Haruki Murakami and Buddhist philosophy

An Arhat Reading a Sutra by Moonlight – Met Museum (public domain)

Over Christmas I read ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’, a novel by Haruki Murakami, in the English translation by Jay Rubin.  The strange tale of the protagonist, named Toru Okada, seemed to have a loose affinity with concepts and themes from Buddhist philosophy, which I briefly sketch out here,  but whether or not this affinity is the intention of the author or not I can’t say.

As a character, Toru seems to be regularly perplexed by what is happening around him, quite understandably as events become more eerie and sinister, but in fact this state of bewilderment seems to be a feature of his personality right from the beginning.

“Can you write poetry?” she asked.

“Poetry!?”  Poetry?  Did she mean … poetry? (p.9)

That Toru is fated to wrestle with powerful spiritual forces is foretold in his obligatory meetings with the spiritualist Mr Honda, in scenes that are at once both portentous and hilarious.

“Instead of a flower arrangement or a calligraphic scroll, the living room’s ceremonial alcove was filled with this huge television set, and Mr Honda always sat facing it, stirring the divining sticks on the table above his sunken hearth while NHK continued to blast out cooking shows, bonsai care instructions, news updates and political discussions.”

“Legal work might be the wrong thing for you, son,” said Mr Honda one day, either to me or to someone standing twenty yards behind me.

“It might?”

“Yes, it might.  The law presides over things of this world, in the end.  The world where shadow is shadow and light is light, yin is yin and yang is yang, I’m me and he’s him … But you don’t belong to that world, son.  The world you belong to is above that or below that.” (p.51)

And indeed, as things go, Toru does steadily become steadily more detached from the world.  Thus he loses his job at the legal office, his cat goes missing, his wife leaves him and he steadily becomes cut off from the ties of normal society.  At the same time, his own reaction to these events is to acquiesce in the resulting solitude.  Thus his grip on everyday reality can be loosened, due to these events, but perhaps also in ways that are symptomatic of his own placid personality.  We see this dissociation right from the start of the novel, when, spending day after day at home, he loses track of what day it is, and over the course of the novel, his ability to perceive the passage of time is further impaired.

In this way, his story can perhaps be seen as a sort of mirror image of that of the Buddha, who goes off and leaves behind his home and family to be alone.  In both cases, the cutting of the ties of familiarity precipitate the unusual psychological and spiritual developments that follow.  However, and again somewhat like the Buddha after leaving his home, Toru does have a series of puzzling yet ultimately purposeful meetings with a string of characters with mysterious personalities and powers, and this opens up a space for him to dimly intuit a more subtle and strange level of reality connected in mysterious ways with our world, and to act on the basis of that murky intuition.  Thus, as the cover blurb explains –

“the tidy suburban realities of Okada’s vague and blameless life … are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.”

Toru’s ‘bizarre journey’, however, is not so much out into the wide world, but rather through dreamlike states into a strange reality that interconnects with our own in mysterious ways.  Toru first discovers that the boundary between the real world and the dream world is strangely permeable when he has a sexual encounter with the mysterious Creta Kano in a dream.  Later on, he talks with her –

“Now, if you don’t mind, there’s something I’d like you to tell me.  You showed up in my dreams a few times.  You did this consciously.  You willed it to happen.  Am I right?”

“Yes, you are right,” said Creta Kano.  “It was an act of will.  I entered your consciousness and joined my body with yours.” (p.308)

The theme of what ordains events in the world, and especially whether death is foreordained, is one essential Buddhist theme which becomes important for various characters in the novel.  Mr Honda could foretell when people were destined to die, and in his younger years, shared his prognosis with his fellow soldier Lieutenant Mamiya during their dangerous military mission together.

“Lieutenant,” [Mr Honda] said after some time had passed.  He looked me straight in the eye.  “Of the four of us here, you will live the longest – far longer than you yourself would imagine.  You will die in Japan.” (p.149)

However, long life is not a blessing for Lieutenant Mamiya, who was soon after that thrown down a deep and empty well to his presumed death and left there by enemy soldiers.  In a vivid description of a quasi-spiritual experience that he had there, which questions what it really means to be dead and what it means to be alive, Lieutenant Mamiya explains –

“I feel as if, in the intense light that shone for a mere ten or fifteen seconds a day in the bottom of the well, I burned up the very core of my life, until there was nothing left.  That is how mysterious that light was to me.  … Even in the face of those monstrous Soviet tank units, even when I lost this left hand of mine, even in the hellish Soviet internment camps, a kind of numbness was all I felt.  …  Something inside me was already dead. … But, as Mr Honda predicted, I did not die there.  Or perhaps I should say that I could not die there.” (p.170)

There is perhaps an echo of this in the seemingly quirky advice given to Toru much later by the much older and deafer Mr Honda.

“It can be hard to wait for the flow to start,” he said, “but when you have to wait, you have to wait.  In the meantime, assume you’re dead.”

“You mean I should stay dead for now?” I asked.

“How’s that?”


“That’s it, son.  ‘Dying is the only way / For you to float free./ Nomonhan.’ ” (p.52)

Thus, paralleling the experience of Lieutenant Mamiya, the time when Toru intentionally tries to cross the barrier between the real world and the dream world comes with his decision to voluntarily isolate himself by climbing down into a deep empty well, where he is cut off from all sensation, and by which point he is already in some sense dead to the world.

“I was crouching down in total darkness.  All I could see was nothingness.  And I was part of this nothingness. … Soon my conscious mind began to slip away from my physical body.” (p.256)

“Before dawn, in the bottom of the well, I had a dream.  But it was not a dream.  It was something that happened to take the form of a dream.” (p.241)

When Toru’s uncle visits him, he gives Toru some perplexing advice, yet this turns out to trigger various events of crucial importance –

“You know what I think?”  I think what you ought to do is start by thinking about the simplest things and go from there.  For example, you could stand on a street corner somewhere day after day and look at the people who come by. … Spending plenty of time on something can be the most sophisticated form of revenge.”

“Revenge?!  What do you mean, ‘revenge’?  Revenge against whom?”

“You’ll understand soon enough,” said my uncle with a smile. (p.328)

Another significant moment is when he finally meets the above-mentioned Lieutenant Mamiya, who brings him a keepsake left to him by Dr Honda after he passes away.  However, Toru is perplexed when he opens the gift.

“I worked up a sweat removing layer after layer of carefully sealed wrapping paper, until a sturdy cardboard box emerged.  It was a fancy Cutty Sark gift box, but it was too light to contain a bottle of whisky.  I opened it, to find nothing inside.  It was absolutely empty.  All that Mr Honda had left me was an empty box.” (p.172)

Emptiness is a theme that recurs when Toru follows a mysterious guitar player and ends up angrily beating him up and eagerly opening his guitar case only to find that the guitar case has nothing in it.  However, in regard to the gift from Mr Honda, Lieutenant Mamiya later suggests –

“I wonder if it was not Mr Honda’s intention all along to bring the two of us together.  Perhaps he believed that it would be good for me to meet you and for you to meet me.  The division of keepsakes may well have been an excuse to have me visit you.  This may explain the empty box.  My visit to you itself would have been his keepsake.” (p.345)

The way that each such meeting has its own obscure purpose to play in the context of Toru’s life journey brings to mind the Chinese Buddhist concept of yuánfèn (缘分).  This is the idea of some hidden supernatural force that brings people together and pulls them apart, whether casual exchanges with strangers or the profound relationships of lovers.  It is perhaps similar to the ideas of fate, lot and destiny, as concerns real and meaningful connections that bind us together momentarily or lastingly. 

Thus the sisters Creta and Malta, who in their own different ways are able to harness powerful spiritual energies and have uncanny premonitions or realisations concerning Toru, later unpredictably vanish from his life, and he then comes across Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon.  Nutmeg, as a young child on board a wartime ship that was almost bombed by a submarine, seems to have had a powerful spiritual vision, about death and about the nature of reality as process of things just happening.

“This submarine has come up from the bottom of the ocean to kill us all, she thought, but there’s nothing strange about that, it could happen anytime.  It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone anywhere.  Everybody thinks its happening because of the war.  But that’s not true.  The war is just one of the things that could happen.” (p.398)

One obscure connection between characters is illustrated by a blue mark that Toru finds on his face when he emerges from the well.

“I brought my face up to the mirror and examined the mark with the utmost care.  Located just beyond the right cheekbone, it was about the size of an infant’s palm.  Its bluish colour was close to black, like the blue-black Mont Blanc ink that Kumiko always used.”

“I could think of only one thing that might have caused this, and that was my having passed through the wall in my predawn dreamlike illusion in the well, with the telephone woman leading me by the hand … The moment I passed through the wall, I had had the clear sensation of heat on my cheek – in the exact spot where I now had this mark.  Of course, whatever causal connection there might be between my passing through the wall and the forming of a mark on my face remained unestablished.” (p.286)

Not only this, but we later learn that Cinnamon’s father had also had the exact same mark on his face, although it is difficult to understand quite what the significance of this seemingly supernatural shared mark could be.

“The vet was a tall, handsome man in his late thirties, with a blue-black mark on his right cheek, the size and shape of a baby’s palm.” (p.400)

The intensity of Toru’s experiences in the well not only picks up on the mysterious premonition of Mr Honda, but also seems to parallel that of Lieutenant Mamiya in the well, who also writes to him –

“I was amazed to hear that you had spent time down in a well, for I, too, continue to feel myself strongly attracted to wells. … It may be that I continue to hope I will encounter something down there, that if I go down inside and simply wait, it will be possible for me to encounter a certain something.” (p.345)

However, unlike Lieutenant Mamiya, Toru does go down into the well and does indeed ‘encounter a certain something’ in his dreamlike otherworldly encounters, somehow combatting a malevolent energy inscrutably connected with his wife’s brother.  Further, Toru does almost die when the well unexpectedly starts filling up with water, yet the novel ends on a note of hope and optimism for Toru, in stark contrast with the sad case of Lieutenant Mamiya.  We can perhaps say that Toru is in some spiritual sense reborn and does indeed ‘float free’ as the result of this experience.

In conclusion, this whole work is fascinating, beautifully written and dense with ideas and striking characters.  Here I have only given a brief glimpse of a few things that I have continued to think about since reading it.  The novel certainly bears rereading in order to get a fuller appreciation of how different elements of the narrative, both mundane and otherworldly, have been subtly interwoven.  Reaching the end of the book, I can sympathise somewhat with Toru when he says –

“I shook my head.  Too many things were being left unexplained.  The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn’t understand a thing.” (p.286)

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