About the year 1680 there stood an old temple on a wild pine-clad mountain near the village of Kisaichi, in the Province of Inaba. The temple was far up in a rocky ravine. So high and thick were the trees, they kept out nearly all daylight, even when the sun was at its highest. As long as the old men of the village could remember the temple had been haunted by a shito dama and the skeleton ghost (they thought) of some former priestly occupant. Many priests had tried to live in the temple and make it their home but all had died. No one could spend a night there and live.
At last, in the winter of 1701, there arrived at the village of Kisaichi a priest who was on a pilgrimage. His name was Jogen, and he was a native of the Province of Kai.
Jogen had come to see the haunted temple. He was fond of studying such things. Though he believed in the shito dama form of spiritual return to earth, he did not believe in ghosts. As a matter of fact, he was anxious to see a shito dama, and, moreover, wished to have a temple of his own. In this wild mountain temple, with a history which fear and death prevented people from visiting or priests inhabiting, he thought that he had (to put it in vulgar English) 'a real good thing.' Thus he had found his way to the village on the evening of a cold December night, and had gone to the inn to eat his rice and to hear all he could about the temple.
Jogen was no coward; on the contrary, he was a brave man, and made all inquiries in the calmest manner.
'Sir,' said the landlord, 'your holiness must not think of going to this temple, for it means death. Many good priests have tried to stay the night there, and every one has been found next morning dead, or has died shortly after daybreak without coming to his senses. It is no use, sir, trying to defy such an evil spirit as comes to this temple. I beg you, sir, to give up the idea. Badly as we want a temple here, we wish for no more deaths, and often think of burning down this old haunted one and building a new.'
Jogen, however, was firm in his resolve to find and see the ghost. 'Kind sir,' he answered, 'your wishes are for my preservation; but it is my ambition to see a shito dama, and, if prayers can quiet it, to reopen the temple, to read its legends from the old books that must lie hidden therein, and to be the head priest of it generally.'
The innkeeper, seeing that the priest was not to be dissuaded, gave up the attempt, and promised that his son should accompany him as guide in the morning, and carry sufficient provisions for a day.
Next morning was one of brilliant sunshine, and Jogen was out of bed early, making preparations. Kosa, the innkeeper's twenty-year-old son, was tying up the priest's bedding and enough boiled rice to last him nearly two full days. It was decided that Kosa, after leaving the priest at the temple, should return to the village, for he as well as every other villager refused to spend a night at the weird place; but he and his father agreed to go and see Jogen on the morrow, or (as some one grimly put it) 'to carry him down and give him an honourable funeral and decent burial.'
Jogen entered fully into this joke, and shortly after left the village, with Kosa carrying his things and guiding the way. The gorge in which the temple was situated was very steep and wild. Great moss-clad rocks lay strewn everywhere. When Jogen and his companion had got half-way up they sat down to rest and eat. Soon they heard voices of persons ascending, and ere long the innkeeper and some eight or nine of the village elders presented themselves.
'We have followed you,' said the innkeeper, 'to try once more to dissuade you from running to a sure death. True, we want the temple opened and the ghosts appeased; but we do not wish it at the cost of another life. Please consider!'
'I cannot change my mind,' answered the priest. 'Besides, this is the one chance of my life. Your village elders have promised me that if I am able to appease the spirit and reopen the temple I shall be the head priest of the temple, which must hereafter become celebrated.'
Again Jogen refused to listen to advice, and laughed at the villagers' fears. Shouldering the packages that had been carried by Kosa, he said:
'Go back with the rest. I can find my own way now easily enough. I shall be glad if you return to-morrow with carpenters, for no doubt the temple is in sad want of repairs, both inside and out. Now, my friends, until to-morrow, farewell. Have no fear for me: I have none for myself.'
The villagers made deep bows. They were greatly impressed by the bravery of Jogen, and hoped that he might be spared to become their priest. Jogen in his turn bowed, and then began to continue his ascent. The others watched him as long as he remained in view, and then retraced their steps to the village; Kosa thanking the good fortune that had not necessitated his having to go to the temple with the priest and return in the evening alone. With two or three people he felt brave enough; but to be here in the gloom of this wild forest and near the haunted temple alone--no: that was not in his line.
As Jogen climbed he came suddenly in sight of the temple, which seemed to be almost over his head, so precipitous were the sides of the mountain and the path. Filled with curiosity, the priest pressed on in spite of his heavy load, and some fifteen minutes later arrived panting on the temple platform, or terrace, which, like the temple itself, had been built on driven piles and scaffolding.
At first glance Jogen recognised that the temple was large; but lack of attention had caused it to fall into great dilapidation. Rank grasses grew high about its sides; fungi and creepers abounded upon the damp, sodden posts and supports; so rotten, in fact, did these appear, the priest mentioned in his written notes that evening that he feared the spirits less than the state of the posts which supported the building.
Cautiously Jogen entered the temple, and saw that there was a remarkably large and fine gilded figure of Buddha, besides figures of many saints. There were also fine bronzes and vases, drums from which the parchment had rotted off, incense-burners, or koros, and other valuable or holy things.
Behind the temple were the priests' living quarters; evidently, before the ghost's time, the temple must have had some five or six priests ever present to attend to it and to the people who came to pray.
The gloom was oppressive, and as the evening was already approaching Jogen bethought himself of light. Unpacking his bundle, he filled a lamp with oil, and found temple-sticks for the candles which he had brought with him. Having placed one of these on either side of the figure of Buddha, he prayed earnestly for two hours, by which time it was quite dark. Then he took his simple meal of rice, and settled himself to watch and listen. In order that he might see inside and outside the temple at the same time, he had chosen the gallery. Concealed behind an old column, he waited, in his heart disbelieving in ghosts, but anxious, as his notes said, to see a shito dama (dead spirit ball).
For some two hours he heard nothing. The wind--such little as there was--sighed round the temple and through the stems of the tall trees. An owl hooted from time to time. Bats flew in and out. A fungusy smell pervaded the air.
Suddenly, near midnight, Jogen heard a rustling in the bushes below him, as if somebody were pushing through. He thought it was a deer, or perhaps one of the large red-faced apes so fond of the neighbourhood of high and deserted temples; perhaps, even, it might be a fox or a badger.
The priest was soon undeceived. At the place whence the sound of the rustling leaves had come, he saw the clear and distinct shape of the well-known shito dama. It moved first one way and then another, in a hovering and jerky manner, and from it a voice as of distant buzzing proceeded; but--horror of horrors!--what was that standing among the bushes?
The priest's blood ran cold. There stood the luminous skeleton of a man in loose priest's clothes, with glaring eyes and a parchment skin! At first it remained still; but as the shito dama rose higher and higher the ghost moved after it--sometimes visible, sometimes not.
Higher and higher came the shito dama, until finally the ghost stood at the base of the great figure of Buddha, and was facing Jogen.
Cold beads of sweat stood out on the priest's forehead; the marrow seemed to have frozen in his bones; he shook so that he could hardly stand. Biting his tongue to prevent screaming, he dashed for the small room in which he had left his bedding, and, having bolted himself in, proceeded to look through a crack between the boards. Yes! there was the figure of the ghost, still seated near the Buddha; but the shito dama had disappeared.
None of Jogen's senses left him; but fear was paralysing his body, and he felt himself no longer capable of moving--no matter what should happen. He continued, in a lying position, to look through the hole.
The ghost sat on, turning only its head, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, and sometimes looking upwards.
For full an hour this went on. Then the buzzing sound began again, and the shito dama reappeared, circling and circling round the ghost's body, until the ghost vanished, apparently having turned into the shito dama; and after circling round the holy figures three or four times it suddenly shot out of sight.
Next morning Kosa and five men came up to the temple. They found the priest alive but paralysed. He could neither move nor speak. He was carried to the village, dying before he got there.
Much use was made of the priest's notes. No one else ever volunteered to live at the temple, which, two years later, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. In digging among the remains, searching for bronzes and metal Buddhas, villagers came upon a skeleton buried, only a foot deep, near the bushes whence Jogen had first heard the sounds of rustling.
Undoubtedly the ghost and shito dama were those of a priest who had suffered a violent death and could not rest.
The bones were properly buried and masses said, and nothing has since been seen of the ghost.
All that remains of the temple are the moss-grown pedestals which formed the foundations.