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Japanese legends: The Adventures of Benke

Musashibo Benke was, if we are to believe certain chroniclers, the third son of the bonze Benshô, prior of the ancient and famous monastery of Gonguen. Some say, anyway, that he had yet as father the devil. The extraordinary circumstances during his birth gave a value for the latter opinion.

First, just when he was born, there occurred an earthquake such as, in living memory, we had never seen. Two huge vultures came to rest on the roof of the temple and uttered mournful cries.

Benke was born aged eighteen months and having already eighty centimeters in size. He had a bushy head of hair like a girl, teeth as long as those of a child of fifteen, a huge nose, large ears, two flaming eyes, the hair on the feet and hands.

He was barely born he began to walk, jump, run. From a solid punch, he reduced to pieces the vessel in which they wished to make him take his first bath … The same day, having accidentally glimpse into the yard a chicken that took their antics, he went in pursuit, grabbed him, twisted his neck, plucked and ate him raw.

His mother died giving birth to him. The bonze was not consoled for the loss of his wife that he loved dearly. He accused Benke, not without reason, to be the cause of his death. He felt in his heart no feeling of affection for this monster that the gods, or the devil, had granted. He resolved to drive him from his father’s house, and sent elsewhere to exercise his precocious talent.

Benshô had a sister who answered to the sweet name of Sammi. She was an angelic piety, a proverbial gentleness, and talkative at all, qualities which, incidentally, are rarely found in a bonze’s sister. This brave girl, who had no children, felt for his nephew as much sympathy and affection that his brother wore his antipathy and hatred. She asked the favor to take the child with her, and adopt as her son, and the bonze gave her with great alacrity.

Benke thus became the adopted son of his aunt, the virtuous Sammi. She took him to the capital, and decided to make him start his studies.

It did not exist at the time really schools. The education system was not, far from it, organized as today. The few young men who wanted to study gathered in Buddhist monasteries. The chief monk of the monastery was the most known of these kinds of colleges. He was looked upon by the fact as a character so remarkable, that his name became history and passed to posterity. He enjoyed his students on an absolute and unquestioned authority, and his teaching was deemed infallible. The study then consisted only to learn and remember as much as possible of eighty thousand Chinese characters: a stultifying study that annoyed intelligence, removed any sense of judgment and initiative, distorted and steering the mind.

The virtuous Sammi, the sister of the bonze Benshô, therefore sent Benke, his nephew and adopted son, in one of these houses, which then called the Terakoya. She chose for himself the famous monastery of Hieizan, located on the mountain of the same name, a few miles from the capital. This monastery was then head to one of the most famous monks of the time, called Kanke.

The new student was then six years old. As he had grown very quickly, he already had when he entered the monastery, the size of a man of thirty. His long flowing hair, his wild eyes and brutal expression, his face repulsively ugly, the hairs of his hands: everything in his person inspired fear and affection away. His fellow students, on seeing him, immediately gave him the nickname of Oniwaka, word meaning young demon.

During the first months that Benke went to the monastery, he showed himself obedient to the direction and advice of his illustrious master, kind and affectionate towards his new comrades. He worked hard, made rapid progress, and stood quiet and wise as the gentlest of lambs. The monk, his master, went into raptures before this prodigy, not spared him compliments or praise, and considered him a glory of the monastery.

Unfortunately, these excellent arrangements changed soon in young disciple. He soon began to prefer entertainment to the study. He began to tease his comrades, to commit all sorts of mischief. His love of melee combat became extraordinary. Every day he was causing young people to school, and took great pleasure in doing them bite the dust. One of his favorite recreation was to go alone in the mountains, there to uproot trees and causing problems.

The monk, upset by the bad turn things were taking, tried first to bring the turbulent disciple through friendly admonitions and fatherly advice. Benke listened in silence, promised to correct and did not do so.

One night he had escaped into the mountains, as usual. Inside the monastery, everyone was asleep. The Hercules hard ground a huge block of stone, that other would have been powerless to stir. He places it on a slope and pushes in the direction of the temple. The stone falls on the roof with a terrible noise and causes considerable damage to the monastery.

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His love of melee combat became extraordinary.

The monk, furious, then encloses the mischievous dangerous in a dark, narrow cell. He said angrily he shall go no more. Benke awaits the night. When he sees that all is quiet, and monks and students are immersed in sleep, he blew one by one the iron bars that close the window of his prison. He escaped into the yard, picked up a huge beam with the same ease that a schoolboy would pick a rule and, waving it in space as a powerful lever, he shot all the doors, knocks the walls, breaks all that ‘he meets. It seemed an elephant infuriated that his trunk, threw down and destroyed everything that opposes its passage. Monks and students, woke with a start, flee hastily, uttering cries of fear, in the dark night.

The monastery was destroyed from top to bottom. So Benke, in his anger calmed and satisfied in his vengeance, thought he had nothing to do in Hieizan and left the mountain. It was ten years of age. He would not return to her adoptive mother. He decided to bid an eternal farewell to work and study, the monks and monasteries. It occurred to him the idea of traveling the world in search of adventure, without stopping or stay anywhere, to now carry out an independent and wandering life and surrender to fate, chance and caprice. That’s what he did.

Benke so down the mountain. He sees a boat moored in the river. He detaches it, goes up and let go adrift. The current prevails in the land of Awa. There he landed, crosses the country, sleeping at night in the open air, feeding on fruits, chickens, animals that he can steal the way, speaking to no one and walked at random.

Thus it happens in the land of Harima. There was the mountain of Shoshazan. On top of this mountain stands the famous monastery of the same name, led by monk Shinanobo, one of the most learned and most famous of the time. This monk had under his direction hundreds of disciples came to him from all over the country, attracted by its high reputation for learning and virtue.

Benke see the monastery. In his view, it starts to feel tired of this wandering life he has for several months. A burning desire takes to become student to get back to the study. So he went up the mountain, and will ask Shinanobo to admit it among his followers.

The monk, seeing this Hercules in the wild and ferocious aspect, initially refuses to accept him. But Benke threated him, if it does not accept him, he did to his monastery same as the Hieizan monastery. The monk, terrified, thus receives him as disciple asking in return to be very docile and well-behaved, what the other promises and vows without difficulty.

Among students of the monastery, he found one, endowed with prodigious strength and renowned for his playful and naughty character. He was the terror of all his comrades. The power of his muscles granted him an indisputable superiority over them, that he abused any occasion. Besides his diabolical malice, this young man was possessed of extreme pride and unbearable pedantry. He could not feel close to him as a rival or someone was compared to him. This disciple was called Kayemon; he was aged eighteen.

When Kayemon saw the new student, his instinct warned him that he was facing a formidable rival. He understood that Benke surpassed him in strength and would, therefore, cause irreparable harm to his ascendancy and influence. Also, at the first meeting, he devoted him a mortal hatred. But not yet daring to attack across this terrible opponent, he waited for an opportunity. This opportunity soon to offer.

There was a week that Benke had entered the monastery. A hot day, after lunch, lying on a mat, he had fallen asleep. Kayemon sees and judge that the time comes to play his enemy of his tricks. He approached quietly, takes a brush, the ink soaks, and trace on the sleeper’s forehead three Chinese characters which mean “I’m a fool.” Then he slowly withdrew, and joins his comrades, whom he hastened to announce the thing.

Benke wakes up a few moments later. He never imagined he carries on his forehead the infamous characters. He gets up and, carefree, goes to the court where students are having fun. No sooner does the others saw that the entire troop laughed and whispered softly. Benke does not understand the cause of this hilarity. He goes up to the laugh and a voice already trembling anger:

– What did you, he told them, and why are you laughing so?

Kayemon fate of the group and making his opponent an ironic salvation:

– Mr. Benke, he replies, what is this good fairy guardian and who, during your sleep came, his little hand, draw on your majestic forehead your name and quality?

He said, and the laughter became louder in peat intrigued disciples who predict a battle.

Benke jumped at the insult. His anger and surprise foreshadow most terrible outbursts. He refrains yet again. He approaches a bucket filled with water and he sights. The liquid surface reflects him the three unfortunate characters who have shamed and made the object of universal ridicule.

Then his fury knows no bounds. The red of anger and indignation pours his face. He leaped like a wild beast, grabs a huge bamboo, and flows to meet the troop of schoolchildren who, sensing a terrible disaster, are beginning to fade.

– Cowards! Benke shouts in a voice choked with anger, it is while I sleep you just insult me and make fun of me? Let anyone among you who has written on my forehead condemns these despicable characters instantly! Otherwise, I crush you all like earthworms.

And bamboo threatening swung in the air.

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Kayemon falling with all his weight, flattened itself in the yard.

Kayemon believes the time has come to measure his enemy. He advances towards him and, eying the gaze:

– Benke, he said, you want him to denounce? Well! I’ll tell you. It is I, who wrote …

He did not have time to finish. The Hercules seized him by the belt. He rose from the ground with the same ease that he had raised a feather, twirled a moment in space, and threw it in the air at dizzying heights. The unfortunate Kayemon, dropping all his weight after a few seconds, flattened itself in the yard in front of his terrified classmates. His body was only a hideous mixture of blood and flesh, bone and dislocated limbs. Above this informs boiled laughter hovered terrible giant.

All students of this terrified scene fled in disorder and escape into the interior of the monastery. But Benke is not satisfied yet. He wants to complete his revenge. He rushes into the garden, uprooting all the trees it encounters, transports and piles up around the huge building, actually a huge pyre and set fire … After a few hours, the famous monastery Shoshazan was reduced to a heap of ashes.

Benke, calmed by this new exploit, then leaves the mountain and retired to the capital. His adoptive mother, the virtuous Sammi, had left this world, and our hero is alone. He felt his soul invaded by a passion for battles. Fighting, fight again, fight still: this is the ideal towards which converge all his dreams. His quarrelsome suggests him a hellish idea. He will go nightly to post on the Gojo Bridge. There incessantly pass men of arms and sword bearers. It will cause them lay the ground, kill them if necessary and take their weapons. It will only stop after standing over a thousand swords, he can contemplate as trophies of his victories … or he still never stop if he happens, which is not yet happened, being struck in turn by a superior opponent: such was the plan that germinated in this diabolical head.

Benke therefore went every night on the bridge of Gojo. As soon as he saw pass a man carrying a sword he insulted, sought a quarrel with him, caused him to struggle. It was usually not long. Benke was always victorious, and sabers, taken one by one, piled.

He had already 999 swords, and he had torn away just as warriors. All that was missing to him was one more to get to number at which it should stop its bickering and take his rest.

It was the evening of the fifteenth day of the eighth month. Benke was, as usual, went on Gojo bridge. The moon, full and bright, poetically reflected in the clear waters of the river. Benke, leaning on the parapet of the bridge, clutching his favorite sword with which he struck down so many opponents, contemplate the landscape. He waits, quiet and safe, the thousandth unhappy he may seize the weapon to complete his trophy.

Suddenly sounded in the distance a melodious sound of rustic flute.

– That’s a beggar! Benke think.

The sound is approaching. After a few moments, a human form appears at the entrance of the bridge. The size is small, his head wrapped in a white veil, the feet are shod in black lacquered Geta:

– It’s a woman! Benke think.

And as he never picked a quarrel with a woman, he is about to pass up. But now that this alleged woman approached the giant, while playing the flute, and a clever kick throws down the sword he held in his hand.

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The fight did not last long.

Benke, surprised and furious, said:

– If you were a woman, you would have no more than a minute to live!

He received a loud burst of laughter from beneath the veil in response. Benke then, while stooping to pick up his weapon, raises a hand the veil that covers the head and hides her face. He then realizes he has to do a graceful and elegant young man.

This young man carries, in the belt, a magnificent sword with gold handle. Benke contemplates it with a covetous glance:

– This sword, he said, will do very well to complete my collection.

And he tries to take it. But the young man, with a quick movement, violently strikes him forehead with a wave of her fan.

Benke, pale with anger, raises his sword to behead this too bold opponent; but this one, holding her arm with one hand and with the other snatching the gun, throws him in the river. The fight did not last long. Benke was struck, beaten, for the first time in his life. And its first winner was a young man, short in stature, with a delicate and frail appearance. The giant bowed:

– Who are you, then, he asked, who hast struck the invincible Benke?

– I am, replied the young man, the son of the minister and servant Yoshitomo.

– Your name?

– They call me Ushiwakamaru, or if you prefer, Yoshitsune.

– Yoshitsune? It is you, whose fame is so great? Ah! I am happy to have been defeated by the son of Yoshitomo!

Benke, as he had promised, ceased from that day his quarrels and struggles. He asked and obtained to become the squire of his conqueror, and Yoshitsune had no other such faithful servant

(Translated and adapted from Fables et légendes du Japon, by Claudius Ferrand)

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