KIM, KIPLING & KAMAKURA

………..“He lived in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights, but
………..missionaries and secretaries of charitable societies could
………..not see the beauty of it.” ………..

Each of the first three chapters of Kim (1901-2) is introduced by a stanza from Kipling’s poem, “The Buddha at Kamakura,” which he wrote after a visit to Japan in 1892. It’s by no means his best poem, but it’s certainly one of the most detailed and challenging ones he ever wrote on the subject of East and West from a religious point of view. Needless to say, the poem must have interested Kipling a lot for him to have selected stanzas from it for such a crucial introduction.

And they’re not easy ones either, so Kipling must have wanted readers to spend some time figuring out what they meant. Most importantly, they’re not about exotic adventure in India, or even about India, for that matter, but rather move toward the quieter, deeper, more universal themes in Kim, many of which would be new to readers even today.

Kamakura is the 44 foot high, 800 year old bronze Amitaba Buddha near Tokyo so much loved by the people of Japan — ‘Amitaba’ is  the Japanese Buddha of love, a ‘Savior Buddha,’ really, and closely related in his origins to the female goddess Kwan Im in China. Kipling makes sure the reader knows it is precisely this Buddha and this place he is referring to by introducing Chapter I with the phrase, “And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura“–  and of course the word “idol” was intended to provoke a negative response. The verses, on the other hand, succeed in doing just the opposite — which, I would argue, is precisely why they are there.…………………………………

…………………………………………..Kim,  Chapter I:
………………………………….O ye who tread the Narrow Way
………………………………….By Tophet -flare to Judgment Day,
………………………………….Be gentle when the ‘heathen’ pray
………………………………….To Buddha at Kamakura!

………………………………………….Kim,  Chapter II:
………………………………….And whoso will, from Pride released,
………………………………….Contemning neither creed nor priest,
………………………………….May feel the Soul of all the East
………………………………….About him at Kamakura.

………………………………………….Kim,  Chapter III:
………………………………….Yea, voice of every Soul that clung
………………………………….To life that strove from rung to rung
………………………………….When Devadatta’s rule was young,
………………………………….The warm wind brings Kamakura.

The first stanza tries to soften Christian distaste for other religions by appealing to the warm atmosphere at Kamakura.  Both “Tophet-flare” and “Judgement Day” are harsh Biblical allusions that contrast strongly with the gentle peace embodied in the place, Kamakura, and of course in the last line of every stanza in the poem. Chapter Two’s stanza, on the other hand,  praises Western, non-orthodox free-thinkers who take pride in their open-mindedness to “other creeds” (this is the age of “Spritualism,” don’t forget, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and there were big personalities involved  in those movements too, needless to say).  The appeal to these two, diametrically opposed groups of people at the beginning of the novel shows the degree to which Kipling’s own heart was engaged in quite a different spriritual dimension in Kim.

The third introductory stanza is much more ambiguous. Devadatta was a very close disciple of the Buddha who actually rejected the Master’s “Middle Way,” preferring to stay behind in the old elitist spiritual life as an ascetic in the forest. Devadatta did not join the Buddha in his later, more gentle, holistic phase, and there is even a legend that he tried to kill the Buddha to prevent him from attaining Enlightenment. The stanza seems to suggest that whoever such people are, they are conservative and therefore unwilling, or not yet ready, in any case,  to move on. They belong to an earlier world order.

In fact, Kipling did not include this 3rd stanza in the full version of “The Buddha at Kamakura,” which he first published in 1892 in an article in the Times called “The Edge of the East,” an article specifically about Japan. The poem as a whole was eventually added to the collection called The Five Nations in 1903,  two years after the publication of Kim. In that version he included the following, much easier, more straightforward stanza, part of which is also quoted in the body of the first chapter of Kim, so we’re in the same place:

…………………………………Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
…………………………………Of birth as fish or beast or bird,
…………………………………While yet in lives the Master stirred,
…………………………………The warm wind brings Kamakura.

Ananda was the closest friend of the Buddha, if one would dare to say that about the Buddha, implying as it does some attachment on his part as well. In any case, this stanza would seem to celebrate the supportive presence of the Buddha in the pre-conscious mind,  so to speak, i.e. in those beings who have not yet had the chance to experience life as a fully conscious human being.

This is mainly just a hunch, but my feeling is that Kipling was addressing in both these last two stanzas the vast majority of Westerners, busy people too set in their ways to understand Eastern spiritual practices in their hearts. He seems to be saying that with a little help they could still come to respect and even be inspired by devotion like that shown to Amitaba Buddha at Kamakura, which has certainly proven to be true in our times.

The overall message in the introductory stanzas is one of love and respect for all people who worship out of the heart, whatever their creed or the form of their worship. It is indeed a blessing to find yourself among such devoted people, the poem says, so “be gentle” and respect them. “Feel the Soul of all the East
,” open yourselves up to “the warm wind of Kamakura.”

An extraordinary message for 1892, or anytime!

Christopher Woodman

…………………………………………… “Kamakura
…………Great Buddha, with an enlarged detail of a man standing on the hands.”
……………….Photo published in Brinkley’s Japan, a Guide Book (ca. 1890).


…………………………………The Buddha at Kamakura
………………………….“And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura”

…………………………………O ye who tread the Narrow Way
…………………………………By Tophet -flare to Judgment Day,
…………………………………Be gentle when the ‘heathen’ pray
…………………………………To Buddha at Kamakura!

…………………………………To him the Way, the Law, apart,
…………………………………Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
…………………………………Ananda’s Lord, the Bodhisat,
…………………………………The Buddha of Kamakura.

…………………………………For though he neither burns nor sees,
…………………………………Nor hears ye thank your Deities,
…………………………………Ye have not sinned with such as these,
…………………………………His children at Kamakura.

…………………………………Yet spare us still the Western joke
…………………………………When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke
…………………………………The little sins of little folk
…………………………………That worship at Kamakura.

…………………………………The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies
…………………………………That flit beneath the Master’s eyes.
…………………………………He is beyond the Mysteries
…………………………………But loves them at Kamakura.

…………………………………And whoso will, from Pride released,
…………………………………Contemning neither creed nor priest,
…………………………………May feel the Soul of all the East
…………………………………About him at Kamakura.

…………………………………Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
…………………………………Of birth as fish or beast or bird,
…………………………………While yet in lives the Master stirred,
…………………………………The warm wind brings Kamakura.

…………………………………Till drowsy eyelids seem to see
…………………………………A-flower ‘neath her golden htee
…………………………………The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly
…………………………………From Burmah to Kamakura,

…………………………………And down the loaded air there comes
…………………………………The thunder of Thibetan drums,
…………………………………And droned — “Om mane padme hums ” —
…………………………………A world’s-width from Kamakura.

…………………………………Yet Brahmans rule Benares still,
…………………………………Buddh-Gaya’s ruins pit the hill,
…………………………………And beef-fed zealots threaten ill
…………………………………To Buddha and Kamakura.

…………………………………A tourist-show, a legend told,
…………………………………A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
…………………………………So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
…………………………………The meaning of Kamakura?

…………………………………But when the morning prayer is prayed,
…………………………………Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
…………………………………Is God in human image made
…………………………………No nearer than Kamakura?

……………………………………………………………………..Rudyard Kipling, 1892

Advertisements