My father slowed the car, kept one hand on the steering wheel, and with his free hand, pointed to the sky. He said, “That is a beautiful sunset.” I couldn’t tell if he was so stunned by the beauty that he had to say something out loud or if he was trying to teach me what a beautiful sunset looked like. I analyzed the sky—rich bright purples, well-defined clouds reflecting a neon spectrum, and not one foreground obstruction—and accepted the fact that this sunset was beautiful, though I didn’t know precisely why.
What was the first thing you were taught was beautiful?
For Hayashi Yoken, it was Kinkakuji—the Temple of the Golden Pavilion—in Kyoto, Japan. Yoken was a stuttering Buddhist acolyte whose father constantly swore that the Temple of the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful building in the world. In 1950, Yoken burned down the six-century-old temple. He said “antipathy against beauty” drove him to destroy it. He expressed no regrets.
Yoken’s deed became the basis for Yukio Mishima’s 1956 nonfiction novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The novel explores Mizoguchi’s (as Yoken’s character is called) obsession with beauty and his desire to destroy the very thing that first defined beauty for him.
Because he stutters, Mizoguchi is “ugly,” caught on one side of a dichotomy that is at once personal and philosophical. While the war rages in the background, Mizoguchi considers the concept of beauty and the temple as its tangible representation through the lens of Buddhist teachings. For instance, when news of Japan’s surrender reach the temple, a priest recites “Nansen Kills a Kitten,” a koan that describes a dispute between two temples about a kitten:
The monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a kitten. Nansen held up the kitten and said, “You monks! If one of you can say a word, I’ll spare the cat. If you can say nothing, I will put it to the sword.” The monks, who had so much to say while they were arguing, now couldn’t answer. Nansen cut the cat in two. When Choshu returned and heard what happened, he slipped off his muddy sandals and set them on his head. Nansen said, “Choshu, if you’d been around, that kitten wouldn’t have died.”
Like any myth, “Nansen Kills a Kitten” is flexible enough that you can get different meanings out of it each time you think about it. The priest who introduces it in the book offers no explanation, and each time the story returns, characters work through what it means. Perhaps it means that instead of using violence, you can arbitrate disputes with a little clowning around. Perhaps Choshu represents Japan, humiliated with a filthy head. Or the kitten represents Beauty, which will always cause disharmony, and Choshu chooses to mar Beauty with a little gunk, thus offering alternative to total destruction.
Or the kitten is Beauty, which Mizoguchi tries to protect with Knowledge. He is obsessed and unlike Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is written in an omniscient third person point of view, we only get the young Buddhist’s point of view. The novel is almost a character study of obsession, moving between a desire to Understand the temple and the want to be freed from Knowledge, or in his case, incessant rationalization. By freeing his mind, will the temple’s destruction bring him a step closer to Enlightenment or Western Nihilism?
While the 1950s produced a lot of literature dealing with the destruction of buildings and cities, especially in Germany and Japan—called “rubble literature” (Trummeliteratur) and “atomic-bomb literature” (genbakubungaku), respectively—this novel stands apart because of the deliberate violence against a historical structure and the questions it creates. A priest destroying a temple is rather horrible, simultaneously an act of murder and suicide, along with a kind of spiritual treason, which is why in 1950, the Japanese media didn’t use Yoken’s name for fear that he would become a celebrity. And in the book, we end on a scene: a boy released into manhood, smoking a cigarette, watching the most beautiful building in the world burn. We close the book before the investigation begins, wondering whether the temple’s destruction was an individual act or an act influenced by growing up in wartime Japan. What really makes a man destroy his fetish? If he meets Buddha on the road, and he kills Buddha, like he is supposed to, does he do it for himself or because he’s learned he must?
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is too well done to offer any answers; it aims to get you asking questions. If you’re looking for a good nonfiction novel to add to your summer reading, you won’t do much better than this one.