This famous English saying – often wrongly attributed to William Shakespeare, but actually a partially paraphrased quotation from William Congreve – could apply to many tragic tales from all over the world through the centuries. Here we will introduce a famous Japanese story featuring one such jilted woman, associated with the ancient temple of Dōjō-ji 道成寺 in Kii province (modern Wakayama) in Japan.
Dōjō-ji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Senju Kannon 千手観音 or Avalokiteśvara “With a thousand arms and eyes” and his flanking attendants Nikkō Bosatsu (日光菩薩 Suryaprabha) and Gakkō Bosatsu (月光菩薩 Candraprabha). Dōjō-ji is believed to have been established in 701. Senju Kannon’s thousand arms and eyes symbolise the depth of his compassion (慈悲Jihi), keeping his eyes on all living things and extending his hands to anyone suffering from hardship.
Although there are a number of variations on the story of tragic romance and the Dōjō-ji bell, the most famous version is that of Anchin安珍 and Kiyohime 清姫. Anchin is a handsome young trainee monk who catches the eye of a local maiden called Kiyohime. Kiyohime is very attracted to Anchin, but this story doesn’t have a happy ending!
As a novice monk Anchin has no intention of falling in love with a woman, and therefore in order to escape from his admirer Kiyohime he tells her he has to go away, but falsely promises that he will come back for her. He dashes away, but she chases after him. He gets to the river and attempts to escape by crossing the river by boat, but Kiyohime does not give up easily, and dives into the water and swims after him.
As Anchin flees from Kiyohime, he sees her gradually transforming herself from a young girl into a scaly creature while continuing to pursue him. Anchin is horrified and asks the monks at Dōjō-ji to rescue him. The monks sympathise with Anchin and give him a hiding place, inside the bell of the temple, but it is too late: Kiyohime has already turned into a fire serpent. Persistent Kiyohime, who is no longer a woman but a fiery demon, wraps herself around the bell, and burns Anchin to death inside the bell.
The story has many variations and sequels, and its basic theme of transformation has inspired numerous Kabuki and Bunraku puppet plays as well as other dramatic and literary forms including No drama.
Returning to the narrative, one spring the restoration of the bell is finished and the monks of Dōjō-ji are looking forward to a ceremony for reinstalling the bell. They forbid women to participate because of the tragic memories associated with the previous bell. However, one girl manages to sneak in to the venue on the pretext that she would like to perform a dedicatory dance for blessing the new bell.
As it turns out she is the incarnation of the fire serpent who burned the man to death in the old bell. She deeply opposes the new bell being placed in Dōjō-ji and wants to prevent the monks from celebrating it. The monks are taken by surprise, and immediately pray to exorcise the demon woman, in order to protect the bell and to defend the temple from supernatural interference.
Although the monks successfully defeat the vengeful sprit, eventually the bell is sent to another temple in Kyoto. Ultimately all the departed souls related to the Dōjō-ji bell legend, including the jilted woman who changed into a demon and took her revenge on the man who had spurned her, are placated and granted peaceful rest by the virtues of Buddha.
"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned" is the full quotation from William Congreve's 'The Mourning Bride' (1697). Probably the fundamental message in this story is a lesson for life. Rage is often caused by our own misunderstandings, and we should not lay blame on a fate imposed on us by heaven or hell.
This article first appeared on British Library's Asian and African studies blog.