SAYING GOODBYE TO THE ANCESTORS

Let’s revisit this same haiku from the past two posts:

 

谷神  [グシエン]

秋夜
蝋燭消えて
川音消えず

 
Gushen

       

Akiyoru

rousoku kiete

kawa oto kiezu

 

Gushen (The Valley Spirit)

 

A Fall night

the candle dies out

but the sound of the river doesn’t

 

The Japanese, without knowing the experience I wrote this haiku for, would have a completely different immediate take on it—another fall night event that is traditional in parts of Japan. (I say immediate, because haiku should be mulled over—and can have different subjective experiences come out of it, different levels of understanding, different aesthetic images).

First of all they would not get the title—in Japanese it reads tanigami (Valley God), though it would have furigana—a little phonetic alphabet written next to the Kanji so they would see that it actually reads, gushen, and they would immediately know that it is Chinese.

But there is no Taoism in Japan. Taoism has heavy influence through Buddhism, but there are no Taoist temples, or monks or priests and the Tao Te Ching is not on everyone’s Too Read list. They don’t need it. They have their own spirituality handed down from an ancestral Ural-Altaic shamanism: Shintoism. In fact Shintoism means Way of the Gods, and the ~to is the same character as Tao. In its own way it has a lot of similarities to Taoism.

But the haiku itself speaks to another fall-night tradition, which would come to mind of most Japanese. It comes at the end of O-bon. O-bon happens in the fall, and is most obviously celebrated by festivals all over Japan. Traditionally the fields have been harvested and everyone was celebrating—so there is the thanksgiving aspect to O-bon. Communities come together in community dance to the traditional music of the taiko drums, cymbals and some of the wind instruments common to Shinto. There is a lot of drinking and eating, playing games… A festival is like a county fair in the US.

But O-bon is also a time when the spirits of the dead come back to visit the family. It is a good time, if just after the harvests, to see how well their families are doing. One friend of mine told me that after the death of his grandfather, for years his dad would sprinkle ash in the genkan (the entry way of the house where you take off and leave your shoes) the night before the O-bon season begins just as everyone was going to bed. More than once they woke up to see footprints leading into the house from the door.

In some parts of Japan, at the end of the O-bon season, they go to a river to send off their ancestors. The Japanese, you see, have their own concept of the River Styx, which is a very old axis mundi motif. From Africa, clear around the world to South America you have traditions of rivers carrying one to the land of the dead. In the case of the Japanese, they put a lit candle in a boat folded out of paper, and, saying goodbye to their beloved ancestors, set it adrift and watch it float down the river—their deceased loved ones returning to the land of the dead.

The verb kieru (as in rosouku kiete), can mean to go out, as in the candle goes out, or to disappear. So the haiku could refer to the candle going out, or simply disappearing down the river into the distance.

But the river goes on without stop—forever flowing. Your grandparents said goodbye to their ancestors. Today you will be saying goodbye to your ancestors. But one day, on a fall night, just like tonight, your descendents will be saying goodbye to you, as you too float downstream…

Therefore one could read it as:

A fall night
The candle disappears
the sound of the river doesn’t

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