a sword fighter. He could go for days without
eating or sleeping then charge into a squad of opponents and scatter
them like pond frogs. Koda indulged his younger cousinís habits of
conviviality, and Hasegawaís high spirits and easy generosity
brought the world to their table; but even the most dimwitted of
roisterers could not settle fully into an evening of mirth and
mayhem until the dour Ė and dangerous Ė older man had left the
Hasegawa crawled to the entryway and slid open the paper door,
wincing against the shock of sunlight. His stomach lifted again and
rolled upward in a column of snake-bile that burned at the bottom of
his throat until he forced it back down. Never would he drink cloudy
wine again. His room opened onto a dirt garden that was dominated by
an immense camphor tree, the mass of it richly green against the
haze of the summer morning. Near the tree stood a privy, and the
rogue samurai retched violently into the loathsome hole, emptying
himself in great splattering waves of pain that burned up the length
of him as they came. Maggots wriggled in the liquid foulness below
him like bits of chewed noodle come back to life, and Hasegawa
retched again and again until he was producing little more than a
dry spittle. He straightened up too abruptly, lurched to one side,
overcorrected, and crashed backwards through the privy door,
knocking it off its runners as he emerged wobble-walking into the
summer sunlight, fetching up finally at the trunk of the camphor
tree where he clung like a baby ape clutching its mother then
managed to cross back to the veranda corridor in front of his room.
young maid eventually brought him a pot of tea and a cup and an
earthenware jar of water cold from the well.
Whereís Koda? Hasegawa demanded, and the young woman lowered her
eyes. Who is Koda? Her teeth had not been blackened properly, and
the flashes of whiteness surprised him. Your honorís road companion?
was with me.
You mean here?
Where else would I mean? Hasegawa poured out his tea himself. Did we
meet last night?
She glanced up at him shyly. Meet?
you not understand the language I speak?
you not remember last night?
Hasegawa looked at her. Some parts of it better than others.
The maid lowered her eyes again, as if abashed at her own boldness.
Hasegawa studied the immense camphor tree, the bright shining mass
of yellow-green leaves glowing in the fullness of summer. Yesterday
my cousin and I walked without stopping all the way from the
seventeenth waystation. A distance that usually requires two full
The maid bowed to indicate her recognition of the wondrous nature of
this achievement. Your honor has important affairs awaiting you in
meant only to express the source of my confusion. We arrived well
after dusk. And thoroughly exhausted.
Yes, of course, the young maid agreed. Yet you seemed very lively
Giddiness caused by excessive exhaustion.
The maid smiled. Clearly that must be the fact of it. But do you not
remember singing the libretto of the Noh play? About the old woman
damned to suffer as a wandering ghost because she had been unfeeling
when young and beautiful?
course I remember that. A scattering of sparrows had begun dropping
down into the courtyard in twos and threes, squabbling little brown
feather-balls riotous with their enthusiasms. Now that you mention
All in the wineshop were favorably impressed.
Hasegawa said nothing.
And do you not then remember buying the carcass of the dead cart
horse so that it might receive a decent funeral?
gray horse, as I recallÖ.
You said it would thereby find release from the sadness of birth
after birth. And that it would thus reach the
Western Paradise. And share a golden lotus throne with
the Amida Buddha. And now her eyes were twinkling with amusement. A
horse, you see.
Hasegawa again studied the camphor tree against the soft morning
haze of the summer sky. A few sparrows moved among the exposed roots
searching for insects while others settled into patches of loose
dirt and began taking dust baths, wing-flurries creating little
All in the wineshop praised your sensitivity. And your sense of pity
for the Buddha-soul of the unfortunate horse.
paid for it, did I?
The young woman smiled. Very generously.
sipped his tea. I guess thatís all right then.
Hasegawa Torakage had found himself among the hacked ruins of men he
hadnít known were enemies. He had watched their blood-flow draining
away into summer grasses or pooling on the frozen earth of a
winterís night, the dead and dying men like him, men whose
companionship he might otherwise have shared; and he had trusted
what was happening to them and not sought to follow back out along
the chain of irrevocable consequences and determine the true source
of their undoing. Hasegawa was a fighter who accepted the
inevitability of the fact of convergence. Their deaths had wanted
them as would one day his want him. So he sat within chirr of
cicadas shrill enough to pierce any stone, and the young maid waited
to see if he had further requirements of her then bowed and
departed, leaving him to his ruminations and his tea.
Koda was squatting just inside the gate-shadows of a roadside
shrine, his too-long sword held upright between his knees, the
oversized grip of it rising high above his small dark head in a
finial of defiance. I guess I know what youíre going to say,
Hasegawa said. So probably you donít have to say it.
Koda Ichinosuke wore his topknot crazy-style, the fore-crown
unshaven and the tea-whisk of hair sticking straight up in a
cockscomb of comic bravado. His robe was a concatenation of
mismatched fabrics sewn together in frantic unsuitability: a
pomegranate red patch beside a cobalt blue one, a venomous green
panel next to one with purplish-brown stripes on a beige field, a
long pale-azure section printed all over with scarlet spider lilies
fitted beside an orange field splashed with indigo sea shells and
bordering a taupe strip gaudy with sprays of kerria blossoms that
had been dyed to a bilious yellow. It was a harlequin provocation,
and any man who encountered Koda knew that here was his own death
approaching, that all he need do was remark upon the small manís
bizarre appearance, or even just smile wrong at the sight of him, or
smile at all.
Koda provoked mayhem for fees, and he had humbled samurai who like
him cherished the artistry of true-manner fighting, men who like him
cherished the nobility of the formal duel: two men facing each other
until one man lay dying on the ground. For Koda Ichinosuke, the
manner of it was irrelevant. What he trusted was his ability to find
within any given moment the optimal route to the next.
Kodaís main sword was half again longer than it should have been.
The scabbard for this prodigious blade was lacquered bright scarlet,
and written in a bold calligraphy down its flank was the motto An
Ugly Runt Deserves Chastisement, the thick black characters
meant to be legible at a distance. Although a poor choice for a
small man, in his hands the too-long sword carved great sibilant
arcs out of the air, its passage like sheet lightning noticed an
instant too late. Yet on certain occasions, Koda would offer to
trade weapons or use another, lesser blade or even one of his
opponentís own choosing so as to demonstrate that what occurred was
caused by a karmic agent and not his tool. Koda was willing to fight
with wooden cudgels if he met someone so inclined, or with iron
hand-clubs or sharpened bamboo poles or pointed cedar stakes; he
would batter with rocks if that was required, or cut with shards of
clam shell or bits of chipped flint; he would kick and punch with
the feet and the fists, strike with elbows and knees, and butt with
the head; he would bite and gouge, strangle and smother, drown
opponents in cisterns, lakes, streams and ponds, hang them from
ropes, fling them off cliffs, or stuff them into fires. And although
the Great Peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate had made the martial
skills of the samurai unnecessary so that masterless money-fighters
were obliged to feed themselves in ways few would have chosen, it
was Kodaís willingness to die for the achievement of a killing that
set him apart and sustained him. He was not known to have had many
guess probably you could say how you were right about that wine,
His cousin stood slowly, his small brown face bland as that of a
guess it was a good lesson for me. That what you think?
Koda returned Hasegawaís scrutiny for a moment then turned away and
began walking back into the center of the waystation village, his
too-long sword resting comfortably across one shoulder much the way
a peasant might tote a mattock.
Hasegawa Torakage had been orphaned as a child of six and gone to
live with the Koda family in the far north. His cousin Ichinosuke
was five years older, and when the boys trained with wooden practice
swords, Ichinosuke always won. Even after Torakage had grown larger
and stronger than his cousin, their mock battles always ended with
him lying on the ground. He tried changing tactics. He tried hanging
back and countering with short-stroke defensive parries. He tried
deception, circling the wrong way and hitting out of odd angles. He
tried quick-flicker cuts at his cousinís hands and forearms, at his
knees and ankles, all of which seemed exposed but never were. He
tried to distract his cousin with mockery and flattery and mindless
jibber-jabber, and he tried to seal within himself a perfected
clarity of irresistible depth and audacity before beginning his
attack. The results were always the same. He tried a reasoned and
well-grounded approach to the problem, and he tried overwhelming
power, battering at the smaller boy in an hysterical frenzy. Each
encounter ended with Hasegawa Torakage sprawled on the ground,
stunned and bleeding, and his cousin standing over him, curious to
see if he would try again.
The drayman was waiting in front of the waystation corral. He had
lived all his life with horses and over the years had grown to
resemble them. No woman would share his habits so the drayman had
never married. Whores demanded double-fees because of the pungency
of his musk, and wineshops discouraged his patronage for the same
The drayman had spotted the two rogue samurai approaching, and he
elected to display voluntarily the coins clutched in his fist rather
than risk being asked to do so.
This seems to be the amount of it, Hasegawa said. Minus a few
expenditures I seem to have had last night in the wineshop.
Koda looked at him.
I guess Iím just down two coppers. I guess thatís the local price
for the funeral rites for a horse.
Koda began walking back through the waystation village, again
carrying his too-long sword casually over his shoulder. One copper
for the Buddha-soul of the horse. Also, the drayman took care of
your money for you last night. One copper for that.
boy had been left at the edge of the village meadow, tethered to a
tree. He was a rat-faced child with untrimmed hair, wearing a
stained and grimy short-robe that was held closed with a sash cord
of dubious provenance. The boyís rope let him move as far as the
edge of the stream but no farther.
Koda kept going but Hasegawa stopped. He asked him why he was being
restrained, and the boy said because he stole food.
Why did he do that?
When his father was absent, his stepmother denied him his share. And
even when his father was home, she gave his stepsister the best bits
while he got only the worst.
Where was his father?
The boy didnít know.
Why didnít his father defend him?
The boy didnít know that either.
Hasegawa handed him a rice ball and the boy bit into it. Do you want
me to cut you out of your ropes?
The boy said he didnít want that.
Because it would anger your stepmother? Hasegawa squatted down
beside the boy. At least youíve got tree shade. And water.
You know about things.
The feral boy said heíd been told that a stabbing tool could be
fashioned out of a sharpened length of green bamboo. He said he
understood that anyone could do it. He said there was said to be a
place in a sleeping womanís neck where her death was easily
Hasegawa looked up at his cousin then turned his attention back to
the meadow grass heating in the sunlight, swallows darting above it
taking insects, a patch of scarlet spider lilies near the road
embankment, all of it wrapped within the endless cacophony of
cicadas shrieking their summer urges. And you donít know where it
They said you just slide it in.
Who says that?
forget his name.
And you think you could kill a person?
The boy chewed, bits of cold rice on his lips, his gaze unwavering.
I guess thatís what weíre talking about.
How old are you?
You think so.
The boy pointed at his own neck. Just show me where it is.
Hasegawa rose to his feet and stood pondering the feral boy gnawing
at the rice ball in his hand. Did he have any other siblings?
Just the one. The stepmotherís own daughter.
And you want to hurt her too.
Hurt them both. But start with the stepmother. Just ease it in.
guess I donít know about things like that.
You mean you wonít say. The boy stared up at him sourly. I guess you
just chop cabbages with those blades.
Cut him loose, Koda said.
said he didnít want that.
But Koda was on the boy with a slash knife in his fist, and the rope
came apart, the severed ends lying on each side of him. You want to
be tied up, you do it yourself.
The two samurai continued out onto the dust of the Eastern Sea Road,
the cicadas shrieking their summer urges.
guess probably you donít think a horse has a Buddha-nature, Hasegawa
Koda said nothing.
guess you could look at it two ways. One way, that everything has a
Buddha-nature. A horse, a tree, a rock, a man. Everything. And the
other way, that only a man has the Buddha-nature and everything else
has something different. Of course, I guess whichever way you
choose, youíd still have the question of how you would know. But
then I guess youíd always have that question anyway. How you know, I
I guess one thing you could do is you could debate it. I could for
example assert that a horse has a Buddha-nature. You could take the
opposing view. So then I would state the reasons why I held my
belief, and you would question them and perhaps point out certain
aspects of the matter which I hadnít considered. So your suggestions
would then require me to rethink my original decision and perhaps
adjust some portion of it. Which I would do. Then you would perhaps
state your beliefs, and I would bring out my arguments in light of
your understanding of things. And then you could reply as you saw
fit. And so in this manner, we could spend the day in pleasant
conversation. Except of course we canít. Since you never say much of
anything one way or the other. So I guess thereís no reason for me
to go on about it.
Then donít, Koda said.
translation of Bashōís Asatsuyu ni yogorete suzushi uri no tsuchi;