:: Article

Four Fragments from the Prince’s Tomb

By Douglas Penick.

Hamonshu: A Japanese Book of Wave and Ripple Designs (1903)

The Prince Regent, Shotoku Taishi (572-622) was the legendary hero who, at the beginning of literacy in Japan, made Buddhism and Confucian governmental principals two of the foundation stones of Japanese culture. He wrote the earliest commentaries on Buddhist Sutras and commissioned the first histories in Japanese. He is also credited with beginning the traditions of Noh theater, archery, tea Ceremony, sculpture and architecture, among other cultural forms.

Six Hundred and fifty years later, the great treasure, the tapestry known as the Tenjukoku Mandara, showing Shotoku Taishi in celestial realms, was moved to the treasury of Chuguji convent, and a replica was made. Fires in the convent thirty-four and then again thirty-six years later destroyed all but a few elements from both versions of the curtains.

The remaining fragments are as follows:

There are five turtle shells with four characters on each.
There are four fragments of other turtle shells, and thus a total of twenty-five remaining characters.
There are red and green scarfs that float in the air
There is a red bird with a green palmetto branch in its beak, the great phoenix, the embodiment of the sun rising in the East;
To be placed in the West, the hare who lives in the moon, standing next to a cassia tree, using his mortar and pestle to make the elixir of immortality.
A standing man, most likely the Prince Regent, wearing the long red jacket of a Prime minister, tied at the waist with a cord, a pleated under-garment, long pants and pointed shoes. His hands are folded together within his sleeves.
Five women in court garb: loose jackets over long skirts. Three of the women have skirts with vertical stripes. And two have skirts with horizontal stripes.
There is a rider on horseback and a kneeling man, both holding stalks.
Some walk in procession to the East, others walk to the West
There are two blooming lotuses. One white, one red.
There are courtiers assembled in a temple to hear teachings.
There are courtiers in rows upon a portico watching a performance.
Men and women kneel, their hands together, holding flowers.
There are two monks, one striking a gong.

These were later sewn together in two columns of three scenes each. No one knows who made this arrangement or what his or her understanding of the original composition may have been. It is difficult to see the fragments clearly in the darkness of the chamber where they are kept.

But it is only such fragments that now create and recreate the bridges on which we move between what was then and what is now. There, the Prince Regent, Shōtoku Taishi, can still be seen in a range of uncertain forms moving among worlds that now have no name or place that is known.


Prince Kim Gyo-gak was a prince of the Korean Kingdom of Silla who became a monk, lived in a temple on Jiuhua for many years, and was revered as an incarnation of the Buddha’s disciple, Kshitigharba. He died at the age of ninety-nine. One of Prince Kim’s young attendants was packing up his library and found a sheaf of notes for a biography of the Japanese Prince Regent, Shōtoku Taishi who had died almost two centuries earlier.

This attendant, the sixth son from a family of scholars, was endowed with great, if undisciplined, curiosity. The sheaf of papers, consisted of documentary accounts translated from Japanese, as well as what seemed to be Prince Kim’s inward reflections and even dreams. The order and the links between sections were puzzling, but this attracted the attendant. He made a vow to complete Prince Kim’s work. He began by bringing order to the almost random assemblage of notes. He put the biographical elements in rough chronological order and interspersed the other elements on the basis of intuition.

The attendant, whose name was Li, was easily distracted. After Prince Kim’s death, he was assigned to work in the library, and his tasks there were often interrupted by special requests from higher ranking priests. His mind was also often carried away by all kinds of scheming and gossip. Nonetheless kept his vow and worked, albeit fitfully, on Prince Kim’s notes on Shōtoku Taishi for more than ten years.

As he approached the end of his task, he found himself filled with doubt, not just about the way in which he had made use of Prince Kim’s notes, but about his own life and his chosen path altogether. He was increasingly aware of the vast divide between the deep intentions which animated the texts, and his personal preoccupations. His meditation practice had almost disappeared in daily activities.

He reviewed what had become a little book and doubted that anyone would find it readable, much less comprehensible. And, even though he was strangely confident in the way he had assembled and edited the text, he was not sure that he comprehended it himself.  Completing the last section intensified all his uncertainties.

Many times, he was sure he had found an insight that would provide a focus to unite the work’s ever shifting themes and allow him to reach a conclusion. He would see what needed to be said, test it out by thinking of its shape and resonance, and write little jottings that would enable him to write the conclusion.

Then, confident he was ready, happy even, he would take a walk, chat, have tea, do some mundane library tasks until a few days had passed. When he finally sat down to do the work he was so anticipating, he would find only arid abstractions and deceptive rhetorical tricks.

Caught in such way of writing, he felt he was being carried off on streams of life into wide expanses of meaninglessness.

It is perhaps at the same time that, in the depths of discouragement, the librarian wrote:

We who dive into the oceans of words, who swim in the rivers of moments, images and insights which have been left for us, we, as we read, leave home and country. Friends and loved ones are left behind. Our ancestors, our beliefs, our spiritual goals, even the gods themselves, all are abandoned when our eyes find their place on the expanse of paper and give ourselves to words written there. What new realities are we searching for as we surrender our identity in thousands of stories?


A poet, long ago and far off, sang:

Seeing rare beauty, hearing ravishing sounds,
Even a happy man becomes unsettled.

He does not know it,
But love from some other life,
Buried and forgotten deep in his being,
Calls out to him.

Shortly after Shōtoku Taishi’s death: a spring of evil omens:

A bank of rainbow colored clouds blocked the sky except in the Northeast. A blue mist rose from the earth all around.
Peaches blossomed but flowers, leaves and herbs were crushed by hail.
The houses built for Imperial guests caught fire.
Hail an inch in diameter covered the province of Ohomi.
The water of the Mamuta pond stank and was filled with white grubs with black mouths.
Then they died and the whole pond was the color of indigo dye. The stench was even worse. The fish downstream were scorched and died and there was no more food.

Soga no Oho-Omi was ill. He could not attend court, but on his own authority granted his son, Prince Iruka, a purple cap and thus made him his own equal in rank.

A week later, Iruka initiated a plot to bypass, Shōtoku Taishi’s children, now called the Kamutsumiya Princes and to establish his own relatives on the throne.

It is written that the prestige and fame of the Kamitsumiya Princes caused Prince Iruka violent revulsion, and he wished desperately to supplant them.

In this month, the water in the Mamuta Pond again became clear.

At this time, the children were singing this song:

At the foot of the cliff,
A little monkey cooks rise:
Pass on by.
He has stolen even the rice,
O you Mountain goat, old man.

Three months later, Prince Iruka sent his followers and their slaves to seize the leader of the Kamitsumiya, Prince Yamashiro, his family and followers at Ikaruga Palace.

Yamashiro’s slaves fought valiantly to defend him and one in particular, a slave named Minari, killed several of the attackers with his bow and arrows. “Truly he is one equal to a thousand,” the plotters agreed and withdrew. But they set the temple on fire as they left.

Prince Yamashiro took the bones of a dead horse and threw them in his burning bed chamber; he then escaped with his consort, family and followers and went into hiding on Mount Ikoma. Other Princes and their entourages followed him.

When the palace was burned to the ground, the attackers found the bones and concluded that the Prince was dead. They raised the siege and withdrew.

Prince Yamashiro, his family and followers hid in the mountains for five days. They had neither food nor water and knew they would have to move. One of the Prince’s brothers urged him to go to their allies in the Eastern provinces, raise an army, and return to make war on the Soga Prince, Iruka.

He is a despot, rash and feared more than loved. Undoubtedly, you will defeat him in two years.

My brother, what you say is true. But ultimately, this will be a war about which man will take the throne. Ten of thousands will be uprooted, maimed and killed simply to determine the fate of a single man. I cannot find it in my heart to impose such a great burden on the people. I do not wish future generations to say that they have lost their fathers, mothers, sons or daughters on my account.

Dear friends, do we call someone a hero only if they are victorious? Is it not equally heroic and virtuous to bring stability to the land at the cost of one’s own life?

A stranger travelling through the mountains saw from afar the encampment of Prince Yamashiro, and reported on this to Prince Iruka. Iruka’s followers insisted that he must go at once and attack his enemy. Prince Iruka then ordered the captain of the Imperial guard to go, but the Captain reused to abandon his post. Iruka was about to go himself, but his younger brother, the one whom Iruka wished to make Emperor, ran to him and said. “The rat stays in his hole and lives, if he goes out, he will die.” So Prince Iruka assembled an army and sent another to lead it. They searched all around Mount Ikoma for days, but found no one. After several weeks, they withdrew.

While all of this transpired, Prince Yamashiro led his family, followers, attendants and armed slaves to the Temple at Ikaruga. There Prince Iruka had the temple promptly surrounded by many men.

Prince Yamashiro sent a message to the commanders of the troops surrounding him:

Had I wished to raise an army and attack Prince Iruka, I would have prevailed without doubt. But for the sake of one person, I am unwilling to destroy the people. Therefore, I deliver myself up to you and Prince Iruka.

Prince Yamashiro, his consorts, children, family and retainers then took refuge in the upper floor of the pagoda of the temple. There, they committed suicide by hanging themselves.

Many who had gathered outside the palace looked on in horror Some saw a flock of red cranes fly from the windows. Everyone saw rainbow colored banners and umbrellas shine in the sky above the temple, and the air was filled with celestial music.

Messengers came to Prince Iruka who was waiting nearby, and pointed at this great display. But at the very minute he looked into the sky, the rainbows and umbrellas became a black cloud and he could not see them.

When Iruka’s father, Soga no Oho, heard of this, he said: “Iruka, Iruka. Only a fool would have created such an outrage. Your life now is on the precipice.”

And thus, the children’s song was interpreted by men and women and far and wide: “The cliff” is the Ikaruga Place; the little monkey is Iruka; cooking rice is the burning of the palace; and the last line refers to Prince Yamashiro’s head of hair, known to be streaked with gray, like the head of a goat.

Two years later, Ikuru was assassinated. His father, hearing the news, died.


And what,
Like dust appearing on the surface of the waves
Now gathers
And reflects hidden currents
In the momentum
We call now?

A questioning twinge,
A sudden sense of loss:
Begins this momentary
A name
And a fragment
Of our past.


Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, the Utne Reader, among others. He has written novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), spiritual chaos (Dreamers and Their Shadows), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 6th, 2019.