This was from December 2009:
Shoufu no shitai
The corpse of a prostitute
in the heavy falling snow
Like so many of these haiku, this can be humorous, or it could be vulgar and disgusting, or macabre. But it could also be an experience of the tragedy of life, the pathos. The snow falls and covers the sad shell of what was probably a sad, pathetic, and tragic life. It covers it without intention or meaning just as it covers the withered tree branches of winter, or the roofs of family homes where people lie snuggled together in the warmth and love of family. It covers her dead corpse just as swiftly and easily as it covers the lives on that day of her family, if any still live, who themselves are probably oblivious to her whereabouts or her demise. It could even be snowing down on her own children, if she has them, waiting for their mother to come home, and hopefully bring them food…
But it is also a sacred haiku. White is a sacred color of purity in Japan. In a previous post I wrote about becoming a Buddha (hotoke nari), and how death in Japan has a concept of sacred cleansing of the evil and lust of the physical world. Therefore white is associated with death.
One of my favorite samurai TV shows in Japan, Ko tsure Ohkame, was a famous story that was also made into comic books (manga), and possibly even anime (I watch very little anime). The title doesn’t sound so good in English, ‘The Wolf that takes the kid with him’ or ‘Wolf accompanied by child.’ Part of the problem is it loses its cool sound in English because we cannot modify nouns in an adjectival way with verbs, like ‘Child-taking wolf.’ I know there is an English version of the manga, at least, but I don’t know the English title. Anyway, the story is about a war between two actual samurai families of feudal Japan. In this story the main character’s family has all been killed except his young son of about 2 or 3 years of age. He sets out with his son, on a trip of revenge against the other family. But the complications does not end their—he is blind, and must rely entirely on his samurai skills and sense, and Buddhist spirituality to make his way through this battle against countless foes, all while protecting his son.
In one climactic episode of the TV series, he, and if I remember right (I last saw this in the 1980’s), a woman who occasionally joined him in her own quest for vengeance, were to do battle with the head of the enemy family. Before the battle they both dawned kimono’s, obis (belts), and so forth, of pure white. Then right before entering into battle, with swords drawn, they slipped off their sandals—entering bare foot. This is a powerful death motif in Japan. It said that they knew this could be a suicide mission, and were prepared to die. But they would fight to the death, a death that would be cleansing and carry them into the next world, because, their white kimonos also showed that they had made peace with themselves and the world, and had fully submitted themselves to the cycle of life, whatever it brings them.
Of course, the series had to go on, and I don’t remember the details, but I believe they both lived as did the enemy master.
Even today, you see Japanese take off their shoes as a symbol of their readiness to die. If you happen to be on a roof of a high building, and see a Japanese individual step onto the roof, walk over the edge, and take off his or her shoes—-you better have someone call 911, get over there fast.
But getting back to the haiku, I believe this concept of white is not exclusively Buddhist, but Shinto as well. On one level this is a Buddhist haiku. But I am not Buddhist. I have great respect for Buddhism, and if I was to follow an organized religion, Buddhism would be a great contender to be it. But I am an animist—and therefore closer to Shintoism in belief.
Therefore this has significance in an animistic way to me that is still not alien to a Japanese sentiment: It is nature, in her endless dynamic of birth, life, death, renewal, that cleanses and purifies. The dead prostitute, left to the elements like a pile of rubbish (at least if she had been there for a while, her body not yet discovered, or perhaps not yet removed by the proper authorities), is still cleansed and purified, but not by man, not by his religious institutions, but the eternal never-ending Mother Nature.
Here is another one, that could be Buddhist, but to me it fits my animistic belief system:
Oku eh, oku eh to
Fuyu mori ni
into the winter forest–
It is about the moon, which can symbolize enlightenment in Buddhism. There is a death significance to the moon too perhaps, but I do not remember off hand. To an animist, it is a living companion, and depending on the tradition, a god or goddess. Tsukiyomi is the Shinto Goddess of the moon–the personification of the moon. Saigyo, a Buddhist poet, wrote a tanka about the moon, flowing through the forest of Tsukiyomi–which was, to him, a metaphor for Buddhist teachings being absorbed in Japan with the animistic Shinto perspective. Buddhism was therefore adopted in a uniquely Japanese fashion when it came to this land of the rising sun. (I am not Shinto, because I am not Japanese–but animistic spirituality is not concerned with titles, or man-made designations, it is all sacred, and one animistic belief fits right in with another). ‘Oku’ can mean the center, or deep, or deep within. Oku eh refers to movement towards that inner place.