They say he only likes it when you pat his belly

仏の顔も三度
(Hotoke no kao mo sando; “Even the Buddha’s face, three times”)

Definition:

Even the most gentle person will become angry if you treat them poorly on a frequent enough basis (often used in reference to rude behavior). Even the patience of a saint will eventually be tried. Everyone has a limit to how much improper behavior they can put up with, especially directed at their own person. You can only go so far.

Breakdown:

This is not a complete sentence, although the full version is. We begin with the noun (Hotoke), the Buddha, and use the associative particle (no) to show possession of the noun that follows – (kao), “face.” The resulting noun phrase is marked with (mo), often translated as “also” or “too,” but here something closer to “even.” Finally, we get number-noun 三度 (sando), “three times.”

Notes:

Some versions of this saying add まで (made) “[up] to,” at the end, expressing it more clearly as an upper limit. The full saying continues with ~三度撫づれば腹立つ (~sando nazureba hara tatsu); oddly enough, this reveals that stroking the Buddha’s face (in an affectionate way) is his trigger. Other versions replace with 地蔵 (Jizou), the bodhisattva Kshitigarbha.

This is the entry of the Kyoto iroha karuta set.

The source of this saying is apparently 冥途の飛脚 (translated into English as The Courier of Hell), a love-suicide story for the puppet theater by famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

Example sentence:

「また約束を破ったのか。仏の顔も三度までというものだ」

(“Mata yakusoku wo yabutta no ka. Hotoke no kao mo sando made to iu mono da.”)

[“So you broke another promise? That’s it, there are limits to even the Buddha’s patience.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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