Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ryonosuke's "The Spider's Thread"

"The Spider's Thread" is a short fantasy tale that aims to impart a moral lesson on compassion and salvation. It is told within the framework of the Buddha in the garden of Paradise, but at the core of the story is a robber, Kandata. In the story, Kandata is suffering in Hell, but a small kindness he performed in life earns him a chance at redemption. The Buddha lowers a spider's thread into Hell and Kandata uses this to ascend. Miraculously, the thin thread supports not only Kandata but several other souls also attempting escape. In a fit of selfishness, Kandata scolds the souls behind him. At that moment, the thread breaks.

"Spider's Thread" is clearly meant to be just a story, not a canonical piece of religious text. Because of its theme and the elements that it uses, however, framing the text within a religious and philosophical structure would not be altogether inappropriate.

What does the story say? Kandata's chance at salvation comes because of the mercy that he showed a spider. He is ultimately damned because he refused to share that salvation with others. The central message of this story follows a variation of the Golden Rule: "It will be done unto you as you would do unto others." In the absence of a more concrete theology, the measure of morality all comes down to natural law.

There is something disturbing in the text, however, and it pertains to the utter lack of passion in the Buddha. Is the Buddha compassionate? He lowers the spider's thread for Kandata, yes, but this act stems from a desire for harmony and balance. Just as Kandata permitted a spider to live, Buddha offers Kandata an opportunity. When Kandata falls, that is that. There is no more effort to save Kandata, or any other soul. He returns to the contemplation of harmony in the garden of Paradise, sparing no more thought for the suffering souls. The Buddha is detached, yes, because the Buddha is cold. His ultimate goal is harmony.

This world-view underscores the deficiencies of Oriental philosophy vis-a-vis the seemingly more aggressive Western philosophy. It espouses passivity, and passivity leads to stagnation. Contentment is the primary virtue, and thus, there is no more will nor drive to move forward. This is the malaise that struck China and Japan up until the 19th century, thereby exposing them to European invasion.

Moreover, it is an unrealistic stance: Oriental philosophy optimistically hopes that the universe is intrinsically harmonious (as typified by the garden of Paradise in the story), with man being the disruptive force. But that is not the case: quite the opposite, the universe tends toward entropy, and it is man that establishes harmony and order because he can think and he can act.

With this in mind, we can deconstruct this story. We can see the Buddha not as a benevolent mystic but as a cruel tyrant, content to meditate and wander in his walled garden while the world outside is in chaos and his fellow men are in suffering. Buddha has the opportunity to save them, but does so only once, more out of a sense of obligation to the balance in the universe than any real compassion. We might say that the failure was Kandata's own fault, but what really are we supposed to expect? Kandata is a brigand, most likely ignorant (and we might ask, what of the factors that caused Kandata to follow that twisted path). Kandata acts according to his own upbringing. Buddha, supposedly the more enlightened one, should have and could have done more. Instead, he is content to once more shut himself from the world, meditate on his own goodness, and say: "I have done my part."

What is clearly lacking in the philosophy presented in this story is the virtue of forgiveness, specifically the forgiveness espoused in Christian philosophy. "How many times must I forgive my brother?" "Not seven times, but seventy times seven times." It is a latitude that Kandata would have appreciated. While Christians are capable of great sins, they are also capable of great repentance and greater forgivness.