A tale from Japan
From Women Who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estés
There once was a woman who lived in a fragrant pine forest. Her husband was away fighting a war for many years. When finally he was released from duty, he trudged home in a most foul mood. He refused to enter the house, for he had become used to sleeping on stones. He kept to himself and stayed in the forest day and night.
His young wife was so excited when she learned her husband was coming home at last. She cooked and shopped and shopped and cooked and made dishes and dishes and bowls and bowls of tasty white soybean curd and three kinds of fish, and three kinds of seaweed, and rice sprinkled with red pepper, and nice cold prawns, big and orange.
Smiling shyly, she carried the food to the woods and knelt beside her war-weary husband and offered to him the beautiful food she had prepared. But he sprang to his feet and kicked the trays over so that the bean curd spilled, the fish jumped into the air, the seaweed and rice spilled into the dirt, and the big orange prawn went rolling down the path.
“Leave me alone!” he roared, and turned his back on her. He became so enraged she was frightened of him. Time after time this occurred until finally, in desperation, the young wife found her way to the cave of a healer who lived outside the village.
“My husband has been badly injured in the war,” the wife said. “He rages continuously and eats nothing. He wishes to stay outside and will not live with me as before. Can you give me a potion that will make him loving and gentle once again?”
The healer assured her, “This I can do for you, but I need a special ingredient. Unfortunately, I am all out of hair from the crescent moon bear. So, you must climb the mountain, find the black bear, and bring me back a single hair from the crescent moon at its throat. Then I can give you what you need, and life will be good again.”
Some women would have felt daunted by this task. Some women would have thought the entire effort impossible. But not she, for she was a woman who loved. “Oh! I am so grateful,” she said. “It is so good to know that something can be done.”
So she readied herself for her journey, and the next morning she went out to the mountain. And she sang out “Arigato zaisho,” which is a way of greeting the mountain and saying, “Thank you for letting me climb on your body.”
She climbed into the foothills where there were boulders like big loaves of bread. She ascended up to a plateau covered with forest. The trees had long draping boughs and leaves that looked like stars.
“Arigato zaisho,” she sang out. This was a way of thanking the trees for lifting their hair so she could pass underneath. And so she found her way through the forest and began to climb again.
It was harder now. The mountain had thorny flowers that seized the hem of her kimono, and rocks that scraped her tiny hands. Strange dark birds few out at her in the dusk and frightened her. She knew they were muen-botoke, spirits of the dead who had no relatives, and she sang out prayers for them: “I will be your relative. I will lay you to rest.”
Still she climbed, for she was a woman who loved. She climbed till she saw snow on the mountain peak. Soon her feet were wet and cold, and still she climbed higher, for she was a woman who loved. A storm began, and the snow blew straight into her eyes and deep into her ears. Blinded, still she climbed higher. And when the snow stopped, the woman sang out “Arigato” to thank the winds for ceasing to blind her.
She took shelter in a shallow cave and could barely pull all of herself into it. Though she had a full pack of food, she did not eat, but covered herself in leaves and slept. In the morning, the air was calm and little green plants even showed through the snow here and there. “Ah,” she thought, “now, for the crescent moon bear.”
She searched all day and near twilight found thick cords of scat and needed look no farther, for a gigantic black bear lumbered across the snowfall, leaving behind deep pad and claw marks. The crescent moon bear roared fiercely and entered its den. She reached into her bundle and placed the food she had bought in a bowl. She set the bowl outside the den and ran back to her shelter to hide. The bear smelled the food and came lurching from its den, roaring so loudly it shook loose little stones. The bear circled around the food from a distance, sampled the wind many time, then ate the food up in one single gulp. The great bear reared up, snuffled the air again, and then disappeared into its den.
The next evening the woman did the same, setting out the food, but this time instead of returning to her shelter she retreated only halfway. The bear smelled the food, heaved itself out of its den, roared to shake the stars from the skies, circled, tested the air very cautiously, but finally gobbled up the food and crawled back into its den. This continued for many nights until one dark blue night the woman felt brave enough to wait even closer to the bear’s den.
She put the food in the bowl outside the den and stood right by the opening. When the bear smelled the food and lumbered out, it saw not only the usual food but also a pair of small human feet as well. The bear turned its head sideways and roared so loudly it made the bones in the woman’s body hum.
The woman trembled, but stood her ground. The bear hauled itself onto its back legs, smacked its jaws, and roared so that the woman could see right up into the red-and-brown roof of its mouth. But she did not run away. The bear roared even more and put out its arms as though to seize her, its ten claws hanging like ten long knives over her scalp. The woman shook like a leaf, but stayed right where she was.
“Oh, please, dear bear,” she pleaded, “Please, dear bear, I’ve come all this way because I need a cure for my husband.” The bear brought its front paws to earth in a spray of snow and peered into the woman’s frightened face. For a moment, the woman felt she could see the entire mountain ranges, valleys, rivers and villages reflected in the bear’s old, old eyes. A deep peace settled over her and her trembling ceased.
“Please, dear bear, I’ve been feeding you all these past nights. Could I please have one of the hairs from the crescent moon on your throat? The bear paused; this little woman would be easy food. Yet suddenly he was filled with pity for her. “It is true,” said the crescent moon bear, “you’ve been good to me. You may have one of my hairs. But take it quickly, then leave here and go back to your own.”
The bear raised its great snout so that the white crescent on its throat showed, and the woman could see the strong pulse of the bear’s heart there. The woman put one hand on the bear’s neck, and with her other took hold of a single glossy white hair. Quickly, she pulled it. The bear reared back and cried out as though wounded. And this pain then settled into annoyed huffs.
“Oh, thank you, crescent moon bear, thank you so much.” The woman bowed and bowed. But the bear growled and lumbered forward a step. It roared at the woman in words she could not understand and yet words she had somehow known all her life. She turned and fled down the mountain as fast as she could. She ran under the trees with leaves shaped like stars. And all the way through she cried “Arigato” to thank the trees for lifting their boughs so she could pass. She stumbled over the boulders that looked like big loaves of bread, crying “Arigato” to that the mountain for letting her climb on its body.
Though her clothes were ragged, her hair askew, her face soiled, she ran down the stone stairs that led to the village, down the dirt road and right through the town to its other side and into the hovel where the healer sat tending the fire.
“Look, look! I have it, I found it, I claimed it, a hair of the crescent moon bear!” cried the woman.
“Ah good,” said the healer with a smile. She peered closely at the woman and took the pure white hair and held it out toward the light. She weighed the long hair in one old hand, measured it with one finger, and exclaimed, “Ah. Yes! This is an authentic hair from the crescent moon bear.” Then suddenly she turned and threw the hair deep into the fire, where it popped and crackled and was consumed in a bright orange flame.
“No!” cried the young wife. “What have you done?”
“Be calm. It is good. All is well,” said the healer. “Remember each step you took to climb the mountain? Remember each step you took to capture the trust of the crescent moon bear? Remember what you saw, what you heard, and what you felt?”
“Yes,” said the woman, “I remember very well.”
The old healer smiled at her gently and said, “Please now, my daughter, go home with your new understandings and proceed in the same way with your husband.
I think this is a wonderful story that can be used to explore issues around anger and rage. It shows that our anger is worth listening to in a way that does not need to leave us feeling helpless – that it can teach us something.
Rage can result from loss of power and control and this seems to be a reality for many people I work with. Through this story we can explore many facets of anger, from the husband’s rage at the beginning to that of the bear - the bear holding both rage and compassion at the same time. The story tells us that perhaps we need something from the instinctive world to enter new territory and unveil meaning. This all takes great patience, which for me is described beautifully in the process of taming the bear. The hair can act as something more tangible to return with and remind us what we’ve learnt.
In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Estés writes “In Zen, the moment the hair is thrown into the fire and the healer speaks her simple words, that is the moment of true enlightenment. Notice that enlightenment doesn’t occur on the mountain. It occurs when, by burning the hair of the crescent moon bear, the projection of magical cure is dissolved......We can have all the knowledge in the universe and it comes down to one thing: practice. It comes down to going home and step-by-step implementing what we know. As often as necessary, and for as long as possible, or forever, whichever comes first.”