Published in 1956, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” presents itself as one of Mishima’s greatest novels. It is centered around the life of a young Buddhist aspirant whose dreams and desires merge into the idealized image of the Temple in Kyoto. Being constantly induced the idea that the Temple is the supreme standard concerning architectural beauty, his only wish is becoming a monk in the sanctuary.
In this manner, the book revolves around the lust for perfection, around the obsession of Beauty, which feels so familiar for anyone having read Mishima’s aestheticist novels before. However, returning to the epic plot, the experience of the Temple is not as rewarding as the protagonist had hoped. In a Buddhist analogy, we could say that Maya – the grand cosmic Illusion – proves that not even sanctity can escape its lure. The monk-priests are not as holy as they should, the fellow students are not that much into sacred texts as they should and, finally, the beauty of the Temple is constantly overshadowed by the protagonist’s advancing mental illness.
The contradictory relation with his friend Kashiwagi brings many of the plot’s revelatory scenes, one of these being the profound moment in which the boys – disappointed by the end of the war – curse the entire world and the main character terribly shouts in the night “Let the darkness of my heart […] equal the darkness of the night which encloses those countless lights!”. The unbroken life-long spiritual and aesthetic link with the Temple is broken and our hero starts enjoying the idea of seeing it burnt to the ground. Having no more hope in achieving this through a war-time air raid, he gets the idea of burning it himself.
Like a pure Zen parable, a Koan, the novel is build around the paradox of love and destruction. In order for the Temple to maintain its perfection, its pure Beauty, it must be kissed by the tongues of fire in order to be cleansed of people’s unworthiness. Also having the grand finale of a Greek tragedy, the story ends with the protagonist incendiating the monument and climbing a near mountain to watch it burn. After all, Maya got consumed by the purifying flames of cosmic fire. The end of decay. The end of illusion.
More about Yukio Mishima here.