Carnegie Mellon University

Representation of Karma, Burden, Authority, and Buddhist Symbolsin Natsume Soseki’s The Third Night

Victoria Jung
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies


Japanese culture is manifested through many forms of media, a popular one being short stories. Natsume Soseki is a well-known individual and an exemplary author to display the combination of Western and Japanese cultures through his literary works. This essay studies the themes in Japanese culture that Soseki includes in his work, The Third Night — karma, burden, authority, and Buddhist symbols. Through the analysis of the work, its use of descriptive language, monologue and dialogue, and overall flow of the short story, these themes are studied and related to the context of Soseki’s literary work.

  1. Introduction

What does Natsume Soseki’s The Third Night reveal about Japanese culture? This literary work reveals that the cycle of karma, the idea of burden [and conscious], the presence of authority [figures], and the Buddhist symbols are prominent ideologies embedded within the Japanese culture. The cycle of karma is exemplified through the connection between the child and the narrator’s past. Once the narrator comes to realize his past due to the child’s ominous knowledge, the karma is then induced and explicitly present. Before then, the idea of karma haas been heavily foreshadowed through the use of the past, present, and future: all crucial factors of the development of karma. The idea of burden and the conscious is seen by looking into the inner dialogue of the narrator and his experiences. Specifically, the burden is seen to arise when the narrator interacts with the child, especially, when the child introduces new knowledge about the narrator that he himself is unaware of, or when the child simply pushes the narrator around for an unknown destination until the destination has been reached (at the end of the story). The presence of authority [figures] are seen in both human and object (personified) forms, heavily influencing the thoughts and perspective of the narrator. The Buddhist symbols highlight subtle, yet significant details of the work that ties in the themes of karma, burden, and authority all together into the umbrella concept of religion in the literary work.

Natsume Soseki was born on February 9th, 1867 and passed away on December 9th, 1916. He was adopted at the age 4 and went back to his birth parents at age 25. Soon after, he graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in English. Soseki belonged in the Trail-Blazer generation (Goosen 1997, p.xii) because after graduating and using his degree for his career as a write, his work was considered new literature during the modernization of the Meiji era (1868-1912). During this time, “the impact that Western literature had on the first Japan,” (Goosen 1997, p.xiii) Japan has since developed greatly as, “Japan revamped its entire political system,” (Goosen 1997, p.xiii) with the introduction of Admiral Perry and the foreign ships. “English. Grammar and Western science,” (Goosen 1997, p.xiii) was then regularly studied by Japanese students and this seeped into the literature as well. During such a time where including Western ideas into literature were in its emerging stages, Soseki was one of, “the first of those who stepped forwards to take up this challenge,” (Goosen 1997, p.xiii). He was capable of having such courage since he was educated, both in Japan and England, and well-versed in the Western world of literature. He was aware that there should be Japanese culture in Japan and not allow for the features of the Western world to take over too much. He was able to effectively combine the old and the new to result in an acceptable piece of work for the newly-adopted Japanese literature that will stand as a timeless piece of work. He literally, “carved new trails, not follow old ones,” (Goosen 1997, p.xiv), making new modern work from both Japanese and Western cultures, while making sure the literature doesn’t follow solely old Japanese traditions or solely. old Western traditions. The Third Night was published in 1908 by Asahi Shimbun. This literary work is an example of Legends and Fairy Tales (Goosen 1997, p.xxvi) because of its involvement of the Chinese/Indian origin of the teachings of Buddhism that is evident throughout the literary work. This inclusion of the possible legend of the Buddhist figure, Jizou Bosatsu, also supports the relation of the work to this legacy as this literary work is accompanied by the subtle inclusion of the Japanese tale. Introducing this figure adds to the fantastical side of Buddhism, such as the traditional monks and all-knowing peace the monks bring to society (as replicated in the literary work through the character). In addition, with the idea that, “one person’s dream can be another’s nightmare,” (Goosen 1997, p.xxvii), this literary work established the concept that ancient images has creeped into the author’s consciousness, displaying themselves as guilt-filled nightmares. These type of fantastical traits within the work is what can conclude The Third Night as a work under the Legends and Fairy Tales.

  1. Karma, Burden, and Buddhist Symbols

2.1. Karma [specifically Rebirth]

The first piece of evidence is when in the beginning line of the literary work, the narrator realizes the situation he’s in and states that, “without knowing how or why I know,” (Soseki 1908 pg.28) he simply is almost certain that the 6-year-old is his own child. This hints at the idea of rebirth since he subconsciously feels the familiarity of this child. He isn’t aware of how he is aware of the child, but having that familiarity in the back of his head shows that the two have crossed paths at sometime. Specifically, this proves that his subconscious has definitely met a form of this child somewhere in his past life or in the present life. Either way, this is a living memory that his subconscious has buried for an unknown reason and the appearance of the child himself is what activated a part of the memory in the narrator’s brain. The second piece of evidence is when the narrator thinks distastefully of the brat and realizes that the, “brat… revealed my past, my present, and my future,” (Soseki 1908, p.29). In a dream, the appearance of karma is displayed as the quote reveals that his past actions are gradually surfacing and will affect him in his future as he is realizing this in the present. This is essentially a foreshadow for what is going to arise, specifically, how his past will affect his future. Despite calling the child a brat, this roots from the narrator’s sense of guilt. Although he seems angry that the child is exposing his life from past to future, this anger derives from the subconscious not wanting his past actions to surface. This essentially comes from the subconscious’s knowledge that a grave sin has occurred, leading to the guilt. With all of this being said, this also induces the karma of what he has done in the past and in the present that could possibly affect his future. The third piece of evidence is when the child finally reveals to the narrator that, “It was exactly one hundred years ago that you murdered me,” (Soseki 1908, pg.30). This leads to his realization of his past sin from a previous life — that he committed murder at that exact location 100 years ago. The foreshadow has been revealed to be accurate as the guilt was stemmed from a hidden away memory of a negative thought, or in this case, a severely negative action. With the explicit realization of the man’s sin, the memory that was once stored far away in the narrator’s subconscious is now apparent, allowing for the narrator to be fully aware that karma will be established, holding his current state responsible for this act of murder from his past life.

2.2. Burden [and the Consciousness]

The first piece of evidence is when the child states, “I’ll be heavy soon,” (Soseki 1908, p.28) which foreshadows the idea that the narrator’s burden will soon reveal itself and as of now, it is lying in the back of his conscious (Mizukawa 2007, p.151). The hint that the memory is tucked away and is ready to reveal itself shows that there is indeed a reason why the subconscious is feeling such a burden and guilt. The subconscious doesn’t induce such feelings for no reason, the memory attached to the feeling should be correlated even if its correlation cannot be remembered. The foreshadow is crucial in having the audience understand the narrator’s mental state and how the burden is affecting him, both mentally and physically. Not fully understanding why he’s feeling this way, but with him continuously feeling this way displays the subconscious’ strong feeling of guilt to overpower the mysterious ambiguity of the situation. A second piece of evidence comes from the narrator’s desire to “dump my burden there,” (Soseki 1908, p.28) where in his dream, oddly enough, the burden is the bald 6-year-old boy that is supposedly his son as claimed earlier in the literary work. Describing his son as a burden reveals his guilt from his unconscious mind. The subconscious mind and the burden essentially work together to display itself as the narrator’s fragile mentality and the ‘unwanted’ child, respectively. Holding such a burden and such guilt without knowing the root of it, aka the root of the situation that occurred in the past, is what is eating the narrator up from the inside. His body vaguely remembers why the burden is present, but he himself is unaware of his past life’s actions that caused this. It is this dissonance that creates such conflict and burden for the narrator. The third piece of evidence is when the child states, “even my parent slights me,” (Soseki 1908, p.29). While this creates an inch of sympathy for this child from the narrator, it, unfortunately, also adds even more burden to the narrator as his animosity towards the child doesn’t change. Normally, such a statement from a child, at surface level, is heart-wrecking and sympathy-inducing, but with the narrator’s conscious aware of the horrid information the child holds about the narrator’s past and the narrator’s present state of annoyance towards the child, the burden and guilt holds more severity. The first two pieces of evidence describe how the narrator is not friendly towards the child since he represents his burden, and this small window of opportunity to be sympathetic to the child is covered up with the narrator’s stubborn and wrecked emotional state from the original burden that the child and his subconscious has brought. 

2.3. Authority [figures]

The first piece of evidence is when the narrator is in deep thought about the situation with him and the child and he, “saw an enormous forest looming up through the dark,” (Soseki 1908, p.28). The use of the words, “enormous” and “looming up” indicate how the narrator views this forest. From the connotation that the vocabulary suggests, it can be understood that the narrator views the forest as a figure of power. The forest’s charismatic appearance that differentiates itself from the dark is what the narrator sees and it is this view of the forest that foreshadows the importance of the forest [specifically, its purpose]. It is then shown later in the passage that in the heart of the forest is where the narrator murdered a man, holding great significance to the narrator’s life and the direction of his spiritual journey. The literary work personifies the forest as an authority figure that holds the power that controls the life of the narrator. The second piece of evidence is when the child is navigating the narrator through the forest, as it is noted in the literary work, “‘Fork to the left,’ my incubus ordered… So I hesitated. ‘Needn’t be shy,’ the brat remarked,” (Soseki 1908, p.29). From the perspective of the narrator, he is receiving orders from a child, a small stranger, and when the narrator shows hesitation in response to the child’s order, the child’s stern reassurance is displayed. Despite being first described as a bald 6-year-old, this child exerts charisma while on the narrator’s back that dictates how the narrator treats him throughout the story (until the destination is reached). This shows the authority that the child has over the narrator and how the child’s representation as an authority figure has manifested the direction of the literary work. The third piece of evidence is when the narrator states that, “The brat’s voice rang distinctly through the rain. I stopped before I knew what I was doing. I was deep in the forest and had not known it,” (Soseki 1908, p.30). This is where the authority that the child and the forest holds is displayed as he was distracted by the child’s dominating words to realize what he was doing and he was entranced by the dominating darkness of the forest to realize where he is in the forest. These two authority figures of the story are symbolic of the narrator’s destiny as these two powers are what led the narrator to his destiny to understand the sin he has committed in the past and how it will affect the rest of his future.

2.4. Buddhist symbols [and the religion]

The first piece of evidence is when the narrator notices the, “child is blind and that his head is blue, clean shaven blue,” (Soseki 1908, p.28). This could more than likely be a Buddhist symbolism that the child is not the narrator’s 6-year-old son, but a monk from the past life. With the child being all-knowing of the narrator’s life events and asks for the narrator to realize the truth, the child is mirroring the actions of a monk who works towards their goal of Nirvana. The second evidence is when the narrator realizes that he murdered the child, “the child on [his] back [became] as heavy as a god of stone,” (Soseki 1908, p.30) which represents the Buddhist God Jizou Bosatsu, a saint who protects the children and people who are passing the road to enlightenment (Cann n.d.). The physical change from the figurative position of a monk to the god of stone can be analyzed in correspondence to the idea of monks living their life to reach Nirvana — the end of suffering — as the change from a person (monk) to an inanimate object (‘god’ of stone) shows the end of the repeating incarnating cycle and the start of the Nirvana state. The third piece of evidence is that, “For Soseki, Buddhism essentially meant Zen Buddhism,” (Mizukawa 2007, p.145) and the protagonist in The Third Night is incapable of achieving enlightenment from Zen Buddhism, (BBC editors 2002) since the burden of his past is keeping him in samsara — suffering. This can be seen as the narrator notes that once he has realized that he has murdered a blind man, the child left him. The symbol of ‘burden’ has left him, but with the realization, a new, more crucial burden has established itself in the narrator’s life, not allowing him to avoid his past. The symbolism of the child leaving the narrator can also show the difference in state of being as the child has possibly reached Nirvana, leaving the narrator in the wretched state of being reincarnated with this memory engraved in the subconscious.

  1. Conclusion

In response to the question, What does Natsume Soseki’s The Third Night reveal about Japanese culture? This literary work reveals the involvement of karma, burden [and the consciousness], authority [figures], and Buddhist figures and symbols within Japanese culture. Karma is the cycle of rebirth and the literary work displays times where the narrator’s actions from his past life has made him responsible for his current situation. This can be seen through the details that the narrator leaves about the child and how he views the child’s familiarity. These representations of the past are developed through the narrator’s journey with the child to their desired location at the end of the work. The idea of burden and conscious is exemplified through the work’s heavy connection of the [symbolism of the] child with an [unknown] burden that lies in the far back of the conscious. The narrator’s constant feeling of emotion is battled with what the narrator’s subconscious is aware of and it is this conflict that arouses the idea of burden and how the burden from the past life can be carried over into the current and the future. The presence of authority figures (not related to religion) is evident throughout the literary work as the child and the forest have the charismatic power to influence its aura against the narrator and his thoughts/actions. Despite the narrator’s explicit distaste for the bratty child and the dark, unknown forest, he continues to carry the child and listen to him, while walking towards and into the forest. He is unaware of his situation and blindly following these figures of authority throughout the literary work, just to be led to his doom. Other than the mentioned Buddhist culture, there are symbols implicitly mentioned throughout the work that correspond to real Buddhist figures/ideologies such as the God of Stone, the monk, and the concept of Zen Buddhism as a whole. The work also uses all three figures/ideologies to connect the story and its evolution of the characters in relation to the religion itself as this could be used as an umbrella term and umbrella topic to wrap the ideas of karma, burden, and authority together in the one story.

Filmic and/or Literary Work

Natsume Sōseki, The Third Night. In Goossen ed. (1997) The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (pp. 28-30).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


(N/A), “Zen Buddhism.” BBC, 2 Oct. 2002, 28 Feb, 2021.

Cann, Hugh. “Jizo: The Patron Saint of Travelers in Japan.” Inside Japan,,the%20%E2%80%9Cwheel%20of%20life%E2%80%9D. 28 Feb, 2021.

Goossen, Theodore W. (1997) Introduction. In Goossen ed. The Oxford Book of Japanese ShortStories (pp. xi-xxxi).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mizukawa, Takao; Ama, Michihiro; Yokogawa, Ken’ichi. “Natsume Soseki and Shin Buddhism.” Vol. 38, No. 1/2 (2007) pp. 145-179