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).

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.

SNOW AND THE LAMENT OF AN ABANDONED HUSBAND

Denver got hit with another snow—I enjoyed it. It started last night and snowed all night, there was heavy wind making it a blizzard—but perhaps not as bad as they expected. It snowed off and on all day today too, but the streets were clear fairly early in the day—-a spring snow so temperatures were not as cold as if it would have happened a month or two ago. But for that, here are some more winter haiku:

 

入り船まち也

遠島の

雪の月

 

irifune machi ya

toujima no

yuki no tsuki

 

Waiting for the boats to return!

the moon and snow

on a distant island.

 

Japan has numerous fishing villages all up and down its coast. The term 入り船まち (irifunemachi), means to wait for the boat or boats to return. But there is the usual wait for family and friends, when they expect boats to return in the late afternoon or the evening. And then there is the real wait—when a boat or group of boats are late in returning to port.

January 1st, 2010, I composed another fishing village haiku. I have mentioned several times that at the beginning of the year—the first time you do something is very special. A fishing boat in a fishing village, is not only a source of livelihood, it is is also dependent upon to protect your loved ones while they are using it to earn that livelihood—so the first time of the year that you go on a fishing boat, is not only special—they make a ceremony out of it with the village—to pray for good luck and a prosperous and safe year. This ceremony is called 乗り初め (norihajime), or First Boarding—-and you do not just come (kuru) to the boat, you ceremoniously-come (Mairu) just as you would to a shrine:

 

波と風も

お参り

乗り初め哉

 

nami to kaze mo

o-mairi

norihajime kana

 

the waves and the wind too

ceremoniously come

the first boarding!

 

Speaking of New Years, and doing things for the first time—-today I rewrote an old haiku that was a bit sloppy—-thinking it over I felt it was better expressed through a tanka. I was thinking of so many poor souls in Japan—–there are many of them—–often they are products of broken relationships, who go on quietly, doing their jobs, living their mundane lives—broken down loners in a very group-focused culture:

 

妻の捨て櫛

と着物に

忘れられた鍵

淋しき

初湯の音也

 

tsuma no sutekushi

to kimono ni

wasurerareta kagi

sabishiki

hatsuyu no oto ya

 

the wife’s discarded comb

and in a kimono

a forgotten key

how lonely

the sound of years first boiling water!

 

Is everyone depressed enough now? Here is one to bring you back up to an aesthetic reality from november 2008:

 

山道也

露霜は

月にちらちら

 

yamamichi ya

tsuyujimo wa

tsuki ni chirachira

 

the mountain path!

frozen dew

sparkling from the moon

 

There’s that moon again—I have written numerous times about the philosophical significance of the moon. For example, you may go back to HOME ALONE ON A WINDY NIGHT WITH A CHINESE LUTE if you forget it—-or not, and just enjoy it at an aesthetic level.

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.

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.