Do you know what the Roman glass is?

A wonderful picture book about Jodo Shinshu was published in 1984 by the Higashi Honganji. It has very little text, and is adorned with beautiful impressionistic paintings on every page. Its title is Do You Know What the Roman Glass Is? It was written by Fumihiro Sobue and illustrated by Ichiro Horio.

I have always loved picture books that are works of art in their own right. For example, recently I bought the children’s book Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (Lothian, Sydney, 2013) because of its powerful laconic story about friendship, and its beautiful artwork.

glassDo You Know What the Roman Glass Is? seems to have gone out of print and is now very hard to find. I purchased it just after the first volume of the new translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho published by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha came into my hands. I felt very privileged to have acquired such inspiring books all at once.

As you would no doubt expect, Do You Know What the Roman Glass is? is a contemplation inspired by an ancient artefact: a Roman goblet made of glass. The text begins by telling us that this Roman Glass is three thousand years old.

The book opens with the question, ‘Do you know what the Roman Glass is?’ Then, accompanied by the beautiful illustrations, the Roman Glass is present through many vicissitudes within the span of of its life. Each line is accompanied by a brilliant and suitable painting. We learn that the Glass ‘has seen’ what has happened. The Glass becomes a person; a silent witness.

Many things have happened in three thousand years, Many lives have been born, Many lives have been lost.

The Roman glass has seen Too many wars, Too momentary a peace …

(pp. 6-16)

The book goes on to illustrate innumerable calamities – and jealousy, hatred, pillage -, but also ‘joys and sorrows beyond count’. ‘The Roman Glass has seen it all. Ever so quietly, ever so aware.’

The Roman Glass sparkles Because she sees all. She reflects all. She takes on the colours of all she has seen.

The beautiful illustrations continue and, towards the end of the book, we are asked to ponder the question several times: ‘Do you know what the Roman Glass is?’ By this time, we are beginning to understand. This is something that is ‘aware’; something that ‘sees’; something that ‘takes on the colours of all it has seen’.

But, wait! There is an afterword. In it, the writer, Fumihiro Sobue, takes us into the event in his life that initiated his wonderful testimony and work of art. It was his ‘Aha!’ moment; it is when his heart was filled with trust and understanding.

Sobue tells us that he was sitting near the window in the house of a poet friend. He could see the sun setting outside, when something sparkled and caught his eye! The sun was glinting in the Roman Glass.

It occurred to him that this wonderful object was very ancient, and, as the sun moved imperceptibly in the sky towards the horizon, its light changed and the shadows and reflections of moving things – no doubt, leaves, birds and people passing by – were reflected in the Glass.

The opening words of the book came to him:

The Roman Glass, she has been around for three thousand years.

‘How splendid!’ he thought, ‘Truly a musical masterpiece!’

His afterword concludes:

It might have been the story of life that was captured in that single piece of Roman Glass.

Like an endless symphony, no sooner did one performance end than another began, in an endless round of birth, life, death.

The delicate hues continued to appear out of nowhere, only to vanish again. And I found myself thinking: My own life is no less of a mystery … Such was the message that the glass brought home to me.’

(p. 35)

And then, the author explains this captivating analogy:

In that silence filled with the song of life, I found what I had long been seeking.

I felt myself being beckoned to by the heart of life.

There was nothing more I could have wished for than those words of life.

So now we know. What is the Roman Glass? What truth, what reality, does it represent? It points is the very thing that is at he heart of life: the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, which beckons us in Namo Amida Butsu.

Shinran Shonin says,

From these passages we see that the word Namu means to take refuge. In the term to take refuge (kimyo), ki means to arrive at. Further, it is used in compounds to mean to yield joyfully to (kietsu) and to take shelter in (kisai). Myo means to act, to invite, to command, to teach, path, message, to devise, to summon. Thus, kimyo is the command of the Primal Vow calling to and summoning us.

(Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 34)