DEATH POEMS (JISEI)

There is another form of haiku that is special in Japan. Well-known haiku poets, the classic poets, and even modern day poets and haiku enthusiasts will produce one of these, sometimes there is some confusion and there may be 2 or 3 such haiku poems—-but the concept is that a person will only produce ‘one’ such poem in his or her lifetime.

 

I am talking about a jisei—a death poem. This is the final poem the artist produces when he knows death is inevitable and soon to be. Fortunately, I am not in that predicament so I will not be sharing my own Death Poem—nor do I even have my own Death Poem. Instead I will share some of the death poems of the classic masters. (These are from a book compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and therefore may be his translations, which I have kept unless I felt it could be translated better).

 

It is Spring now—but we just had a very cold weekend, and plenty of snow—so here are some winter jisei:

 

This one is by the poet Wakyu who died on November 10, 1759:

 

Tsui ni yuku

yuki fumiwakete

fude no michi

 

Heading to the end

treading through heavy snow

way of the brush

 

It doesn’t say heavy snow but that is implied—fumiwakete comes from the verb to step (fumu) and spread apart (wakeru), so it could also be translated as to plow through. The way of the brush, refers to the life of a poet. It implies that the life of a poet is a tough one, but he also suggests that the path he must now go on (death) is also a difficult one.

 

Here is the jisei of Wagin, who died on January 3, 1758:

 

kuse ni natte

nishi ogamikeri

hatsu ashita

 

Its become a habit

bowing to the West

New Year’s dawn

 

Based on Shinto traditions, the Japanese bow to the rising sun on the first morning of the New Years (hatsu ashita–first morning). The West is the direction of the land of the dead, and the Buddhist paradise. As a Buddhist Wagin had become used to bowing to the West. There is a saying in Japan that you are born Shinto and die Buddhist. This doesn’t mean you change religion—if you are born Japanese you are always Shinto, but you also traditionally follow Buddhism. But the Shinto ceremonies tend to be more for the beginning of life—such as numerous ceremonies you take part in at certain ages as a child, or marriage, for example. But a funeral, and the ceremonies on the anniversaries of one’s relative’s death are always a Buddhist affair. But Wagin suggests that he will not bow to the rising sun on New Year’s morning, because he is already ready for the next world.

 

Tojaku, November 8, 1799

 

Mu ni kaeru

mi zo

yuki shimo no itoi nashi

 

Returning to the void

this body!

no longer bothered by the snow and frost

 

A jisei does not neccesarily have to have a seasonal word like standard haiku. In fact it could be a tanka or another form of poem, though haiku are the most common. (I gave an example of a tanka in some of my earlier posts). Here is a haiku without a seasonal word by Toko who died on Feb 11, 1795:

 

jisei to wa

sunawachi mayoi

tada shinan

 

Death poems

are mere delusions.

there is only death

 

Sugetsu died on November 20, 1830:

 

tsumu toshi ni

tabiji e

yuki no kareno kana

 

The years have piled up

on my path

snow on the withered fields!

 

 

The famous Basho, died on October 20th, 1694:

 

tabi ni yande

yume wa kareno o

kakemeguru

 

fallen ill on a journey

my dreams

wander over withered fields

 

Basho’s death occurred after falling ill on one of his famous journeys–his last one—across Japan.

 

Another famous poet–Issho, died December 6, 1688. He was hoping to let Basho, who would soon be travelling through his village stay at his home, unfortunately he did not last that long:

 

kokoro kara

yuki utsukushi ya

nishi no kumo

 

From deep in my heart

the snow is beautiful!

clouds in the west.

 

 

The following Autumn, Basho wrote a haiku of sadness over Issho’s death:

 

tsuka mo ugoke

waga naku koe wa

aki no kaze

 

Move you tomb!

the sound of my weeping

the autumn wind

THE SOUND OF A TEMPLE BELL

人踏まぬ
霞山
お寺鐘の音

 

Hito fumanu

kasumi yama

o-tera kane no oto

 

Misty mountain

where no one steps foot

the sound of a temple bell

 

As I said in a previous post, if you haven’t heard a Buddhist temple bell echoing across a mountain valley, or a rice field, or through the streets of a small village, you are really missing out. It is hard to say what exactly is special about it. It is somewhat unique, it reflects back to a pre-Modern existence. I have heard it said that every time a gong is rung, it has a unique sound, and it will never sound exactly the same as it did before. Perhaps one could say that about a temple bell too. But then again, that might be a bit false in an attempt to be esoteric.

Here is what a temple bell sounds like—perhaps you can get an idea from this how it sounds from a distance. It does not seem that loud, but it is certainly loud enough to carry into the surrounding countryside. And then there is the sound of a very distant temple bell…

But then this haiku is about a misty mountain where people don’t go. So where does the temple bell come from? An echo? Or is it an illusion? Or perhaps from another dimension?

THE TOHOKU EARTHQUAKE

(This was originally posted March 13, 2013, on the other website)

It was around this time—two years ago—March 2011, that Japan experienced the most powerful earthquake ever recorded (at least in modern times). It moved the Japanese main Island, Honshu, Westward so many centimeters and was followed by a horrific tsunami. I have TVJapan as part of my satellite package, and so I got to see first hand a lot of the aftershocks and so forth—at least as good as NHK could broadcast it–as I recall there was a time when even the broadcasts were knocked out—except for the emergency broadcast system.

My sister-in-law happened to be in Tokyo at the time. I mentioned to her before she left, a few days earlier, that there had been an unusual amount of earthquakes recently, “…and I wouldn’t want to go to Japan right now.” Tokyo is still waiting for that next Great Kanto Earthquake. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to come home was that I experienced a large earthquake–over 7—in the Philippines, and I decided that I didn’t want to wait around for a large Tokyo earthquake that even back in the 1990’s was well overdue. Who knows? Maybe this 2011 earthquake released a lot of the stress under the Tokyo plates—-but no one really knows…

Anyway—it scared my sister-in-law so much she wanted to leave Japan as soon as possible. It was several weeks before she could get a flight out. She said that even the water in the hotel toilet splashed all over the floor it was so bad.

If you ever have a chance to watch the movie, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, I really recommend it. They talk about not only the pain and horror of the tsunami, but also the coming of spring, and how everyone was looking forward to viewing the cherry blossoms (hanami–literally flower viewing). But after this terrible disaster, the cherry blossoms took on a whole new meaning: of rebirth, renewal, and growth. But the Cherry blossom only lasts a short time, so it is also a deep symbol of the fleeting, temporal nature of life (See my previous post, YUGEN—A SPIRITUAL FEELING TO DEEP FOR WORDS).

On March 16th, 2011, moved by the terrible events, I composed several haiku:

 

春の朝
津波後
まだ死体あり

 

Haru no asa
tsunami ato
mada shitai ari

 

Spring morning
but after the tsunami
Still there are bodies.

 

Spring is normally a cheerful warm time in Japan. People are coming out of their houses, greeting each other, enjoying the sunshine after the cold bitter winter. It is certainly a time of new beginnings. But in the Tohoku (North Eastern) Region of Japan, the Spring of 2011 was an entirely different experience–a stunned realization of the horror that had hit them. Here is another one with a title:

 

地震
 
春の仙台
瓦礫には
答え無し

 

Jishin
 
haru no sendai
gareki ni wa
kotae nashi

 

Earthquake
 
Spring in Sendai
but in the rubble
there comes no answer.

 

However, even as they searched for survivors—March in Northern Japan is still cold—-it did snow within a day or two, hampering their efforts to find survivors.

 

瓦礫が
白く成る也
町の春雪

 

gareki ga
shiroku naru ya
machi no haru yuki

 

Ah! The rubble
turned white!
spring snow in the village

 

See my earlier post, DEEPER INTO THE FOREST for the sacred, and purifying, significance of the color white.

YUGEN–A SPIRITUAL FEELING TOO DEEP FOR WORDS

There are numerous Japanese words that cannot be translated directly into English. Undeniably my favorite of these words is yugen [幽玄], or more correctly yuugen, though most people who write about it in English write, yugen.

The book, ‘They Have a Word For It,’ defines it as, “An awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.” They quote Alan Watts by explaining it as, “To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon a shore and gaze after a boat that disappears beyond distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”

I don’t know if that is actually Alan Watts’ original words—he may have been quoting someone else, as those are fairly typical descriptions of the feeling of yugen. In fact, I have read that very description in other places.

The Chinese characters for Yugen are Yuu [幽] (a mountain with the radical for thread on each side of the center line), meaning: 1.) to confine to a room, 2.) faint, dim, indistinct, hazy, weak (this is the same yuu used for yuurei (spirit, ghost, apparition) and yuukai (land of the dead); and gen [玄] (a thread with a lid radical over it–which is actually its own radical), meaning dark, mysterious.

I think it is interesting that ‘thread’ is used in both characters—-hinting towards the threads of reality that weave the physical universe into being. There was, for example, an ancient Indo-European concept that reality was a web of threads–and fate, in particular, was conceived as manifesting through threads. The Old-English word, wyrd, referred both to fate, and one of the names of the three Norns, the three old ladies who weaved our fate. Inherent in the concept of wyrd is the fact that our actions create a web of reality in a cause and effect manner. Wyrd, of course, is the root of the modern English word, weird.

String Theory is the modern science version of this very old concept. But reality woven from threads appears elsewhere in Modern science as well. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity tells us that light, from our sub-light-speed perspective, is composed of zero-time zero-space particles, meaning that it does not exist in time or space. The implication is that a photon exists only for an instant, but that instant covers all time and space. It also means that when we perceive (i.e. see) a photon, it must simultaneously exist, outside of time, in both the present, hitting the retina of our eye, and also at its distant point of origin, no matter how many light years away that is. We personally are trapped by time, and can only physically experience the moment of now (which is then irretrievably lost forever as we experience the next moment of now). But since we understand time in our sub-light-speed reality, we see that photon as having traveled over many light years into the present, from our distant past many light years away. But to that zero-time zero-space light particle, its whole existence is all an infinitely small instant in which it is here and there, and all points in between at the same time—-it is a wave of energy, or, as suggested by the Chinese characters for yugen, a thread.

One theory that has been published in recent years, reworked Newton’s law of Motion in such a way as to suggest that mass is actually an illusion created by light trapped by inertia (which they have also reworked inertia to be the latent light energy that fills the universe, or, the Zero-Point Field). In other words, all that is, is simply light energy! And, as I said, as a zero-time zero-space particle, it is essentially nothing more than a thread stretching from the beginning of time, to the end of time. Now—–how does consciousness fit into that? (…Perhaps it is a reality transcendent of light, and therefore shapes light into the illusion of mass, which creates the physical universe—-a very yugen concept to contemplate while staring at a Japanese garden…)

Granted, I have never seen the word yugen discussed in terms of a thread, but there is usually an archetypal symbolism that connects the Chinese characters to the words they refer to. Undoubtedly, I am sure there is something inherent within the concept.

In any event, Yugen is that feeling you get when you perceive that sense of almost being able to touch that profound reality that underlies existence.

It is an extension of the feeling of aware (pronounced Ah-wah-ray)—another Japanese word that is not directly translatable. The same book translates aware as, ” the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty. They provide the example of experiencing the beauty of a cherry blossom slowly falling to the ground—a very Japanese experience because the cherry trees blossom only once a year, and it is a beauty they look forward to, but it only lasts a short time—as the blossoms fall to the ground—a final expression of their beauty, it comes with the knowledge that such beauty is gone for this year. It is therefore understood as a bittersweet beauty referring to the temporal nature of life—the mortality we are all subject too. Life is only fleeting, but in those fleeting moments there is a beauty that exists simply because it is fleeting. (And that is what Heidegger meant when he claimed that we find the significance of being in its finality).

Yugen is, of course, much more profound than aware. As temporal as aware is, yugen implies that beyond this temporal existence there is something more.

One experience I found to be Yugen—was sitting and watching a gold-fish—in a gold-fish bowl—the gentle ways that it moves its fins, even when the fish does not move. It is a gentle, silent wave of movement as the fins bend back and forth between the movement the fish makes and the pressure of the surrounding water.

I hope that many of my own haiku, express a sense of yugen. At least, for me, many of them do. But today, rather than sharing one of my own haiku, I will share one of the Japanese classics. Here is a haiku by the popular haiku poet, Issa, that is so full of yugen, it spills over:

 

Yuzen to shite
yama o miru
kawazu kana

 

Composedly he sits
contemplating the mountains–
the worthy frog!

 

That translation is by Lewis Mackenzie—who takes some liberty with it—but justifiably so.

THE SNOWY MORNING

(On the website where I originally posted this as a thread, this particular one was posted on March 9th. Some of you might think, ‘Wow! he gets up early!’ Actually I am a night person, so if I am up at 6:30 in the morning, it is almost guaranteed that I stayed up all night. Though, it was hard to go to sleep with the beautiful winter scene going on outside…)

It is 6:30 in the morning. Denver is supposed to get 9 – 15 inches of snow today. My yard is already covered in white, and beautiful big flakes are falling. The problem is this storm was not supposed to start for several hours yet according to the forecast last night.

 

雫音
朝のコーヒー
大雪也

 

shizuku oto
asa no kouhii
ohyuki ya

 

dripping sound
the morning coffee
Big snow storm!

 

On a cold winter morning, with heavy snow falling outside, is there anything warmer than a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee? …oh, actually there is:

 

外を見て
布団に戻し
大雪也

 

soto o mite
futon ni modoshi
ohyuki ya

 

A look outside
returning to the futon
Big snowstorm!

 

In America, of course, we return to our beds, rather than a futon…

SPIRITS AND GHOSTS OF THE WINTER

A person’s spirit in Japan is sometimes seen as a small ball of flame floating around. A ghost could appear in this way, or it could be a floating figure without feet, or a full figured apparition, just like anywhere else. There is always the famous ghost story that seems to be popular in Japan and many other countries of a ricksha driver, or a taxi driver picking up a beautiful woman with a depressed demeanor, who then wants to be driven to an address near a graveyard. As they pass the graveyard she disappears. There are people who swear they know someone who this really happened to.

But the little glowing flame floating around is one of the spirit motifs, and it is based on something people actually see: the kitsunebi (fox flame) or onibi (monster flame) are two of the names of this phenomena. In haiku it is a winter seasonal word. I don’t know if they are more common in the winter or that it is because winter has a natural association with death. I suppose we could relate this to glowing swamp gas perhaps? One theory of its origin, according to a Japanese book I have is that these glowing floating apparitions may be the result of decomposing horse bones or other animal bones, that were gnawed on by a fox. (I’m not sure why a fox has a causal effect, if any).

But they are spooky nonetheless. The English equivalent of kitsunebi, or onibi is will-o’- the-wisp, or St. Elmo’s Fire.

 

夜の森深し
雲に月
狐火也

 

yo no mori fukashi
kumo ni tsuki
kitsunebi ya

 

Deep in the night forest
the moon in the clouds
ah! spirit fire!

 

Ghosts, monsters, and will-o-the-wisps, make nice creepy entertainment, and the Japanese have plenty of them, but I was never one to believe in such things. That is, until I lived in the Philippines for a while… But that’s another story for another time.

 

狐火也
間違い道に
古盆地

 

kitsunebi ya
machigai michi ni
furu bonchi

 

The spirit fire!
on a wrong road
an old graveyard

 

These are all from 2006. Here is another one that can be disconcerting if you were to ever experience it.

 

夜の森
水の音
みみづく鳴き也

 

yoru no mori
mizu no oto
Mimitzuku naki ya

 

The night time forest
sound of water
a horned owl cries!

 

The owl has a beautiful call, but it is a bit creepy–especially when you don’t expect it. Actually, anytime you walk through a thicket of bamboo at night, you are likely to startle a bird that was resting there–unseen until you stumbled upon it, and it suddenly flies up and away with a flurry of wings and loud alarming squawks. It is very startling as it shatters the silence, even when you know it is likely to happen and try to expect it.

On a different note, the Japanese have a custom similar to the voodoo doll. You had to be pretty upset with someone to do this—because it was dangerous. Perhaps a common reason this would happen would be a broken heart—it seems that women are more likely to resort to black magic than men in Japan (besides, traditionally Japanese men generally try to maintain an air of cold-hearted indifference when it comes to romance)—though, obviously men could get angry enough to do such things too.

This is called a noroi ningyounoroi is a curse and ningyou is a doll. You generally needed something from the person, as I recall, it was usually hair, but perhaps fingernail clippings or something like that could be used. You dressed like a ghost or the Japanese dead, all in white—then at midnight, with a triangle-shaped cloth worn over your forehead like a crown, you would make the doll out of straw and whatever you had off the body of your victim, putting all your evil intention of pain and harm into it. Then you would take off deep into a forest where no one would find it, and nail the doll onto a tree–typically one nail through the heart. By some traditions, you would wear a crown with candles on your head—formed from the kettle stand from a ro stove, placed upside down on your head, and candles placed on the legs. It was risky however, because if it backfired, the pain you intended for your victim could come back to you, but multiplied many times from what you had intended.

This is one I composed this year:

 

夜森の月に
古呪い
人形也

 

yomori no tsuki ni
furu noroi
ningyou ya

 

The moonlit night forest
Ah!
an old curse-doll!

 

The moon by itself was a fall word, which is to say that this is a fall haiku.

THE DISTANT TEMPLE BELL

Do you remember the Chinese poem, The Temple Bell, by Yuan Mei (1716 – 1798) that I posted a while back (See, THE BELL IN THE LONELY TEMPLE, CLOUD HIDDEN)? Here it is again:

 

Ancient Temple, monks all gone
the Buddha’s image fallen

 

The single bell
hangs high in evening’s glow

 

Sad, so full of music…
Ah, just one little tap!
But no one dares.

 

Here is another haiku along those same lines from Oct 2008:

 

冬の山
風に吹かれる
寺の鐘

 

fuyu no yama
kaze ni fukareru
tera no kane

 

The wintery mountain
blown by the wind
temple bell.

 

What image did that first bring to mind for you? A cold winter wind blowing on a mountain temple, while monks, bracing against the elements, ring the bell? Or was it a cold winter wind that rings the bell, in an old mountain temple, long abandoned like the one in the Chinese poem? The fact that the second line, blown by the wind, could refer to either the winter mountain, or the temple bell, is a good example of one of the aspects that gives haiku such subjectivity.

Here’s another haiku, this one from November 2006

 

雪の町
夜の静まりに
寺の鐘

 

yuki no machi
yo no shizumari ni
tera no kane

 

Snowy village
in the silence of the night
a temple bell

 

Yes, I love those temple bells. People who have never heard a Buddhist temple bell echo through the mountains, or across the fields, or even through the streets of a small village—don’t know what they are missing…

This one from November, 2002 relates to my favorite Chinese poem about being cloud hidden (also in that same previous post):

 

雲の中
山の庵に
初雪也

 

kumo no naka
yama no iori ni
hatsu yuki ya

 

Within the clouds
in the mountain hermitage.
The first snow!

 

Though most of us have never actually lived in a mountain hermitage, cloud hidden, I hope you have at least experienced a snowfall from the warmth of a mountain cabin—such stillness!

Here is one from December, 1999:

 

黒屋根に
重い雪雲
火の番也

 

kuro yane ni
Omoi yuki gumo
hi no ban ya

 

Black roofs and
heavy snow clouds.
The fire lookouts!

 

In Japan in the winter, the men of the local community take turns going out into the cold night and walking as a small group watching for fires, and warning the people of the neighborhood to be careful with their stoves and candles and all. Fire is a big danger in Japan, especially in the winter. Probably at least once a week, if not more, you’ll hear of a tragic death in a fire. There are a lot of wooden houses, and when a fire starts, those houses burn quickly. The fire lookouts (or whatever you want to call them), walk around the neighborhood alerting people with two sticks that are banged together making a large ‘tok’ sound. This is followed by a call to be careful—goyou—but it is called out in a fairly slow rhythm in a chant-like, eerie sounding voice by the whole group in unison: (tok!) “goyohhhhhhh…” (tok!) “goyohhhhhhh…” (tok!) “goyohhhhhhh…”

It especially sounds eerie if you don’t know what they are saying or why. In years past they would stay out till late into the night, and watched for burglars and other night problems. They are probably a cry back to ancient times when the little farming villages needed lookouts for wild animals and enemies come to steal grain. Today they don’t stay out too late, and mainly do this in the winter.

Japanese roofs are all tiled in large beautiful black tiles. You can imagine the contrast between those black tiled roofs and the heavy snow clouds above them in the winter sky.