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).

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 VALLEY SPIRIT

In the last post I ended with this haiku, which has the title Gushen, the female Spirit of the Valley from Chapter 6 in the Tao Te Ching:

 

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

 

Here is Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching:

 

The spirit of the valley does not die,

and is called mysterious female.

The door of the mysterious female

is called the root of heaven and earth.

It lingers in wisps;

use it without haste.

 

I have a book of lectures on each chapter of the Tao Te Ching, by the Taoist, Man-Jan Cheng. Using the I-Ching, he says that this chapter is about meditation, and breath—ch’i. He reasons that a valley is filled with ch’i—and the ch’i moves in and out of the door—the root of heaven and earth, which is much like the nose and mouth, and to use without haste then is a meditative breathing technique.

I prefer a more literal meaning to this, which he does allude to. The feminine is always associated with the gate, the door, the hollow, the empty space. This of course, as the feminine, refers to the yoni. The gate or door is, to say it more blatantly, the vulva, the hollow empty space is the womb. The Tao Te Ching elsewhere points out that it is the empty space that makes such things powerful and useful. A mountain valley is filled with empty space—and yes, the mysterious chi fills that empty space.

Taoism is a very old belief system handed down from an old Ural-Altaic shamanistic spirituality. A very important aspect of these old beliefs, like all old animistic beliefs, is the portal—the doorway to the divine. Every religion around the world has inherited this concept from its ancestral animistic roots. In Shamanism, it is through this doorway that the shaman passes on his spirit journey into the other world, the spirit world. It is the WorldCave, the World Tree, the World Mountain—the celestial axis, or axis mundi. In modern religion it is the cross, the stupa, the Kalamakara, the torii gate—it has many forms. But it is always the portal that connects this world to the next.

In doing research for my first book, I realized that this axis mundi is always hollow—therefore physically, in practicality for us, it is two-fold: the womb and the grave. The blood sacrifice that accompanied the ancient hunts (going back to the Paleolithic), and the ancient burial of family and friends (who were buried in the fetal position with lots of red) is only half the story then, the blood of the menses being the other half. Hence the Old Testament God, for example, could only be approached through the blood sacrifice…

‘The door of the mysterious female is called the root of heaven and earth’—is clearly referring to the axis mundi—the archetype of the World Tree/World Cave/World Mountain. The valley—the vast empty space of nothingness situated between two mountain ridges—is another doorway to that other world.

The existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that it is within the nothingness that we find being. On one level, he was speaking of the anxiety over ‘nothingness’ that makes up the existential crisis. We cannot say, in such a crisis, what it is that makes us feel ill at ease. We can get no hold on things, and, “Anxiety reveals the nothing.” But he also was speaking of a more profound level of nothingness.

Heidegger had his own connection to the old shamanistic beliefs. He came from a peasant farming family and was therefore familiar with some of the old Germanic folk (pagan) traditions. But as a philosopher, he lived in the Cartesian Post-Kantian world in which Nietzsche declared, ‘God is dead.” Science was the new truth and he could see no alternative. He lamented man’s predicament, and tried to find a path back to that place where maybe the “…Gods can return.” But in the end, the most concrete spiritual concept he could offer was that the finality of existence—the nothingness of death—gave meaning to being.

But a valley is more than nothingness—there is the contours of the valley walls, there can be cliffs and rock faces, trees, stones, all kinds of flora; and at the very bottom is almost always a river, stream, or at least a river bed; and of course there is lots of air—ch’i. Ch’i is more than just air, or breath—it is essence, spirit, the invisible ether that gives life as we draw it in and push it out. Likewise modern science tells us that there is no absolute emptiness—no nothingness—in our universe. Instead there is everywhere the zero-point field, a sea of electromagnetic waves, or light energy, vibrating at the base energy rate of the universe. It is because of this field that particles can seem to appear and disappear from nothingness.

Gushen—the spirit of the valley—the mysterious female—a profound emptiness filled with life—it lingers within wisps—and yet just beyond it is the other world.