Buddha and the Boozer

Habushu, an Okinawan snake alcohol. Image: Wikipedia

Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?

I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English in Japanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”

But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:

A Buddhist monk receives a number of rice cakes from the faithful after performing a New Year ceremony. However, instead of redistributing the cakes back out to the “children and servants” in the community, the monk decides to use the cakes to brew sake with his wife. So, the couple put the cakes in a vat and wait for them to ferment into alcohol. But surprise!, the Buddha didn’t like that: when the woman checks to see if the sake has finished, she finds that the vat has filled with writhing snakes. The monk confirms the discovery and the pair decide to abandon the whole vat in a field.

However, a few days later, three men find the vat. They look inside the dark opening and smell sake. The two sane men in the group suggest that they should just move on. After all, if someone had decided to leave a strange jar out in a field, they probably had a very good reason to do so – like hiding poison. Or, if nothing else, as one man puts it, “It gives me the creeps.” But that third thirsty man will let nothing discourage him from a good drink. He disagrees with his friends and swears that he will taste the sake no matter what:

 “But the man who had previously vowed to drink it was a real boozer and he couldn’t resist the temptation.

Maybe in isolation, that boozer line won’t tickle anyone except myself. But after over 100 pages of often dull Buddhist tales spoken in a frank, flat tone so that no one could miss the stiff moral messages (sometimes, literally, the tales will close by saying something like “the moral is —-”), the sudden casual break in language had me giggling well enough that I dropped the book out of bed. “Real boozer” is such a perfect pair of words in English that I have to commend the translators for the laugh. Anyway, here’s the line in Japanese too (via Yatanavi):

極たる上戸にて有ければ、酒の欲さに堪へずして

I’m not a scholar of classical Japanese so I won’t pretend to be able to read that line, especially with the old-fashioned grammar. But, hey, my dictionary says that 上戸 still means “heavy drinker” and in modern Japanese 極 means quindecillion (10^48 or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) so maybe as a joke you could translate it as “since he was a super-duper-DUPER heavy drinker, he couldn’t resist the desire for sake.” Regardless of the specifics of the translation though, it’s clear that — truly — this man is devoted to his liquor:

“Well,” he said, “Looks like you guys are afraid to drink it. But no matter what it is that may have been thrown away, I’m going to drink this. I don’t give a damn about my life.”

Mad lad. He drinks the sake and finds it most delicious. Seeing that the coast is clear, the other two try some too. They take it home and drink the rest over the course of several days. But in the Buddhist moral tale, do they deserve a punishment for caving to temptation along with the monk? Nahhhhh, like in many of the tales, the second-to-last paragraph straight-up tells us the intended message:

We can see that taking for oneself what has been offered to the Buddha is a grave sin … And so, a monk should not abuse the offerings given to the Buddha by using them for himself. He should share them with other people and with other monks.

The drinkers got off scot(ch)-free and the monk learns not to steal. So, for the laymen too, here’s another moral: if you find some liquor out in a field, go ahead, take a drink. The Buddha might have left it there, just for you, to punish a wicked priest!

But, like, seriously though, don’t. It’s um… probably got poison or snakes in it or something.

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