Ten Great Buddhist Proverbs by Lafcadio Hearn

Recently, I started reading another book by famous Greco-Irish author, Lafcadio Hearn, called In Ghostly Japan. In one section, Hearn has collected over a 100 Buddhist proverbs, and provides footnotes for some that require more explanation. I don’t know if these proverbs are well known any more, probably not, but I thought they provide a fascinating view into the beauty of Asian Buddhism and a humbling reminder to us Westerners that we’re still pretty indebted.

I picked 10 proverbs from Hearn’s 100 that I particularly liked and wanted to pass along. I will post ten more in an upcoming post. The numbers here represent the numbers as Hearn listed them. I also included footnotes by Hearn verbatim where appropriate, and of course, the translations are all by Lafcadio Hearn. The Kanji and japanese text were not included in the Tuttle book, so I had to make educated guesses were possible.

  • 1. 悪事身にとまる (akuji mi ni tomaru) – All evil done clings to the body. Hearn says: “The consequences of any evil act or thought never,—so long as karma endures,—will cease to act upon the existence of the person guilty of it.”
  • 2. 頭そるより心をそれ (atama soru yori kokoro wo soré) – Better to shave the heart than to shave the head. Hearn says: “Buddhist nuns and priests have their heads completely shaven. The proverb signifies that it is better to correct the heart, — to conquer all vain regrets and desires, — than to become a religious. In common parlance the phrase “to shave the head” means to become a monk or a nun.
  • 3. 会うは別れのはじめ (au wa wakaré no hajimé) – Meeting is only the beginning of separation. Hearn says: “Regret and desire are equally vain in this world of impermanence; for all joy is the beginning of an experience that must have its pain. This proverb refers directly to the sutra-text, —Shōja hitsumetsu é-sha-jori—”All that live must surely die; and all that meet will surely part.”
  • 5. 凡夫も悟れば仏なり (bonbu mo satoréba hotoké nari) – Even a common man by obtaining knowledge becomes a Buddha. Hearn says: “The only real differences of condition are differences in knowledge of the highest truth.”
  • 7. 仏法とわら屋の雨、出てきけ (Buppō to waraya no amé, dété kiké) – One must go outside to hear Buddhist doctrine or the sound of rain on a straw roof. Hearn says: “There is an allusion here to the condition of the shukké (priest): literally, “one who has left the house.” The proverb suggests that the higher truths of Buddhism cannot be acquired by those who continued to live in the world of follies and desire.
  • 13 餓鬼の目に水見えず (gaki no mé ni mizu miezu) – To the eyes of gaki (hungry ghosts) water is viewless. Hearn says: “Some authorities state that those prêta [hungry ghosts] who suffer especially from thirst, as a consequence of faults committed in former lives, are unable to see water.—This proverb is used in speaking of persons too stupid or vicious to perceive a moral truth.”
  • 22 仏になるも沙弥をへる (Hotoké ni naru mo shami wo heru) – Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.
  • 36 地獄極楽は心にあり (Jigoku Gokuraku wa kokoro ni ari) – Hell and Heaven are in the hearts of men. Hearn says: “A proverb in perfect accord with the higher Buddhism.”
  • 37 地獄もすみか (Jigoku mo sumika) – Even Hell itself is a dwelling place. Hearn says: “Meaning that even those obliged to live in hell must learn to accommodate themselves to the situation. One should always try to make the best of circumstances. A proverb of kindred signification is: sumeba, miyako [住めば、都]: “Wheresover one’s home is, that is the Capital [or, Imperial City].”
  • 39 陰の形にしたがうごとし (kagé no katachi ni shitagau gotoshi) – Even as the shadow follows the shape. Hearn says: “Referring to the doctrine of cause-and-effect. Compare with verse 2 of the Dhammapada.”

Hearn, although not formally a Buddhist convert, wrote extensively about the beauty of Buddhist culture in Japan, and it’s nice to see this beauty preserved through the ages.

P.S. Ten more proverbs here.

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2 Comments on “Ten Great Buddhist Proverbs by Lafcadio Hearn”

  1. hemgan says:

    Thanks very much for posting this article. I found the proverbs very insightful. After reading each proverb, the thought went into meditative mood….thanks

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Hemgan and welcome to the JLR! :)

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