Covered in gold leaf and adorned with a golden phoenix on its roof, The Golden Pavilion (or Kinkaku-ji) is one of the most visited and photographed buildings in Japan.
Built in Kyoto in 1398, the pavilion was a retirement villa for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and following his death it was converted into a Buddhist temple.
Now, at first, this might seem like a bit of an odd decision. After all, Buddhism is not typically associated with bling; however, there are different branches and sects of Buddhism that are less austere than others. One of which being: Pure Land.
Pure Land was a sect of Buddhism popular in Japan during the 1300s. It focused on faith rather than action and, from what I’ve read, it offered followers the possibility of Paradise/Nirvana (or the Pure Land) without all the pesky meditation, rituals and good deeds type stuff.
A kind of “Buddh-lite”, if you will.
Pure Land also promised followers a paradise of gold and silver pavilions after death. Pavilions that looked exactly like the Shogun’s retirement villa. So, by turning the gold-clad, three-storied structure overlooking the Kyoko Pond into a place of worship, Zen Buddhists had been gifted a literal paradise on Earth.
Unfortunately, as I’ve written about before, paradise is not for everyone. And in 1950, 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, lit a match and burned the Golden Temple to the ground.
At his trial, the “crazed, ugly, stammering” young man showed no regret or remorse for his actions. He also refused to explain his crime and infered that the building had it coming; it was just too beautiful.
And, Hayashi Yoken, hated beauty.
When Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, heard about the razing of the Golden Temple and of the “mad” monk responsible he was instantly captivated. He gathered as much information as he could about the event, and the arsonist, and then wrote a fictionalised account of the incident called: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
In the book, young Buddhist acolyte, Mizoguchi, is tormented throughout his life by the dazzling structure. As a child, his father proclaims –
“There is nothing on this earth so beautiful as the Golden Temple”The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima, p.21
And so begins Mizoguchi’s difficult relationship with both the temple and the concept of beauty. When the young monk is sent to the temple to study, this relationship becomes an obsession, with the Golden Temple and thoughts of it infecting every aspect of his life — even his first sexual experience.
Mizoguchi’s circular thoughts and bizarre philosophising can make for a challenging read. They also make him a difficult character to identify with. However, there is one scene, early in the book, that I would argue many readers will have experienced in their own life.
And it’s not burning down a sacred site. I hope.
The scene occurs early in the book. Mizoguchi is in his early teens and his father takes him to Kyoto so he can lay his eyes on the Golden Temple for the first time. However, after years of hearing about the temple, when he finally sees it, Mizoguchi is…underwhelmed:
“I changed my angle of vision a few times and bent my head in various directions. But the temple aroused no emotion within me. It was merely a small, dark, old, three-storied building.”The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima, p. 24
Many of us who love to travel may not like to admit it, but we have all experienced something similar.
Whether it be the pyramids of Giza, the Grand Canyon, or the Golden Temple, sometimes, after many months of planning, saving and daydreaming the thing we’ve been dying to see turns out to be a disappointment.
And it’s not so much that the landmarks we’ve wanted to see for so long aren’t impressive or special, it’s more that the whole experience of finally seeing them just doesn’t feel the way we thought it would. We are not moved by them. Nothing moves in us. And that can be upsetting. And unsettling.
You might ask yourself:
“Why don’t I feel anything?”
“Isn’t this what I came all this way to see?
“Then, why don’t I love it?“
And to that I say:
Don’t worry about it.
Just keep your eyes open.
Maybe in a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days you’ll see something that knocks your socks off. Something that wasn’t even on the itinerary. Something you had no idea even existed.
But until then, do like Mizoguchi does: and keep your disappointment to yourself.
But that’s the only thing you should do that Mizoguchi does.
Beauty Itself Became a Deadly Enemy
May 31, 1959 Beauty Itself Became a Deadly Enemy By DONALD KEENE By Yukio Mishima. Translated by Ivan Morris from the…
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima, 1959, Tuttle Books