This is a folk tale as told by an old lady from Kurayoshi, Tottori, who was born in the late Meiji era. Let’s keep in mind that the content was passed among common people for the sake of entertainment, not for accurate discussion of Buddhist cosmology.
This is a story that happened a long, long time ago. At that time, in the district of Wada, there was a temple called Jokoji, and they had a new head priest come in. The head priest at Tentokuji Temple in Tottori heard about this, and said, “I heard they just got a good new head priest out there at Jokoji Temple. I would like try him out with a few Zen questions.” He sent out a messenger saying such.
The head priest at Jokoji Temple was very distraught to hear this news. “Well, I’ve got myself in quite a pickle,” he sighed heavily. “I just came here for the money, I can’t answer any questions about Zen!” The upcoming visit made him very stressed.
At that time, it turns out Jokoji Temple was fairly popular with the religious pilgrims, so it was frequented by many visitors. As was common with many popular temples, there were business ventures based around these visitors and pilgrims. One such venture was a little manju (sweet dumpling) shop owned by a man named Chochibei. Based on a suggestion from his daughter when they were having trouble getting the right ratio of filling and dumpling, they specialized in selling very, very large manju for a cheap 2 cents, and there were always people lined up to get these giant manjuu.
Since his business was at the temple, Chochibei saw the new head priest everyday, and noticed he was in low spirits. “What’s the matter, Mr. Priest? You don’t look like you’re feelin’ so well lately.”
“I’m not sick or anything, not to worry.”
“Yeah, but I’ve rentin’ this space to sell manju for the past month or so, an’ in that time I’ve noticed a change. I really think you should see a doctor or somethin’.”
“Thanks, but a doctor wouldn’t find anything wrong with me.”
Still, Chochibei asked a third time if anything was wrong, and finally the head priest opened up to him. “You see, Mr. Chochibei, the head priest from Tentokuji Temple is going to visit on the 16th day of the 3rd month to quiz me, but I won’t be able to answer his questions.”
“A quiz? If it’s anything like a mathematics quiz that’s nothing t’ worry about. Two plus two is four, you know?”
“Well, something like that…”
“Hmm. If it’s troubling you that much, then just leave it t’ me! I’ll take your place when he comes!”
The 16th day of the 3rd month soon arrived, and the head priest of Tentokuji Temple arrived with a procession of monks. At that time Chochibei was out selling his manju, shouting loudly, “Two cents! Two cents! One giant manju, two cents!”
The head priest of Jokoji Temple was listening and sighed, wondering if it would really be alright to leave this task to a manjuu salesman. Before he could change his mind (not that he’d have had any better option), Chochibei dashed in and started changing his clothes, saying, “Alright! Let him come at me with those questions! I’ll any of ’em!” Now dressed as a head priest and hardly recognizable, he entered the hall just as the head priest of Tentokuji Temple did. The visiting priest bowed, and Chochibei decided to mirror him to try to look the part.
They were then seated in front of each other, silently. The visiting priest then raised his arms over his head like a large ring.
What? The head priest of Tentokuji wants my giant manju? Alright then! I usually sell them for two cents, but since he’s in charge of a loaded temple, I can charge him a little more, thought Chochibei, who then held up three fingers.
In response, the head priest held up two fingers.
Tryin’ to haggle with me since he already heard the price was two, huh? Tough! I just raised the price! he thought, and then pulled down his eyelid and stuck his tongue out at him.
The head priest then held out one outstretched hand, as if indicating the number five.
Chochibei was pleased. That’s more like it. He’ll take five manju at that price! He answered with a nod and approving grunt.
The head priest of Tentokuji Temple smiled, and nodded his head. “Very good, very good indeed.” He then stood and turned to leave.
“Wait a moment, Mr. Priest! We’ll prepare a feast for you right away, so please stay.”
“No, no need. I am already quite satisfied,” he continued to smile as he made his exit. “I can see that Jokoji Temple has a very good new head priest.”
On his way back, the head priest was still commenting to himself about what a good priest he had met. His followers eagerly asked him what they had discussed. “First, I started by asking him about the Earth,” he explained, “and he answered with the Three Realms. So I asked him Japan*’s place in all this, and he said that it is in Divine Eye. I asked if he was sure it wasn’t among five worlds**, and he was sure. So I was satisfied with that.” The other monks were all impressed by the depth of such answers.
Chochibei, on the other hand, was asked by the real head priest of Jokoji Temple what the other head priest had asked about. “Oh, that?” he replied. “Seems he just wanted to buy my manju. I said I’d charge him 3 cents, but he wanted ’em for 2 cents. He came around after I made a face at him and said he’d buy five of ’em. We didn’t talk about anything but manju.”
“Oh, I see. Well, alright then.”
In the end, despite the lack of mutual interpretation of the episode, everyone was quite satisfied.
Note: This story has puns!
*”Japan” is Nihon or Nippon, which is synonymous with “two (fingers)”
**”five worlds” (as I’ve translated it for simplicity’s sake) is gokai, which is synonymous with “mistake.”
With regard to the terminology, I’ve gone with Three Realms as opposed to the Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu it was referring to in Japanese, and Divine Eye as opposed to just “eye” so as the capture the spirit of the story. Again, this is just a fun folk tale.