Spring Death Poems (Haru no jisei)

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and happiness. But death is an inescapable part of life. The existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that it is the finality of life that gives it meaning, and in this respect he certainly mirrored a Japanese sentiment of impermanence that is centuries old.

I shared a number of Jisei, or death poems before. As I said then, I will not share my own, mainly because I am not dying, and therefore do not have my own jisei (There was a time in the late 1600’s when I thought I was dying, and I contemplated whether or not I should compose a death poem, but time passed and I never really needed to…)

These poems come from the book, Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and I have kept his translation, unless I felt it could be improved upon.

I will start with the poet, Bako, who died on May 1st, 1751. His jisei is about the hototogisu, a species of cuckoo that is appreciated for its beautiful voice. But it is also considered a messenger of death.  It is actually a summer word, but as I mentioned before, jisei do not always follow the season they were written in:

 

furikaeru

tani no to mo nashi

hototogisu

 

Looking back at the valley

no more dwellings, only

the cuckoo cries

 

The hototogisu does not make its own nest, but instead takes over the nest of the Nightingale, and pushes the nightingale’s eggs out of the nest, to lay its own.

Another one about this bird was composed by, Chosui, who died on April 4th, 1769 (my translations):

 

koki usuki

kumo o machiete

hototogisu

 

dark clouds, white clouds passing

I wait

hototogisu

 

Or this could also be translated in view of the Buddhist tradition that clouds appear in the West when one dies. The post-particle ‘o‘ in this haiku indicates that Chosui is waiting for the clouds, rather than simply waiting as clouds pass:

 

Thick ones, thin ones,

I await the clouds

the hototogisu cries

 

Hoyu died at the end of the 17th Century:

 

namu ya sora

tada ariake no

hototogisu

 

Praise to the skies

alone in moonlit early dawn

a  cuckoo cries

 

Namu actually stands for Namu Amida Butsu, a prayer to Amida Buddha. I could therefore translate this as,

 

Namu!

Alone in the sky’s early dawn light

A hototogisu

 

There is an anonymous poem that was supposedly composed by a prisoner right before his execution. I don’t remember Hoffman including this in his book. But I always liked it:

 

sono ato wa

meido de kikan

hototogisu

 

hototogisu

I will hear the rest of the song

in the land of the dead

 

Chine was the sister of Kyorai, a famous poet.  She died May 15th, 1688:

 

moeyasuku

mata kieyasuki

hotaru kana

 

It lights up

as easily as it fades

the firefly!

 

(Hoffman did not include the exclamation point, but that is what ‘kana‘ implies) After her death, Kyorai composed the following (my translation):

 

te no ue ni

kanashiku kiyuru

hotaru kana

 

In my hand,

sadly,  it fades

the firefly!

 

Chora died May 5th, 1776 (my translation):

 

gokuraku to

iute neburu ya

kaya no uchi

 

“Paradise”

I murmur in my sleep!

in the mosquito netting

 

After his death, his wife responded with:

 

ka no koe mo

kanashiki kaya no

atari kana

 

the drone of the mosquitoes

round the netting, too,

is sad

 

The famous artist, Hokusai, who made the beautiful woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji, died on April 12th 1849 (my translation):

 

hitodama

yuku kisan ja

natsu no hara

 

As a ghost

I will wander

the summer fields

 

As spring unfolded, he clearly longed for the green beauty of summer, when the fields have grown and the undergrowth is thick.

Here is one last one—-Kinu died on March 2nd, 1817:

 

yururi saku

kotoshi no hana no

kakugo kana

 

How leisurely the cherry

blossoms bloom this year, unhurried,

by their doom!

 

As I have mentioned before, the cherry blossoms are always a strong symbol of the temporal nature of life. This is Heidegger’s existentialism–the beauty of the cherry blossom, which the Japanese wait a whole year for, yet it lasts for only a short time, before raining down, petal by petal, in one last final show of beauty before the blossoms decay back into nature.  Heidegger would add that, to be truly human, one must break free from the conformity of the collective consciousness, and to stand out and shine as does the cherry blossom. But in this haiku by the poet, now facing the  certainty of death, the sakura shine on, as if oblivious to their own finality. As they begin to blossom they have their whole life as a blossom ahead of them…

(I added the last comma and the appropriate exclamation point, because the emphasis of the Japanese ‘kana‘ is on the final line).

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A SPRING STORM

We had a good downpour today. Even had a few strikes of lightning. In fact, the past few days have been quite warm, even getting into the 80’s recently. Spring is here—but Denver can still get a snowstorm this time of year. Each day it is less likely, but it has happened.

If you read my post, THE BELL IN THE LONELY TEMPLE, CLOUD HIDDEN, you might recall that I wrote about a small temple in the mountains north of Kyoto. I had to hike up a narrow trail in the thick forest and bamboo groves to get there, and there was no one around. I was very fascinated with how, as a breeze blew into the temple, a little bell hanging off the bottom of a long scroll or pennant would hit the wall and ring. In a moment somewhat akin to pondering over a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear—I was very fascinated with that bell—–and just sat quietly listening to it, very contented, peaceful—insects were buzzing, and birds were chirping, and yet I was the only human there to listen to that bell. And once I was to leave, I knew it would go on ringing, but no one would be there. As I pointed out in my previous post, no matter what the weather—all year long, whenever there is a breeze or a wind, it will ring.

Thinking about that I composed several tanka today as I was out driving around in the rain:

 

春の嵐也
何回も
阿弥陀寺の鈴は
鳴くが
聞こえる人なし

 

Haru no arashi ya
nankai mo
amidaji no suzu wa
naku ga
kikoeru hito nashi

 

Ah. The spring storm!
over and over
the little bell in Amida Temple
rings, but
no one is there to hear

 

This next one is kind of an experiment, because haiku and tanka have a rythm when read in Japanese. A bad rythm, which is probably more difficult for foreigners to pick up, can make for bad haiku. But in this one I purposely strain the rythm. But the bell itself on that day, had a somewhat slow restrained rythm, as the wind picked up the scroll to let it fall back against the wall, allowing for a few seconds between each ring of the bell:

 

春の嵐也
りん。。。りん。。。と
阿弥陀寺の鈴
りん。。。りん。。。と
誰も聞こえぬ

 

haru no arashi ya
rin… rin… to
amidaji no suzu
rin… rin… to
dare mo kikoenu

 

the spring storm!
ring… ring…
the little bell in Amida Temple
ring… ring…
no one can hear

 

阿弥陀寺の鈴
 
人踏まぬ
山の古寺
春の風が
吹くといつも
呼び出したり也

 

Amida-ji no suzu
 
hito fumanu
yama no furudera
haru no kaze ga
fuku to itsumo
yobidashitari ya

 

The little bell of Amida Temple
 
No one steps foot in
the old mountain temple
but when the spring wind blows
it always
calls out!

 

The Japanese verb, yobidasu, has several meanings, including to call out, call up, to invite, to summon, and even to conjure up. When we add, ~tari, to the end of a verb, it implies doing multiple things. So we could translate the last line to be, ‘it calls out and stuff!’ Or perhaps we could write something like, ‘calls out, summons, and conjures up…!’

After all, we might wonder, if no one is there to hear the bell, then who is it really for—perhaps the statue of Amida Buddha sitting next to it? Or perhaps it is calling out to people to come pay respects, or to come break the loneliness of this little temple at the end of a narrow mountain trail.

Here is another Spring haiku:

 

心配たくさん
雀の子
見る親

 

shinpai takusan
suzume no ko
miru oya

 

There are many worries
–the parents who watch
their baby sparrows

 

Spring is a time when families finally get to go out and enjoy the nice weather after the cold winter months. Sometimes for really small children, it is the first time that they can really experience the outdoors, at least without having to bundle all up in clothes that allow little freedom of movement. Sparrows, like humans, watch their babies very carefully. It is in the Spring that they are hatched, and eventually get to leave the nest, try to learn to fly, and first begin to explore. It is also a time when they can become a delicious and hardy meal for a hawk or an eagle, or even a neighborhood cat.

A sparrow had made a nest on top of the circuit breaker or fuse box on the back of my house. It was fun to watch them hatch, and grow, and the mother work hard to feed them. She was upset every time we walked out our back door, which was next to the fuse box. One day I could hear that the mother was quite upset. It was shortly after my wife had let my beagle out to do her business. I guess the mother was training her babies to fly, I don’t really know how it happened—but when I stepped out, it was obvious that my playful and always hungry beagle had happily chomped all the babies down.

HOME ALONE ON A WINDY NIGHT WITH A CHINESE LUTE

I am at home alone (the wife’s exercising and I think everyone else is at a movie). There is a strong wind blowing outside, and I have a CD of Chinese lute (Pipa) music playing. Whenever I put on this CD I feel like I can almost taste a very nice cup of Jasmine tea. I would go make some, but I’d have to look for it, and I’m too lazy—I will add another haiku post to this thread instead. The Pipa is known as a biwa (琵琶) in Japan. The CD has such titles, poorly translated as, ‘Chen Hsin-yuan to Pacify the Barbarian/Fall into Courtyard,’ ‘Playing Xiao and Drum Under the Setting Sun,’ ‘A Tyrant in the Difficult Status,’ and ‘A Blossom of Plum.’ These songs are generally classic pieces that were played on the pipa. The title of the CD, is ‘Shi Mian Maifu‘ which means, ‘Ambushed From Ten Sides.’ It is also the title of the 3rd song. This song and most of the others are listed on Wikipedia under Pipa as traditional classics for this instrument. The authors that put out the CD translated Shi mian maifu as ‘An Overall Ambush.’ But shi mian does mean 10 sides, or 10 fronts.

Anyway—-it’s a great CD if you like stringed instruments, and want to set that perfect mood for a cup of Jasmine Tea. Some of the songs are played solely by a pipa, others are accompanied by other traditional instruments.

Here is the song Shi Mian Maifu (Ambushed from Ten Sides) on a pipa:

 

 

But if that is a little too wild and violent for you, here is, White Snow in the Spring Sunlight:

 

 

It’s spring, but Colorado can still get a lot of snowstorms this month (today was over 70 though…). Regardless, winter and fall haiku are my favorites. Here are some more from 2006—I’ll stick a Spring one in there:

 

夜の闇に

寝る町

大雪おこり

 

Yoru no yami ni

neru machi

Ohyuki okori

 

In the darkness of the night

the sleeping village

a blizzard arises

 

At night, as most of the creatures of the day, including man, sleep, they are completely oblivious to the storm brewing up outside their homes. But it wouldn’t matter, we are helpless and weak against the fury of mother nature’s storms. Nothing we can do will arrest its development.

 

夜の森

水の音

みみづく鳴き也

 

yoru no mori

mizu no oto

mimitzuku naki ya

 

Forest in the night

the sound of water.

A horned owl cries!

 

The seasonal word hear is the horned owl—but I cannot say for sure what season that is off the top of my head—-I’d have to look it up.

 

山深し

森にかくるる

冬の月

 

yama fukashi

mori ni kakururu

fuyu no tsuki

 

Deep in the mountains

hiding in the forest

the winter moon

 

~ruru is an older verb conjugation. Here is another one–a spring one–along the same lines:

 

古池に

隠りょうとする

春の月

 

furu ike ni

kakuryou to suru

haru no tsuki

 

in the old pond

it tries to hide–

the spring moon

 

Whenever you use ‘furu ike’ (old pond), it probably calls to mind the most famous haiku of all–especially outside of Japan: furu ike ya/kaeru tobikomu/mizu no oto, or, ‘The old pond!/frog jumps in/the sound of water.’

The moon, as I have mentioned numerous times before, has a lot of meaning to the Japanese. It is a symbol of enlightenment for example. The moon trying to hide in a pond, is an aesthetic interpretation of an experience when, at least for a moment, one has been gripped by nature. It becomes much deeper though if we think of the old pond as a metaphor for the consciousness, and under its surface—the subconscious. As I have stated before, I am not Buddhist, but rather an animist, so I could interpret the moon in ways other than Buddhist enlightenment—such as a deep knowledge of spirit, or the connection to the other side, or even that animating force (what the Japanese would call 神 kami) within each living thing. And the pond, rather than, consciousness, could be that veil between physical reality, and the hidden reality of spirit. There are so many ways that one could experience this haiku—some perhaps, at least for me, touching on that special feeling of 幽玄 (yuugen—-See my post, YUGEN—A SPIRITUAL FEELING TOO DEEP FOR WORDS).

AND—-this is the Spring moon that is hiding, and spring is a time of new beginnings…

The Chinese pipa music however, has got me to thinking about haiku regarding the biwa. Maybe next time I’ll have one or two haiku on that theme.

THE LITTLE STONE JIZO-SAMAS

Here is another tanka I composed in 2006:

 

冬の夜
松の間に
地蔵菩薩あり
ほう覚えろよ
と風がなくの

 

fuyu no yo
matsu no ma ni
jizobousatsu ari
hou, oboeroyo
to kaze ga naku no

 

In the winter’s night
between the pine trees
sits Jizobousatsu
‘Hey remember… remember…’
the wind cries

 

In my previous post, THE LITTLE STONE BUDDHA AND THE LONELY FIFE OF THE RAMEN SELLER, I talked a bit about the jizobousatsu–the little stone Bodhisattvas.  You find them in mountain temples and shrines, and other sacred places in the mountains and countryside. You can buy ones that are anywhere from a few inches tall to maybe a foot or so. Then you can place it yourself on one of these spots with your own prayer. However they are generally considered guardians of children, and children especially need to be guarded in the afterlife. Most of them are placed with prayers for a stillbirth, or an aborted child (which is fairly common in Japan). There is something certainly tragic and sad connected with many of these little statues.

I have seen very old jizobousatsu that are so old, the stone carvings have lost most of their details. Generally each one looks more like a phallus–correction, many of them look just like a phallus.

 

谷風や
そこの地蔵様の
思い出

 

tanikaze ya
soko no jizosama no
omoide

 

The valley wind!
reminding
of the Jizo-sama there.

 

This is actually a summer haiku. The valley wind is a wind that rises up from a valley in the summer. This Jizobousatsu could be sitting in the valley below, or this haiku could be metaphoric for a memory of some sort rising up from the subconscious that reminds one of other, more hidden things, or perhaps that tragic thing one doesn’t want to recall, or at least recall directly…

 

冬霞
谷懐の
古神社

 

fuyugasumi
tanibutokoro no
furu jinja

 

Winter’s mist
the old shrine
at the bottom, deep in the steep valley

 

tanibutokoro refers to deep within a steep valley that is surrounded on each side by steep mountains. Shinto shrines are always painted a bright reddish-orange, and are very ornate and detailed in texture. Can you imagine, deep in a green mountain valley, still crisp and cold from the winter, and snow still sitting in spots, mist rising up everywhere, that somehow the bright (but fading) colors and bits of details peek through from the old shrine—probably abandoned…? Or, perhaps once again this refers to a spot deep in your subconscious–a forgotten spot—-a sacred place.

Maybe it is not even your own sacred place—but that of your ancestors, still sitting there in your personal collective unconscious. It was this part of the psyche, the collective unconscious, that Jung said held the truths, traditions, wisdom, and cultural motifs of all our ancestors. A shrine is a very old structure that goes back even into the distant paleolithic. Even the Neanderthal built shrines with the bones of Cave Bears. If you go back far enough, we all have those same indigenous roots. There is a connection between those messages, symbols, and archetypal meanings buried in the ancient cave paintings, that returns in the myths and symbols of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Mohenjodaro,  Ancient China, Japan, or even North and South America, and Australia; and that still resonates in the organized religions of today.

Many do not realize it, but that long forgotten, ancient, abandoned shrine buried in the bottom depths of the collective unconscious, is still just as significant today, as it was when our distant ancestors actually used it.

SOME MORE WINTER HAIKU

I thought of putting in some Spring haiku, but we are getting some light snow today, and it has been overcast all day—very wintery looking out there. Here are some haiku from 2006 – 2007 (I don’t think I have shared any of these ones yet):

 

雪雲り

夕方に

町の光や

 

Yukigumori

yuugata ni

machi no hikari ya

 

Snow clouds

in the evening

the village lights!

 

I love how the lights of a village or town contrast against the darkening gray overcast sky of an early winter’s evening. Or in the late evening, after the sun has gone down, glow against the low hanging clouds, heavy with snow. Yukigumori could also be translated as, ‘threatening to snow.’

 

雪雲り

日暮れに

遠寺の鐘

 

Yukigumori

higure ni

toudera no kane

 

Snow clouds

at day’s end

a distant temple bell

 

 

雪の朝

流れ星の

静かさ也

 

Yuki no asa

nagareboshi no

shizukasa ya

 

snowy morning

the stillness

of a shooting star!

 

Most likely this would be in the very early morning before sunrise, though potentially it could be a brighter one in the early light. I have experienced the quiet hiss of a shooting star that many people report (and science can’t quite explain). That hiss is a silence of its own. On the other hand, when they are completely silent, there seems to be something special about that silence too. As it plummets towards earth, you know that a rock travelling at a very high speed, is melting under intense heat into nothing but minute particles of black iron, and yet this climactic event (climactic for the rock), happens in utter silence, and it lasted for only a brief moment.

I actually composed this one after watching a large shooting star fall towards snowy peaks across a mountain valley, when I happened to walk out on a veranda at 2:00 in the morning, while visiting my mom & dad’s condo up in Breckenridge Colorado. This was in October 2007, and I half expected to see one. Because, the year before I had stepped out onto their condo veranda on a Sunday night in October, about the same time, only to see a shooting star. A week later I was up in Breckenridge again and on a Saturday, about the same time, the same thing happened again. That was three times in a row, so I began stepping out more often—but alas, it has never happened again.

 

大雪の

人もなく道

神さびた

 

Ohyuki no

hito mo naku michi

kamisabita

 

A big snow

the road void of people

serene

 

Or another translation:

 

A big snow

the empty road

touched by the gods

 

There are a lot of ways we could say kamisabita, and I don’t know if any of them do justice to the word. Kami is god or gods, sabiru can mean mature, or mellow, but it can also mean to rust, and to be lonely. But it can be a very special loneliness connected to the Japanese appreciation of simplicity and the rustic. Sabi, in the latter case, is one of those words that does not have an English equivalent. Another translation for kamisabita is hallowed. Or, I could also use, ‘filled with the gods,’ for the last line.

 

重い雪雲

支えるか

老い松也

 

Omoi yukigumo

sasaeru ka

oimatsu ya

 

the heavy snow clouds

does it hold them up

–the ancient pine tree?!

 

Oimatsu is simply a very old pine, another word would be the aged pine tree. In the initial interpretation of this, it is an aesthetic experience of the tree against the clouds. But old trees and other old things of nature, are especially filled with kami—the shinto gods. As an animist belief system, everything has kami within it, but the old things have come into their own way with there kami spirit. Perhaps we could say that they are so filled with kami that they outwardly manifest that in the gnarls of their trunks and branches and the silent strength such old things portray. To hold up the clouds demonstrates that silent, god-filled sense of strength. We could take it even further though—clear across Eurasia, the tall straight pine trees seem to connect with the World Tree, the Axis Mundi—-the celestial center of the world that pierces from the underworld, into our world, and then into the upper worlds. It is the portal of the divine, where spirit connects to us, and we can possibly connect to spirit. The big giant cedar pines in Japan certainly look as if they could be such a portal and universal center. I have a book called Nippon Shinwa (Stories of the Japanese gods) which has the only true Japanese scriptures—the Kojiki and Nihongi—-in it, and explores and discusses these very old myths. As I recall, there is a Pillar God who is connected with the creation of the structure of the universe—-and seems related to these old cedar pines.

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.