The Man who Bought a Dream
Collected by Robert J. Adams in 1967 in Nomura village, Tsugawamachi, Niigata-ken, from Mrs. Tsune Watanabe.
In: “Social Identity of a Japanese Storyteller.” Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, 1972. Reprinted in “Folktales Told around the World” 1975: pp. 245-51, ed. R. Dorson, University of Chicago.
Editor’s note: The storyteller is a remarkably gifted raconteur …. Mrs. Watanabe’s variant of the tale is outstanding in its delineation of the psychological motivation of the tale’s protagonists. Her skillful use of dialogue brings the characters to life and adds a compelling immediacy to the tale. The moralistic comments made at the end of the tale emphasize the storyteller’s intense involvement in the tale as a repository of cultural and personal values.
There were two friends who went to the mountains to gather dead branches for firewood. They took their lunches and went to gather wood. “Well, it’s almost noon, let’s sit down and eat our lunch.” “All right. It’s a little early, but that won’t hurt, let’s eat anyway.”
So they sat down and ate their lunches and rested a while. “It feels so good here, let’s take a little nap. We’ve been working hard all morning, we need a little rest, otherwise we won’t last out the day.” “That’s right, let’s take a nap.” And so they both lay down for a nap.
Trawul Praman (Thailand). Acrylic on canvas
One of them went right to sleep, but the other one just couldn’t get to sleep. He twisted and turned and tossed, but he couldn’t go to sleep. The other one was snoring away, it sounded like thunder, he was snoring so loud. Gooonnn goonnn goonnn goonnn goonnn goonnn, he was fast asleep and snoring like mad. The other one just couldn’t get to sleep. He just sat there, smoking one cigarette after another, and watching how his friend was sleeping. After a while the man who was sleeping stretched and yawned in his sleep, uhhhhhnnnnnnnn. Just as he stretched in his sleep, a bee came out of his nose and flew off somewhere. After the bee flew away, the man woke up. “Well, that was a nice nap. I had a good dream too.”
Bee: gilded copper, 12 cm, Peru, Moche (Loma Negra), 3rd C. Metropolitan Museum.
“What sort of a dream did you have, here in the middle of the day like this?”
“I dreamed that in the garden behind the mansion of the richest man in Osaka there is a jar of gold buried under the little mountain in the garden.”
“Really? What’s the man’s name?”
“I don’t know what his name is or anything like that. All I know is that he is the richest gentleman in Osaka. It was just a dream, so I couldn’t ask what his name was or anything like that. All I know is that he was a very rich man, the richest in Osaka, and that in the garden behind his mansion there is a little mountain. There is a big pine tree growing beside it. Beside the pine tree there is a nandin [nandina berberidaceae, also called sacred bamboo] bush. The jar of gold is buried under the nandin bush. That was the dream I had.”
“What a funny dream! Listen, how about selling it to me.”
“What) Are you serious? How could anyone buy a dream? What would you do with it?”
“I don’t know what I’d do with it, but anyway, how about selling it to me.”
“I never heard of buying a dream. What in the world do you want to buy it for?”
“I don’t have anything particular in mind to do with it, I just want to buy it. Come on, please sell it to me.”
“I hate to go around selling dreams. I’d feel funny taking money for something like a dream.”
“That’s all right. That’s all right. Just sell it to me. Here, I’ll give you this much money, now please sell it to me.”
And so finally the man who dreamed the dream sold it because the other man kept begging so hard. And so he made some money just by having a dream and selling it. [Laughs, and all laugh.] That’s the way he got some money out of it.
Then the man who had bought the dream went home and told his wife what he had done. “Wife, wife, I and the neighbor went to the mountains to gather some cedar branches for the fireplace. At noon we ate our lunch and lay down to rest. He went right to sleep, but I just lay there wide awake. I tried and tried to take a little nap, but I just couldn’t drop off to sleep. No matter what I did, I was just as wide awake as ever. So I was sitting there smoking and listening to him snoring loud as thunder. Then just as he was stretching in his sleep, a bee flew out of his nose. After the bee flew out he woke up and said that he’d been dreaming, and then I bought the dream from him.” Then he told his wife what the dream he’d bought was about.
“What! You bought somebody else’s dream? What in the world did you do that for?”
“Well, I am going to go and find that jar of gold and dig it up. But I don’t have enough money to get there. Can you help me get some money?”
“Here we don’t even have enough money to live on, and you go around buying people’s dreams. How can you tell whether there’s anything to it or not, it’s just somebody’s dream. And then you think we ought to borrow money so you can go to Osaka just because of what he saw in his dream!”
“Well, I want to go and see if there is anything there. I’ve just got to go and see. I’ve just got to go and dig there and see what I can find. Please borrow some money for me.”
He kept after his wife until there was nothing she could do but go to her parents’ house to borrow some money. She told them what he wanted, and they said, “What a fool he must be! Buying people’s dreams! How can he tell if there is anything to it or not? How does he know, maybe it’s not true at all. Borrowing money and going all the way to Osaka!” [From Niigata prefecture to Osaka is a distance of approximately four hundred miles.]
“That’s just what I’ve been telling him, but he keeps saying, ‘I’ve got to go and see, I’ve got to go and see, I just can’t rest until I go and see,’ and so there’s nothing I can do.”
“Well, if there had been an accident and somebody was hurt, or if he was sick or something and you needed the money it would be different, but just to go to Osaka for the fun of it, without any idea of whether or not he’s going to make any money out of the trip!”
“There’s nothing I can do with him. Please, just loan me the money.”
And so her parents finally agreed to loan her some money, and she took it home and gave it to her husband. “Now you remember how valuable this money is. I borrowed it from my parents, you know.”
And so the man took the money and set off for Osaka. The trip took many days. This was a long time ago, you know, back in the days when they had to walk all the way. [Laughs.] He would stay overnight in the inns along the way, and then walk all day. Finally he got there.
But even after he got to Osaka, he didn’t know where to go. He didn’t know the man’s name. It was just a dream, you know, and so all he knew was that it was the richest man in Osaka. So he walked around everywhere asking, “Where’s the richest man in Osaka?” [Laughs.] “Where’s the richest man in Osaka? Where’s the richest man in Osaka?” He kept on asking for the richest man in Osaka until finally someone told him that he was in such and such a place. “Does that man have a little mountain in the garden behind his mansion? If that’s the right man, I’ll give you some money to show me where he lives.”
“If that’s what you are looking for it must be that house over there. That’s Kiibe-san’s house. I think it must be him. Why don’t you go and ask over there.”
And so he went to that house. “Is this Kiibe-san’s house?” “Yes, it is.”
“Do you have a little mountain in your back garden?” “Yes, we have.”
“Is there a big pine tree by the mountain?” “Yes, there is.”
“Is there a nandin bush beside the pine tree?” “Yes, there is.”
So he knew for sure that this was the right house. “Could you please let me stay overnight here?” And so they decided to let him spend the night.
“You asked so many questions about the mountain in my back garden, is there something special about it?” said the man.
“Yes. I heard that there is a jar of gold buried under the nandin bush there by the mountain, and I’ve come to dig it up. Do you have some servants who could help me dig it up? If they help me dig it up, I’ll give you part of the money that’s in the jar. Please give me someone to help me. I’ll give you plenty of the money.”
After this they all went to bed. But the master of the house said to himself, “Who does that fellow think he is, coming here to dig up that jar of gold out of my garden. I’m not going to let him do it. I’ll go out tonight and dig it up myself.” And so he called some of his servants, five good strong men, and took them out to dig up the jar. The ground was dry and hard to dig, but finally they came to the lid of the jar. “That’s it! That’s it for sure! That’s the jar of gold! Here this jar of gold has been buried all this time, and I never knew it. How come that ragged old man knew that it was here, that’s what I’d like to know. Well, I’m not going to let him get away with any of this money!”
Then he lifted the lid off the jar. Just as he did that, ba jaba jaba jaba jaba jaba ja, something flew from the jar with a noise like thunder. He looked into the jar and there was nothing there. Whatever it was that had been in the jar had flown away when he opened the lid. There wasn’t a thing left, just the empty jar.
There wasn’t anything the master of the house could do. He had got his servants out, and they had dug up the jar, and now it was empty. All he could do was put the lid back on and bury the jar back in the ground again. So that’s what they did. They put the lid on neatly just like it was before, and then they buried it again. They planted the nandin bush back on top of it and pretended that nothing had happened.
Old clay pot
The next morning the master of the house told the old man, “I was given this nandin bush just recently and planted it there only a few days ago. But we didn’t see any jar of money when we planted it. If you want to dig it up, please go ahead. I don’t think you’ll need very many men to help you, two ought to be enough. It’ll be easy to dig, because the tree’s been planted just recently.”
“Oh, really? Well then, please give me someone to help me dig.” So the master gave him two servants, and they started digging. Of course it was easy to dig, after all the ground had been dug up just the night before! [Laughs.] They soon got to the lid of the jar. “This is it, that’s for sure! No doubt about it!” They took out the jar and took off the lid. The jar was empty! Not a thing in it! Not even a drop of water. Just the empty jar!
The poor man was just completely shocked. “What’s happened? How could I have done this? What’ll I do? I sacrificed everything just so I could dig up this jar. I went hungry and without clothes. I borrowed money and went in debt. And all for nothing but an empty money jar! And here I’ve hired these men and I can’t pay them. What’ll I do?”
Then he said to the rich man, “I don’t have much money left. I’ve spent most of what I had, but I want to pay you for your help. Please take this much and forgive me for not being able to give you more. If the jar had been full of gold I would have given you a lot of money, but the jar was empty. And I have spent most of my money on the trip here to Osaka. Please take what I have left and forgive me for troubling you.” So he gave him some money to pay the servants and for his board and room.
“Now I have to go home. I don’t have a cent left, but I can beg for money along the way. There’s nothing else to do.” And so he left the rich man’s house and started for home, begging for food and a place to sleep along the way.
“Here I am walking back home and begging all the way. My wife warned me not to be so foolish as to buy somebody’s dream. ‘There’s nothing to a dream. You don’t know if it’s true or not,’ she said, but I had to go and buy it. And I didn’t even have my own money to buy it with. I had to get my wife to borrow money from her folks. Now I’m ashamed to face her again. I think I’ll jump in the river and drown myself. What shall I do? Shall I kill myself? Shall I kill myself? I’m going to jump off that high bridge and drown myself in the river. But wait! I don’t want to kill myself here and never tell my wife what really happened. I’ll just have to go home and tell her.” And so he kept on going, begging for food and lodging all the way. After many days he finally got close to home.
“What’ll I do now. I am ashamed to face my wife. I’ll just have to kill myself. I’ll jump in the river and kill myself.” But he kept on walking toward home. “I’ll kill myself now,” and he went a little further. “Now I’m really going to drown myself,” and he walked on a little further. He kept on like that until he got all the way home. [Laughs heartily.]
He went up to the house and his wife came out to meet him. “To-chan [Papa]! The other night about midnight all sorts of gold coins came flying into the house! The money came flying in so thick and fast, falling around everywhere, it sounded like thunder. The noise was just deafening, gam gara gam gara gara gam gam gam gam, I thought that it would knock the house down. The money just kept thundering down, gold and treasures of all kinds, until the floors were shining with gold. I’ve left it just lying there without picking it up until you came home to see it. It’s all over the living-room, and the dining-room, and the kitchen.”
Gold treasure from the Kerala Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
He went in to look and sure enough, there was gold everywhere, glistening and shining, pika pika pika pika pika pika.
And so that’s the way it is, if a greedy person tries to dig up a jar of gold, it will turn into an empty jar. And the person who is supposed to get the money, if he doesn’t get a chance to dig it up, then it will get to him some way or other. A jar of gold is only meant for one person, and not for anybody else. If it’s meant for a certain person, then no matter what happens, he will get it sooner or later. And so that’s the story. Zatto mukashi sageta.
Storyteller [laughs, then cheerily]: It was lucky that he didn’t drown himself, wasn’t it?
Collector: It was, wasn’t it.
Storyteller: He was so discouraged and ashamed to ever face his wife again, and was going to drown himself, or kill himself some way. And there was all that money waiting for him! But he had lost all hope and was sure that there was nothing to do but die. If he had killed himself he would have never even known that all that money was there for him. He was lucky that he got home without dying.
The storyteller suggests that this story is about greed and about not giving up hope. But the polarity (a polarity represents an important psychological issue) in the middle of the tale between the greedy rich man and the poor man functions partly as a distractor.
The main polarity/tension occurs at the beginning of the tale, in the tension between the man who bought the dream and the dreamer: that this is the main polarity is confirmed by repetition. Repetitions are new, different images, whose interpretations repeat that of a prior image. These new images-with-interpretations provide internal, textual evidence for the first interpretation’s accuracy. Here the first repetition is the tension between the man who bought the dream and his wife; the next is the tension between his wife and her family. In all three polarities what is at question is the correct attitude towards a dream.
This interpretation is confirmed by another repetition: the man despaired as he returned home because he had believed in the dream and then he thought he had been wrong to do so. The main argument of this story is that a dream tells the truth and must be treated with reverence.
The distractor in the tale has a complex function. It makes fun of interpretation, demonstrating that there are multiple levels which may trap the unwary, like a decoy chamber in an Egyptian tomb which seeks to deflect a grave robber from the real treasure. Dreams seem to use this device often: they offer an obvious meaning which satisfies most observers but is false. If we assume we know what a dream means then we are probably being misled, trapped into thinking at a shallow level. In this Japanese story the distractor is evidence (deliberately enigmatic) that a dream or fairytale contains hidden treasure, treasure which can be found only with persistence and reverence.
Having understood the distracting function of the polarity between generosity and greed, we can now see that this polarity also functions as yet another repetition, in that it concerns the correct attitude towards inner work: the rewards of inner work must be shared generously.
The bee which flew out of the dreamer’s nose is another repetition which yet again confirms our interpretation about attitude. The bee appears first, but its meaning cannot be seen until the end. A bee fertilizes blossom disinterestedly wherever it goes. It is like the enlightened one (in a Zen story) who forgot everything he learned and became a smiling old ox-herder: wherever he went the trees blossomed.
Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market
Smiling through all the dirt and grime.
No immortal powers, no secret spells,
Just teach the withered trees to bloom.
Synopsis by Tyler Stallings
The oxherder under a blossoming tree.
The earliest series of Zen ox-herding poems was written in China around 1050 by C’hing-chu. The series that became the best known was written and illustrated by K’uo-an Shihyuan in the mid-twelfth century. His pupil Tz’u-yuan published these paintings and poems as woodblock prints.
The bee suggests the humble circuitous attitude – exploring many options, not following a preconceived plan – that is needed to find a dream or fairy tale’s hidden meaning. A bee returns to its pot of gold.