Around A.D. 1200, an itinerant Buddhist priest journeyed into the region of present-day Itakura in Japan's Niigata Prefecture. On a steep mountainside, he happened upon a crevice overhung with moss-bearded trees. Peering down into the gloom, he shuddered at the sight of great serpents coiling and writhing below.
Huge and terrible, these serpents, or daija, shrugged aside boulders as they slithered, making the ground tremble. Not daring to breathe, the priest realized the creatures were speaking to each other and he could understand their words.
The bones of a wandering priest still reside in the village for which he gave his life. "Our mansions are expanding," one said. "As we sink our tunnels into the Earth, our halls grow grander!"
"Yes," answered another. "Unfortunate for the folk of that village at the bottom of the slope. Every day the soil slides, the rocks and trees tumble. Already our work has dropped half the mountain on their heads."
"Humans might stop our work," hissed a third, "if only they knew how - but they do not. Prayers to Heaven would stop us -- prayers continuing for 21 days."
"And the stick of the chestnut tree," added the first daija. "If someone drove a stick into the ground with exactly 48 hammer blows, and if the last person to strike the stick were buried alive as a sacrifice, then we could not dig our dwelling here. But humans do not know such things!"
Leaning on a tree for support, the quaking priest tried to back away quietly, but one of the serpents glanced up at him with fiery eyes. In an instant, the priest was surrounded.
"For what you have heard," the daija told him, baring their venomous fangs, "the penalty is death." Swallowing his fear, the priest returned their unblinking gazes.
"We see that you are a holy man," hissed the largest serpent. "And as such, we do not wish to kill you. We give you your life on one condition: Say nothing of what you have heard. If you reveal these things, we will pursue you to the ends of the Earth."
Without a word, the priest dashed down the mountain pass. At the foot of the slope, he came upon the village of Sarukuyoji and saw the destruction the daija had caused. Heaps of rubble had smashed cottages. Tree trunks lay like a giant's toys in the main street. The homeless and injured wandered in the wreckage. The villagers had tried digging trenches and bracing the slopes with stones and timbers, but nothing had helped.
Seeing the holy wanderer, the villagers rushed toward him. "Pray for us!" they implored. "Save us from these landslides!"
The priest had compassion for the people. He knew he would be killed for revealing the secret of the daija, but he also knew that helping those in need was part of his spiritual path. Telling them all that he had heard on the mountainside, he concluded: "I will be the sacrifice. When the preparations are complete, you must bury me alive."
The next morning, the priest began to read prayers aloud from the sacred writings, and the people set to work digging a pit. They brought a rod of chestnut wood and started the ceremony of pounding it into the ground. The slopes groaned and shifted, but while the holy one prayed, no debris damaged the village.
At last, when the 21 days were ended, the priest rose to his feet. Accepting the heavy hammer, he struck the stake for the final time, and it vanished into the ground. He sat in the meditative posture of zazen at the pit's center and continued his prayers. Weeping, the villagers brought a large clay kame, a water-jar, and set it upside-down over him. With reverence, they covered it with earth. As the pit filled, the priest's prayers faded to silence. The Earth joined him in that silence -- from that day, the terrible landslides in the region of Itakura ceased.
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