I WAS puzzled by the phrase, "silkworm-moth eyebrow," in an old Japanese, or rather Chinese proverb:--The silkworm-moth eyebrow of a woman is the axe that cuts down the wisdom of man. So I went to my friend Niimi, who keeps silkworms, to ask for an explanation.
"Is it possible," he exclaimed, "that you never saw a silkworm-moth? The silkworm-moth has very beautiful eyebrows."
"Eyebrows?" I queried, in astonishment.
"Well, call them what you like," returned Niimi;--"the poets call them eyebrows. . . . Wait a moment, and I will show you."
He left the guest-room, and presently returned with a white paper-fan, on which a silkworm-moth was sleepily reposing.
"We always reserve a few for breeding," he said;--"this one is just out of the cocoon. It cannot fly, of course: none of them can fly.
Now look at the eyebrows."
I looked, and saw that the antennæ, very short and feathery, were so arched back over the two jewel-specks of eyes in the velvety head, as to give the appearance of a really handsome pair of eyebrows.
Then Niimi took me to see his worms.
In Niimi's neighborhood, where there are plenty of mulberry-trees, many families keep silkworms;--the tending and feeding being mostly done by women and children. The worms are kept in large oblong trays, elevated upon light wooden stands about three feet high. It is curious to see hundreds of caterpillars feeding all together in one tray, and to hear the soft papery noise which they make while gnawing their mulberry-leaves. As they approach maturity, the creatures need almost constant attention. At brief intervals some expert visits each tray to inspect progress, picks up the plumpest feeders, and decides, by gently rolling them between forefinger and thumb, which are ready to spin. These are dropped into covered
boxes, where they soon swathe themselves out of sight in white floss. A few only of the best are suffered to emerge from their silky sleep,--the selected breeders. They have beautiful wings, but cannot use them. They have mouths, but do not cat. They only pair, lay eggs, and die. For thousands of years their race has been so well-cared for, that it can no longer take any care of itself.
It was the evolutional lesson of this latter fact that chiefly occupied me while Niimi and his younger brother (who feeds the worms) were kindly explaining the methods of the industry. They told me curious things about different breeds, and also about a wild variety of silkworm that cannot be domesticated:--it spins splendid silk before turning into a vigorous moth which can use its wings to some purpose. But I fear that I did not act like a person who felt interested in the subject; for, even while I tried to listen, I began to muse.
First of all, I found myself thinking about a delightful revery by M. Anatole France, in which he says that if he had been the Demiurge, he would have put youth at the end of life instead of at the beginning, and would have otherwise so ordered matters that every human being should have three stages of development, somewhat corresponding to those of the lepidoptera. Then it occurred to me that this fantasy was in substance scarcely more than the delicate modification of a most ancient doctrine, common to nearly all the higher forms of religion.
Western faiths especially teach that our life on earth is a larval state of greedy helplessness, and that death is a pupa-sleep out of which we should soar into everlasting light. They tell us that during its sentient existence, the outer body should be thought of only as a kind of caterpillar, and thereafter as a chrysalis;--and they aver that we lose or gain, according to our behavior as larvæ, the power to develop wings under the mortal wrapping. Also they tell us not to trouble ourselves about the fact that we
see no Psyché-imago detach itself from the broken cocoon: this lack of visual evidence signifies nothing, because we have only the purblind vision of grubs. Our eyes are but half-evolved. Do not whole scales of colors invisibly exist above and below the limits of our retinal sensibility? Even so the butterfly-man exists,--although, as a matter of course, we cannot see him.
But what would become of this human imago in a state of perfect bliss? From the evolutional point of view the question has interest; and its obvious answer was suggested to me by the history of those silkworms,--which have been domesticated for only a few thousand years. Consider the result of our celestial domestication for--let us say--several millions of years: I mean the final consequence, to the wishers, of being able to gratify every wish at will.
Those silkworms have all that they wish for,--even considerably more. Their wants, though very simple, are fundamentally identical with the necessities of mankind,--food, shelter, warmth, safety, and comfort. Our endless social struggle is mainly for these things. Our dream of heaven is the dream of obtaining them free of cost in pain; and the condition of those silkworms is the
realization, in a small way, of our imagined Paradise. (I am not considering the fact that a vast majority of the worms are predestined to torment and the second death; for my theme is of heaven, not of lost souls. I am speaking of the elect--those worms preordained to salvation and rebirth.) Probably they can feel only very weak sensations: they are certainly incapable of prayer. But if they were able to pray, they could not ask for anything more than they already receive from the youth who feeds and tends them. He is their providence,--a god of whose existence they can be aware in only the vaguest possible way, but just such a god as they require. And we should foolishly deem ourselves fortunate to be equally well cared-for in proportion to our more complex wants. Do not our common forms of prayer prove our desire for like attention? Is not the assertion of our "need of divine love" an involuntary confession that we wish to be treated like silkworms,--to live without pain by the help of gods? Yet if the gods were to treat us as we want, we should presently afford fresh evidence,--in the way of what is called "the evidence from degeneration,"--that the great evolutional law is far above the gods.
An early stage of that degeneration would be represented by total incapacity to help ourselves;--then we should begin to lose the use of our higher sense-organs;--later on, the brain would shrink to a vanishing pin-point of matter;--still later we should dwindle into mere amorphous sacs, mere blind stomachs. Such would be the physical consequence of that kind of divine love which we so lazily wish for. The longing for perpetual bliss in perpetual peace might well seem a malevolent inspiration from the Lords of Death and Darkness. All life that feels and thinks has been, and can continue to be, only as the product of struggle and pain,--only as the outcome of endless battle with the Powers of the Universe. And cosmic law is uncompromising. Whatever organ ceases to know pain,--whatever faculty ceases to be used under the stimulus of pain,--must also cease to exist. Let pain and its effort be suspended, and life must shrink back, first into protoplasmic shapelessness, thereafter into dust.
Buddhism--which, in its own grand way, is a doctrine of evolution--rationally proclaims its heaven but a higher stage of development through
pain, and teaches that even in paradise the cessation of effort produces degradation. With equal reasonableness it declares that the capacity for pain in the superhuman world increases always in proportion to the capacity for pleasure. (There is little fault to be found with this teaching from a scientific standpoint,--since we know that higher evolution must involve an increase of sensitivity to pain.) In the Heavens of Desire, says the Shôbô-nen-jô-kyô, the pain of death is so great that all the agonies of all the hells united could equal but one-sixteenth part of such pain.
The foregoing comparison is unnecessarily strong; but the Buddhist teaching about heaven is in substance eminently logical. The suppression of pain--mental or physical,--in any conceivable state of sentient existence, would necessarily involve the suppression also of pleasure;--and certainly all progress, whether moral or material,
[1. This statement refers only to the Heavens of Sensuous Pleasure,--not to the Paradise of Amida, nor to those heavens into which one enters by the Apparitional Birth. But even in the highest and most immaterial zones of being,--in the Heavens of Formlessness,--the cessation of effort and of the pain of effort, involves the penalty of rebirth in a lower state of existence.]
depends upon the power to meet and to master pain. In a silkworm-paradise such as our mundane instincts lead us to desire, the seraph freed from the necessity of toil, and able to satisfy his every want at will, would lose his wings at last, and sink back to the condition of a grub. . . .
I told the substance of my revery to Niimi. He used to be a great reader of Buddhist books.
"Well," he said, "I was reminded of a queer Buddhist story by the proverb that you asked me to explain,--The silkworm-moth eyebrow of a woman is the axe that cuts down the wisdom of man. According to our doctrine, the saying would be as true of life in heaven as of life upon earth. . . . This is the story:--
"When Shaka dwelt in this world, one of his disciples, called Nanda, was bewitched by the beauty of a woman; and Shaka desired to save him from the results of this illusion. So he took
Nanda to a wild place in the mountains where there were apes, and showed him a very ugly female ape, and asked him:--'Which is the more beautiful, Nanda,--the woman that you love, or this female ape?' 'Oh, Master!' exclaimed Nanda,--'how can a lovely woman be compared with an ugly ape?' 'Perhaps you will presently find reason to make the comparison yourself,' answered the Buddha;--and instantly by supernatural power he ascended with Nanda to the San-jûsan-Ten, which is the Second of the Six Heavens of Desire. There, within a palace of jewels, Nanda saw a multitude of heavenly maidens celebrating some festival with music and dance; and the beauty of the least among them incomparably exceeded that of the fairest woman of earth. 'O Master,' cried Nanda, 'what wonderful festival is this?' 'Ask some of those people,' responded Shaka. So Nanda questioned one of the celestial maidens; and she said to him:--'This festival is to celebrate the good tidings that have been brought to us. There is now in the human world, among the disciples of Shaka, a most excellent youth called Nanda, who is soon to be reborn into this heaven, and to become our bridegroom, because of his holy life. We wait for him with
rejoicing.' This reply filled the heart of Nanda with delight. Then the Buddha asked him:--'Is there any one among these maidens, Nanda, equal in beauty to the woman with whom you have been in love?' 'Nay, Master!' answered Nanda;--'even as that woman surpassed in beauty the female ape that we saw on the mountain, so is she herself surpassed by even the least among these.'
"Then the Buddha immediately descended with Nanda to the depths of the hells, and took him into a torture-chamber where myriads of men and women were being boiled alive in great caldrons, and otherwise horribly tormented by devils. Then Nanda found himself standing before a huge vessel which was filled with molten metal;--and he feared and wondered because this vessel had as yet no occupant. An idle devil sat beside it, yawning. 'Master,' Nanda inquired of the Buddha, 'for whom has this vessel been prepared?' 'Ask the devil,' answered Shaka. Nanda did so; and the devil said to him:--'There is a man called Nanda,--now one of Shaka's disciples,--about to be reborn into one of the heavens, on account of his former good actions. But after having there indulged himself, he is to be reborn
in this hell; and his place will be in that pot. I am waiting for him.'"
[1. I give the story substantially as it was told to me; but I have not been able to compare it with any published text. My friend says that he has seen two Chinese versions,--one in the Hongyô-kyô (?), the other in the Zôichi-agon-kyô (Ekôttarâgamas). In Mr. Henry Clarke Warren's Buddhism in Translations (the most interesting and valuable single volume of its kind that I have ever seen), there is a Pali version of the legend, which differs considerably from the above.--This Nanda, according to Mr. Warren's work, was a prince, and the younger half-brother of Sâkyamuni.]