The Speaking Skull

Translated from Nihon no Yurei Banashi

The Man who materialized before the Temple Gate

This is a tale that comes from about 1300 AD.   There was a temple in Nara prefecture called Kanko-ji, where lived a monk named Doutou.  Doutou had come from Koma province (modern day of northern Chosen peninsula), and was a very tender-hearted and compassionate person.  He noted one day that travelers had difficulty crossing the Uji river due to lack of a bridge, and so he supplied the funds from his personal savings to build a bridge for everyone’s use.  Acts such as this earned Doutou the respect and honor of everyone who knew him.

One day, Doutou was walking through the valley of Mt. Nara with his disciple Manryo.  Quite by accident while glancing on the wayside, he saw a skull that had tumbled down from somewhere.  The skull seemed to have had a hard time, being covered in mud and looking like it had been kicked around by travelers on the road. There was very little meat left clinging to the bone, and then only in small places.  Doutou felt very sorry for the poor skull, and turned around to talk to his disciple Manryo.

“Look at this poor skull, of nobody knows who.  People have been picking on it even when it is dead.  In order to protect it from this shameless behavior, the least we can do is place it in some tree away from trampling feet.”

As his mastered commanded, Manryo took the skull high up into a tree away from where it would be seen, and covered it with some branches to keep it hidden.

This happened on the evening of the closing of the year.

Soon after, a man appeared before the gates of Kanko-ji, asking to be shown inside.

“I have humbly come down from the mountains, with a request to see the one they call Manryo with my own eyes.  Could you please bring me before him?”

The man was infallibly polite in his greeting and manners, so the young man tending the gate guided him to Manryo.

Though Manryo had never seen the man before, his face had an odd familiarity about it.  This is what the man said:

“I am a man who is deeply indebted to you.  You have done me a tremendous service, and now I would like to return your generosity.  Although I have brought nothing with me now, I beg of you to return with me to my home so that I may properly repay you.”

For his part, Manryo did not understand at all.  However, because the petitioner had come with such heartfelt enthusiasm, he felt that the man must be telling the truth.

“How could I deny such a request from one so earnest?  I will come with you to your home.”

There was nothing for Manryo to do except for to accompany the man out of the temple gates.

A crime revealed

When he arrived at the man’s house, Manryo was presented with a dazzling feast.

“Please, please…take only your favorites, and lots of them!  Please!”

While saying this, the man began to enthusiastically gorge himself.  Manryo still wondered what he had done to deserve such rich rewards, but when he asked the man how exactly he had been of service, the man was quick to shut Manryo up by shoving delicious delicacies at him.  There seemed to be no end to the offered morsels.

Manryo, still a young man and given to worldly pleasures, was unable to resist.

“Alright, I will hear the reason later.  For now, I will simply enjoy the proffered feast!”

With that decided, Manryo dug into the food with as much enthusiasm as his mysterious companion.  Never in his life had he tasted such delicious foods, and he was eager to try them all.  Between the two of them, empty plates piled up like a mountain.

Eventually, enthusiasm gave way to physics as Manryo could stuff no more food into his eager body.  Thinking to relax, he was startled as he saw the man’s face suddenly turn a violent shade.

“Honored Manryo!  My brother who murdered me has just arrived!  There is no time to hesitate.  We must flee from here!  Come with me!”

Hearing this, Manryo was shocked out of his pleasant repose.

“What? What exactly are you saying?”

His voice trembling, the man answered.

“Many years ago my brother and I had a business together. From that business I was able to save 30 kin of gold (about 18 kilograms).  My brother himself saved nothing, and thought it easier to kill me one night and steal my 30 kin of gold.  For the longest time my body rotted in the forest, until nothing was left of me but my skull.  People walking along the road who saw me would only kick my skull out of the way like an inconvenience. It was terrible. But then, beyond all hope you came along and lifted me up from the dirt and saved me from my fate.”

“I thought about how I could possibly repay such a kindness, and so I came to your temple this evening to invite you to my house for this feast.”

To say that Manryo was surprised by this confession would be a gross understatement.  But even in his panic and confusion he realized that being caught in this house by the murderous brother was undesirable, and so he jumped to his feet.  But he was too slow in trying to escape, and he heard the door creak open and someone enter the house.

The shock was too much for him, and Manryo froze in fright.

The person at the door, however, was not the feared brother but instead the brother’s son accompanied by their mother.  She saw Manryo standing rigidly in her living room and shouted in fear.

“Ahhh!!! A monk! Why are you here inside my house!”

Manryo let the story he had just heard poor out in every detail.  He turned back to look over his shoulder and get confirmation from the man who had led him to this house, only to see nothing.

The mother listened to Manryo’s story with as much shock as Manryo had.  It was nothing like what she had heard before.   The mother was very angry towards her son who had killed his younger brother.  She looked down at the brother’s son and told him in her strictest voice.

“Your father is a terrible person!  You must pray for the spirit of your murdered uncle, and apologize for your father’s crime!”

The young boy did as he was directed, and removed his father from his heart to be replaced by honored instead his uncle who had been good and kind.

This story comes from the “Nihon Ryoiki,” Japan’s oldest collection of folktales and legends. That folktale collection was written in the 13th year of Konin (822 AD), and is mostly a collection didactic tales for teaching Buddhism.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Johnson
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 17:02:44

    You spelled “Steal” wrong. I think it’s on paragraph 25. ;D


  2. Zack Davisson
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 18:11:07

    Darn typos sneaking in … fixed! Thanks!


  3. han
    Feb 16, 2014 @ 00:26:34

    what happen to the brother i wonder…


  4. Itsuo Takita
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 12:32:07

    I grew up in Hawaii during the 30’s-50’s. My parents were immigrants from Aso-gun, Kumamoto-ken and they used to tell us stories of the “hi no tama” to discourage us from urinating on the grass. I notice you have nothing about them. Are they from Hawaii only?


  5. Ethan
    May 05, 2014 @ 03:30:43

    I thought it would of been Manyro’s commander who committed the crime


  6. mopacpl
    Apr 25, 2015 @ 13:04:49

    I think that potentially the origins of this story or type of story date back even farther than the 9th century folktale collection, or even before the emergence of Chan Buddhism. In the Zhuangzi, a canonical Daoist text along with the Laozi and Huainanzi, there is a story of Zhuang Zhou encountering a discarded skull on a wooded path and speaking with it. He asks the skull how it came to perish, or what miseries lead it to its death. Zhuang Zhou then falls asleep with his head upon the skull, and in a dream the skull speaks to him: “In death there is no lord above or subject below, nor any of the toils of the four seasons. Untrammelled we last out the spring and autumn of heaven and earth. Even the joy of a king on his south-facing throne cannot exceed it” (Graham, 2001; 125). Zhuang Zhou proceeds to ask the skull if it would choose to be resurrected if given the oppurtunity – it refuses, saying, “How could I refuse the joy of a king on his throne, to suffer again the toils of humankind?”

    As with other aspects of Daoism, I see the similarities especially with the Buddhist tradition, and it’s possible that this general format of story worked its way into Japan as did Chan. That format being a conversation with the disregarded remains of the dead, which leads to a realization about the craving and struggling nature of humans, and the necessity of respect for death and the dead. Although Daoists don’t necessarily prescribe specific respect for the dead or the process of death, the idea that it is incomprehensible and immaculate compared to the human world, is also present. But the particularly Japanese influence, at least the one I perceive the most, is the nature of the connection between the existences of the dead and the living – with the dead often struggling to be fully removed from the realm of living, something not present in Daoist tradition.

    Thought I might post these thoughts, if you like this sort of thing I recommend reading the Zhuangzi (particularly the Graham or Mair translations). The Laozi is pretty, but the Zhuangzi is deeper and hilarious-er and spookier I think.


  7. Zack Davisson
    Apr 27, 2015 @ 17:04:43

    That is very likely! Most of these early Japanese ghost stories have their origins in Chinese legends and Buddhist wonder tales. Thanks for the information!


  8. wistywistycandy
    May 30, 2016 @ 08:46:28

    これは私の好きな幽霊物語であります…. 多分
    It has a kinda happy ending without being too dark. (No, that’s not a translation of what I wrote. My sensei is making me practice kanji.)


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