Search This Blog

Friday 2 September 2011

Satori - ape, goat-man or deer?

I've come across the Japanese word Satori in several different contexts. Richard Freeman's Great Yokai Encyclopaedia (which I mentioned recently in Ningyo: the ugly little mermaid) describes a legendary Satori which is "a long-haired ape-like beast [that] can read minds and is therefore very hard to catch." I think this must be the creature shown in the picture (which I found on Wikimedia Commons).

The ape-like Satori is also discussed in a recent blog post by Dale Drinnon called "Pink Tentacle Abominable Yokai". However, Dale adds that the name Satori may be a direct transliteration of the European word Satyr, referring to a mythical creature composed of the upper half of a man and the lower half of a goat. The speculation is that the word was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th or 17th century.

Satori is also the Japanese word for "understanding", and this may have been conflated with a garbled version of the Satyr legend to transform the Satori into a mind-reading creature. Regarding Satori's ape-like incarnation, Dale writes: "When it encounters travellers passing through the mountains, the creature approaches them and begins speaking their thoughts aloud. Once the victims become thoroughly confused and disoriented, the Satori captures and eats them. It is said that an empty mind is the best protection against a Satori attack. Thinking nothing at all causes the creature to turn away in boredom or flee in fear."

The idea of an "empty mind" links to yet another meaning of Satori (and probably the most familiar meaning to Westerners) -- the moment of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. At the London Buddhist Society in the 1990s, the Venerable Myokyo-Ni and her pupil Martin Goodson (now the Venerable Sochu) used to recount a Zen fable called "The Satori Deer", about a creature which behaves in a very similar way to the Satori Ape described above. The following (slightly abridged) is taken from an article by Martin Goodson in the February 1997 issue of The Middle Way magazine:
A woodcutter went into the forest and began cutting down a tree. He happened to glance up and there on the other side of the clearing was a strange animal. It was rather like a deer but totally white from top to toe. As he looked at it the animal said: "You're wondering what I am". The man jumped in surprise, at which the animal said: "You're surprised that an animal has spoken". The man was flabbergasted. The Satori deer said: "You are beginning to think I am telepathic and can read your thoughts". The man shuffled from one foot to the other. The Satori deer said: "You are beginning to get a little irritated with me". And he was -- he was quite cross. The Satori deer went on and said: "You are thinking of picking up that axe and throwing it at my skull". The man picked up the axe and made a lunge for this creature, but of course the Satori deer knew exactly what he was going to do. Every time a thought occurred to him, the Satori deer could anticipate it by jumping the other way. So after several futile attempts the man decided that the best thing he could do was ignore the creature and just get on with cutting down the tree. The Satori deer said: "You're trying to ignore me and continue cutting down that tree". But as the man concentrated all his energy into cutting down the tree, the Satori deer spoke less and less until eventually he fell silent. The woodsman continued to cut down the tree with the Satori deer standing there waiting until, as the woodsman raised his axe, the axe-head broke away from the handle, flew across the clearing and killed the Satori deer stone dead. And that is how to kill the Satori deer.
In the Zen interpretation, the Satori deer represents the mental commentary that goes on all the time inside your head, which you're supposed to "kill" before you achieve enlightenment. No doubt the Zen version substituted a cute-looking deer, instead of a man-eating ape, because the thought of having to kill it has greater shock value. That's Zen for you!


Peni R. Griffin said...

Actually I think there's quite a lot of doubt about that. Deer are game animals; killing them to eat them is routine. Apes aren't, and they resemble humans, so killing them is much less intuitive.

And of course you don't kill deer with axes, but with projectile weapons - spears, arrows, guns. Livestock and our fellow men are the only things it's appropriate to kill with melee weapons like axes.

Andrew May said...

You may be right. To my mind, the story would make more sense if the mysterious animal was an ape rather than a deer, so I was speculating on why at some stage (apparently) the ape of traditional Japanese legend got transformed into a deer wen the story was told in the London Zen class. I think your theory is better than mine -- that in some sense killing a deer is more "politically correct" than killing an ape.