Tonight’s story is another example of a problem caused by attachment to material things — the core sin of Buddhism. That this story takes place at a temple, and to a temple elder, serves to underline that fact. Even priests are susceptible to this most basic of human faults, and can become undead monsters as a result of it.
The last part of the story points out that everyone slandered this elder after the money was found. But it’s not simply the fact that he was attached to the money that was the problem. The key lies in the amount: one thousand ryō. You don’t have to be an Edo period accountant to imagine that this is an obscenely large amount of money. One thousand gold coins is going to be worth a lot no matter what time period or country this takes place in. The value of gold fluctuated a lot over the Edo period, and it’s hard to place the exact time for this story, but since Shokoku hyakumonogatari was published in 1677, it’s safe to say this took place probably somewhere between 1600 and 1670. Currency Museum of the Bank of Japan, at the beginning of the Edo Period, one ryō was worth approximately 100,000 yen in today’s money. So this temple elder had a secret buried stash worth one hundred million yen. That kind of money isn’t something a priest is normally going to get his hands on, so there’s a strong implication that he was doing some immoral things to gather and hide that much gold. So the slander was almost certainly deserved, although the story never tells us just what this man did to get that money.
The Elder of Saikōji in Bungo Province Who Was Attached to Gold
At a temple called Saikōji in Bungo Province, an elder who was about seventy years old fell ill, and said in his final days, “When I die, leave me as I am for seven days, and after that, cremate me.” After that, he died.
His disciples obeyed his last will, and had him washed and placed in a coffin. At around midnight on the third day, there was a rustling sound inside of the coffin. Then the lid of the coffin opened up, and the elder, wearing a black hood, crawled out of the coffin and walked into the tatami room. The disciples were amazed, and they watched to see what would happen. The elder went out to the veranda and pointed a finger towards the northwest corner of the garden. The disciples were so afraid that they ran away and hid in the kitchen. Eventually the elder went back into his coffin.
The following night, the elder did the same thing as the night before. The disciples held a meeting to discuss the matter. They dug up the northwest corner of the garden and they discovered an incredibly beautiful jar. When they looked inside, they found one thousand ryō in gold coins had been placed inside.
Afterwards, everyone disparaged the elder because of his lingering attachment to this gold.