Many of the tales in Shokoku hyakumonogatari have story elements that are found in other famous folk tales. This book was published in the 17th century, but it was certainly influenced by earlier stories from previous eras. And surely it also influenced later stories as well. So it’s hard to know in many cases which story came first, or which one influenced which. Suffice it to say that a lot of successful scary themes are repeated over the years in different stories.
Tonight’s story is a good example of that. You may be familiar with the tale of Hōichi the Earless, whether from Lafcadio Hearn’s book Kwaidan or the the movie based on it. It is certainly a creepy, impactful story. Well you’ll find some similar elements in this one, specifically the power that the Lotus Sutra has in rendering a living person invisible to ghosts. By writing the Lotus Sutra upon one’s naked body, the ghost will perceive you as a Buddhist prayer stick, or perhaps not even at all. You had just better hope that no body parts are left out!
The First Wife’s Revenge and The Miraculous Power of the Lotus Sutra
In the village of Chichibu in Musashi Province there lived a man named Ōyama Hannojō. One day while he was out in front of his house, a traveling monk on a pilgrimage passed by. The monk took one look at Hannojō and said, “You are possessed by a female mononoke. It will not be long before she takes your life.”
Hannojō was startled. “Please come inside,” he said to the monk and invited him into the house.
Hannojō offered his hospitality and explained, “I am embarrassed to talk about this. You see, a while back my first wife died in childbirth, and I only recently took a new wife. However, whether it’s a dream or reality I don’t know, but lately my former wife has been visiting my bedside night after night and waking me up. How can I put her spirit to rest?”
The monk listened to this, and replied, “I thought so… From the moment I saw you I could tell that such a mononoke was haunting you. I will banish it for you.”
The monk stripped Hannojō naked and wrote the Lotus Sutra all over his body. Then he stood him in front of his wife’s grave.
“No matter how terrible things may get, you must not breathe heavily,” warned the monk. Then he left.
The grave was up a mountain, far from the house. The night was a dark and lonely. A monkey cried on a distant peak and an owl called out from the pines.
Around 4 am, a rain shower passed overhead. Then, Hannojō’s first wife emerged from a crack her the gravestone. Her breath was ragged and painful. She sat down right on top of Hannojō. She was followed by a little girl of about two years old, who crawled around on the ground.
“Look! I found papa’s feet!” said the child.
The straw mat that Hannojō was wrapped in to keep warm had scrubbed away the portion of the scripture the monk had written on his feet.
The woman became excited, but when she looked closer, she said, “These are no feet! This is a prayer stick!” And she fled in fear.
Before long she reappeared, holding a lantern in her left hand. She picked up the child in her right, and then she headed in the direction of Hannojō’s house. By the time she drew close to the house, her lantern had gone out. Hannojō watched from afar, frozen in fear, wondering what horrible thing she would do to him if he were at his house.
After some time, she returned to the grave. In her hand she was carrying Hannojō’s new wife’s severed head. She sat down on top of Hannojō like she had done before. Then she turned to the little girl and said, “Well, I was planning on killing your father tonight, but he seems to have gone somewhere else. Oh well, this will have to do for now. I have achieved my goal of many years. When I was alive, this woman cursed me, and even in death the pain was unbearable. But now I am happy that I could kill her in this way.”
With those words, the mother and the child re-entered the grave, and the dim light of dawn could be seen in the sky.