The first impression that will strike a reader is the power of the deep religious beliefs that lie at the base of the whole tale. The opening sentences of the very first section lays this out explicitly:
The bell of the Gion temple tolls into every man's heart to warn him that all is vanity and evanescence. The faded flowers of the sâla trees by the Buddha's deathbed bear witness to the truth that all who flourish are destined to decay. Yes, pride must have its fall, for it is as unsubstantial as a dream on a spring night. The brave and violent man: he too must die away in the end, like a whirl of dust in the wind.
(Kitagawa and Tsuchida, p. 5)
Those inevitable cycles of life and death, flourishing and decay, represent one of the great insights into the human condition as captured in medieval Buddhist thought. These attitudes color basic Japanese attitudes towards the world and the limitations of human possibilities. Perhaps the most succinct statement of these values which pervade the Heike can be found in another literary masterpiece written during the same war period. Entitled An Account of My Hut, the author, Kamo no Chōmei (1153-1216), sets out to explain the sense of mutability that pervades his consciousness.
The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration; so in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were there of old. Some were burnt last year and only since rebuilt; great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. The city is the same, the people are as numerous as ever, but of those I used to know, a bare one or two in twenty remain. They die in the morning, they are born in the evening like foam on the water.
(Keene, Anthology, p. 197)
With the coming of these civil wars, basic Japanese attitudes began to change. During the earlier part of the Heian period, at the time when The Tale of Genji was written, those (or at least those educated enough to leave behind written records in their society) were convinced that the present was the greatest of all possible times. And the future would surely be an improvement. Now, after all the destruction at the end of the twelfth century, the present began to be seen as dubious and ill-fated. As Buddhist doctrine put it, it was now a period marking the decline and end of the Buddhist Law (mappō in Japanese). Now it became the past, as reflected in the Heian court, not the present, that represented the ideal. Before one looked ahead; from now on, one could only look backwards.