Ep. 054: Two Deaths in the Tale of the Heike

An exploration of "mono no aware"

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From time to time I'll be sharing well-known stories from Japanese and Chinese culture. These Episodes are not based on any of my journeys--thus, no original pictures!--but they should help round out our understanding a little. (I'll illustrate them from public domain sources as much as possible.) So please enjoy this episode of--


A Little Background

The battle of Dan-no-Ura (Wikipedia)

The Japanese Heike Monogatari ("The Tale of the Heike") is a collection of stories compiled sometime before 1330 that tells of real and romanticized events during the Genpei War (1180-1185), a struggle between the Minamoto (also called the "Genji") and Taira (also called the "Heike") clans. (Genpei is composed of alternate pronunciations of each name: Gen equals Minamoto, and Hei equals Taira, but the h is pronounced p after n. Japanese is complex!).

The Tale of the Heike has been compared to The Iliad. It is a dramatization of a civil war--in this case, at least, a very real one. Many of its stories reflect the Japanese esthetic idea mono no aware, or "the pathos of things," an awareness of impermanence, the transience of things, which results in both sadness at the passing of particular things, as well as a deeper sadness at the nature of reality. Neither is an intense grief, however, but a gentle, wistful feeling.

I have retold the two stories here. The first is based on Chapter II of W. G. Aston's A History of Japanese Literature (1899), and the second from the A. L. Sadler translation of the Heike Monogatari (and here’s the more modern one by Royall Tyler). These two stories are among the best-known and deepest expressions of mono no aware.

I. The Death of the Boy Emperor Antoku

Antoku, the tragic Boy Emperor (Wikipedia)

The Minamoto fleet had decisively beaten the Heike in the great sea battle of Dan-no-ura, due to the treachery of the Taira general Taguchi Shigeyoshi. This turncoat had not only attacked his own fleet from the rear, but had given the Minamoto a crucial piece of information: the identity of the ship bearing the six-year-old Emperor Antoku ("Peaceful Virtue") and his nursemaid, the Buddhist nun Nii no Ama, "Nun of the Second Rank." She was in fact his grandmother, Taira no Tokiko, widow of the late Taira no Kiyomori, he who had been regent over the infant Emperor.

When the young Emperor's position was revealed, the Minamoto archers turned on him like wolves on a rabbit, firing at the rowers and helmsmen until the ship was disabled. Seeing the battle turn against them, many samurai of the Taira army committed suicide.

Knowing the end was near, the formidable old nun took the boy Emperor in her arms. She had long prepared herself for this possibility, and knew what to do. Throwing her double garment over her head, and tucking up her straw-colored silken trousers, she placed the Sacred Seal of the Emperor under one arm, and donned the Sacred Sword, one of Japan's Three Imperial Regalia. With her other arm, she took the young Emperor to her breast, and announced, "Although I am 'only a woman,' I will not allow the enemy to lay hands on me. I will accompany my sovereign. All who honor him, make haste and follow." Saying this, she calmly placed her foot on the railing of the ship.

The Emperor looked much older than his six years, his jet-black hair hanging loosely down his back, his august countenance so beautiful that it seemed to cast a halo about him. With an astonished expression he inquired, "Now, where do you plan to take me, Amazé?" (This last is a title for nuns.)

Setting him down, Nii no Ama turned her face to her child-lord, and with scattering tears, replied, "Do you not know, my lord, that although your good karma has caused you to be born into this world as the ruler of great armies, you have become involved in an evil destiny, and your good fortune is now at an end? Now be pleased to turn first to the east, and bid farewell to the shrine of the Great God at Ise. Then turn to the west, and call upon the name of Amitabha Buddha, solemnly committing yourself to the care of those who will come to meet you from the Western Pure Land.

"This world is the region of sorrow, a remote place small as a grain of rice. But beneath the waves there is a fair city called the Pure Land of Perfect Happiness. There it is that I am taking you." With these words she soothed him. The child then tied up his top-knot and tearfully joined together his lovely little hands. First he turned to the east, and bade farewell to the shrine of the Great God at Ise. Next he turned to the west, and called upon the name of Amitabha Buddha.

Nii-no-Ama takes her grandson Emperor Antoku into the Dragon's realm (Wikipedia)

When he had done so, Nii no Ama boldly took him in her arms, and soothing him with the words, "There is a city away below the waves," leaped in and sank down to the bottom one thousand fathoms deep.

Alas, the pity of it!--the changing tides of spring swiftly scattered the flowery august form. Alas, the pain of it!--the rude severing billows buried the jewel person. His palace in Hei'an had been Chosei, "Long Life," to denote that it was established as his long abode; and the gate inscribed Furo, "Avoid Old Age," that is, the portal through which old age enters not. But before reaching age ten he had become a current on the ocean's floor. In the case of such a virtuous monarch it would be wholly idle to talk of reward and retribution. It is as if a dragon of the region above the clouds descended and became a fish.

To this day, fishermen in the area where the battle took place see on the shells of crabs the face of the drowned Taira courtiers. This "Heike crab" is regularly thrown back in homage.

II. The Death of Atsumori

Once again, the Heike had been routed, this time at Ichi-no-tani ("Number One Valley"), and their nobles and courtiers were fleeing to the shore to escape by ship. It was just then that Kumagai Jiro Naozane came riding along a narrow path onto the beach, intending to intercept one of the great captains.

Kumagai (right) descends on Atsumori, still in the water (left) (Wikipedia)

Immediately Kumagai's eye fell on a single horseman who was attempting to reach one of the ships standing offshore, and had swum his horse out some twenty yards from the water's edge. He was richly attired in a silken samurai jacket and trousers embroidered with storks; the lacing of his armor was shaded green, his helmet was surmounted by lofty horns, and the sword he wore was bright with gold. His twenty four arrows had black and white feathers, and he carried a black-lacquered bow bound with rattan. The horse he rode was dappled grey, and its saddle glittered with gold mounting.

Not doubting that this was one of the chief captains, Kumagai beckoned to him with his war fan, crying out: "Shameful! to show an enemy your back. Return! Return!" Then the warrior turned his horse and guided him back to the beach, where he and Kumagai at once grappled in mortal combat. Quickly hurling him to the ground, Kumagai sprang upon him and tore off his helmet to cut off his head, when he beheld the face of a youth of sixteen or seventeen, delicately powdered and with elegantly blackened teeth, just about the age of his own son, and with features of great beauty.

"Who are you?" Kumagai enquired; "Tell me your name, for I would spare your life."

"Nay, first say who you are," replied the young man.

"I am Kumagai Jiro Naozane of Musashi, a person of no particular importance."

"Then you have made a good capture," said the youth. "Take my head and show it to some of my side and they will tell you who I am."

"Though he is one of their leaders," mused Kumagai, "if I slay him it will not turn defeat into victory, and if I spare him, it will not turn victory into defeat. When my son Kojiro was but slightly wounded at Ichi-no-tani, did it not make my heart bleed? How pitiful then to put this youth to death."

And so he was about to set him free, when, looking behind him, he saw other Minamoto warriors, Doi and Kajiwara, coming up with fifty horsemen. "Alas! look there," he exclaimed, the tears running down his face, "though I would spare your life, the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your re-birth in bliss."

"Indeed it must be so," said the young warrior, "so take my head at once."

Then Kumagai, weeping bitterly, and so overcome by his compassion for the fair youth that his eyes swam and his hand trembled such that he could scarcely wield his blade, hardly knowing what he did, at last cut off his head. "Alas!" he cried, "what life is as hard as that of a soldier? Only because I was born of a warrior family must I suffer this affliction! How regrettable it is to do such cruel deeds!" And he pressed his face to the sleeve of his armor and wept bitterly.

Atsumori playing the flute (Wikipedia)

Then, wrapping up the head, he was stripping off the young man's armor when he discovered a flute in a brocade bag that he was carrying in his sash. "Ah," he exclaimed, "this was the youth who was amusing himself with music within the walls in the small hours this morning. Among all our men I doubt if there is even one who has brought a flute with him. How refined are these courtiers of the Heike!"

And when he brought the head and the flute and showed them to the Commander, all who saw them were moved to tears; and he then discovered that the youth was Taiyu Atsumori, youngest son of Shuri-no-taiyu Tsunemori, aged seventeen years. From this time the mind of Kumagai was turned toward the religious life; eventually he became a monk.

Kumagai riding backward. Legend says that--between beheading Atsumori and becoming a monk--Kumagai vowed always to face West, the direction of Amitabha, even when on horseback! (Wikipedia)

That flute was one which Atsumori's grandfather Tadamori, who was a famous player, had received as a present from the Emperor Toba, and had handed down to his father Tsunemori, who had given it to Atsumori because of his skill on the instrument. And the flute's name was Saeda, "Little Branch."

Of this story of Kumagai we may quote the saying that "in even the most amusing and frivolous farce there is the germ of a Buddhist Psalm."


Ahh, mono no aware. Hearing of the deaths of these two boys really brings it home!

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


I have enabled comments for this post. Please feel free to respond!

Story I

  1. Did Nii no Ama do the right thing?

  2. Was it right that the Minamoto warriors should target a six-year-old boy and an old woman?


Story II

  1. Was Kumagai right to kill Atsumori?

  2. Why does it matter that Atsumori, an armed warrior, was only 16 or 17? And that he played the flute?

  3. Is it understandable that Kumagai would become a monk?


  1. Can you give other examples of mono no aware?

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In the next episode: When we visited the pagoda of Linji (called in Japanese Rinzai), I mentioned Rinzai and Soto and another sect of Buddhism in Japan: Obaku. Let's visit its mother temple in China, Huangbo Shan Wanfu Temple, and explore a "Tale of Two Temples."