Esotericism. When an Englishman hears the word "esoteric," the first thing, probably, that comes into his head is Buddhism, the second the name of Mr. Sinnett or Mrs. Annie Besant. Matters stand somewhat differently in Japan. Not religion only, but every art, every pastime, here is or has been esoteric,—poetry, music, porcelain-making, fencing, football, even bone-setting, and cookery itself. Esotericism is not a unique mystery shrouding a special class of subjects. It is a general attitude of the mind at a certain stage, and a very natural attitude too, if one takes the trouble to look into it. Sensible men do not wear their hearts on their sleeves for daws to peck at. Why should an artist do so with his art? Why should he desecrate his art by initiating unworthy persons into its principles? Nor is it merely a question of advisability, or of delicacy and good taste. It is a question of possibility and impossibility. Only sympathetic pupils are fitted by nature to understand certain things; and certain things can only be taught by word of mouth, and when the spirit moves one. Moreover, there comes in the question of money. Esoteric teaching of the lower arts may be said to have per formed, in old days, the function of our modern system of patents. The institution of guilds belonged to the same order of ideas.
Such are, it would seem, the chief headings of the subject, considered in the abstract. Fill them out, if you please, by further reflection and further research; and if you wish to talk to your Japanese friends about esotericism, remember the fascinating words hiden, "secret tradition;" hijutsu, "secret art;" and okugi, "inner mysteries," which play a notable part in Japanese history and literature.
Many are the stories told of the faithful constancy with which initiation into hidden mysteries has been sought. Early in the tenth century there lived a great musician, a nobleman named Hakuga-no-Sammi. But one Semi-Maru was a greater musician still. He dwelt in retirement, with no other companion but his lute, and there was a melody of which he alone had the secret. Hakuga—as he may be styled for shortness sake—went every evening for three years to listen at Semi's gate, but in vain. At last, one autumn night, when the wind was soughing through the sedges, and the moon was half-hidden by a cloud, Hakuga heard the magic strains begin, and, when they ceased, he heard the player exclaim, "Alas! that there should be none to whom I might hand on this precious possession!" Thereupon Hakuga took courage. He entered the hermitage, prostrated himself, declared his name and rank, and humbly implored to be received by Semi as his disciple. This Semi consented to, and gradually revealed to him all the innermost recesses of his art.—According to Mr. E. H. Parker, this story, like many another Japanese story, is but the echo of a far older Chinese tradition. But whether true or false, whether native or foreign, it is a favourite motive with Japanese painters.
Undoubtedly authentic, and very different in its tenor, is the tale of Katō Tamikichi, a manufacturer of porcelain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. His master, Tsugane Bunzaemon, who owned a kiln in the province of Owari, envied the skill of the Karatsu porcelain-makers in the use of blue and white, and was determined to penetrate their secret. Accordingly he succeeded in arranging a marriage between one of his pupils, Katō Tamikichi, and the daughter of the chief of the Karatsu people. Katō, thus taken into the family in so distant a province, was regarded as one of themselves and admitted into their fullest confidence. Things went on quietly for years, during which he became the father of several children. At last, one day, Katō expressed an earnest desire to revisit the scenes of his childhood and to enquire after his old master. Nothing doubting, the Karatsu people let him go. But when he reached Owari, he disclosed to his former master all that he had learnt at Karatsu, the consequence of which was that Owari porcelain was greatly improved, and obtained an immense sale in the neighbouring market of Ōsaka, the richest in the empire. When this came to the ears of the Karatsu people, they were so much enraged that they caused Kato's wife and children to be crucified. He himself died a raving lunatic.
Since the latter part of the Middle Ages, the general prevalence among the upper classes of luxury, idleness, and a superstitious veneration for the past, even in trivial matters, together with a love of mystery, produced the most puerile whims. For instance, a certain noble family at Kyōto kept to itself, with all the apparatus of esotericism, the interpretation of the names of three birds and of three trees mentioned in an ancient book of poetry called the Kokinshū. No sacrament could have been more jealously guarded from impious hands, or rather lips. But when the great scholar, Motoori, disdaining all mumbo-jumbo, brought the light of true philological criticism to bear on the texts in question, lo and behold! one of the mysterious birds proved to be none other than the familiar wagtail, the second remained difficult to fix accurately, and the third name was not that of any particular species, but merely a general expression signifying the myriad little birds that twitter in spring. The three mysterious trees were equally commonplace.
Foolish as the three bird secret was (and it was but one among a hundred such), it had the power to save the life of a brave general, Hosokawa Yūsai, who, being besieged in A.D. 1600 by a son of the famous ruler Hideyoshi, was on the point of seeing his garrison starved into a surrender. This came to the ears of the Mikado; and His Majesty, knowing that Hosokawa was not only a warrior, but a learned man, well-versed in the mysteries of the Kokinshū—three birds and all—and fearing that this inestimable store of erudition might perish with him and be lost to the world for ever, exerted his personal influence to such good effect that an edict was issued commanding the attacking army to retire.
Viewed from a critical standpoint, Chinese and Japanese esoterics well deserve thorough investigation by some competent hand. We ourselves do not think that much would be added thereby to the world's store of wisdom. But we do think that a flood of light would be shed upon some of the most curious nooks and crannies of the human mind.