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).

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.

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 SUN, THE MOON, DEEP INTO THE CENTER OF THE FOREST

About a year ago I found a book on Chinese poetry. I don’t buy too many books on Chinese poetry because, of the ones that are out there, many of them leave out the original Chinese. And Chinese is very open to interpretation especially in translating poetry into English. If I buy a book on Chinese poetry, I want to see the original Chinese with it—so I can better understand the Chinese poem. Fortunately this book had that.

Anyway, within the book there was a poem that I found to be similar to the last one in my previous post. Chinese poetry reflects a lot of Buddhist sentiment as well, but it is also heavily influenced by the animistic beliefs of Taoism. This poem is by Wang Wei who lived about 700 A.D. This is my own translation,

 

The empty mountain, no one can be seen
but voices are heard
The sun’s reflection reaches deep into the forest
and shines upon the green moss.

 

I left out the word human, or person or people in the second verse, which appears in the original Chinese. Afterall, disembodied voices echoing from an empty mountain, may not necessarily be people—they could after all be gods, spirits, fairies, ghosts…

The last one of my own haiku in my previous post:

 

奥へ,奥へと
冬森に
月光が。。。

 

Oku eh, oku eh to
Fuyu mori ni
gekko ga…

 

Deeper, deeper
into the winter forest–
the moonlight…

 

In my animistic world, if it is moving to the center, it is moving to that universal center, the axis mundi: the World Tree, or World Cave, or perhaps the shaman’s fire (of Mongolian or Ural Altaic Shamanic traditions) or even just the center of the forest, which is sacred in the animistic traditions of Bali, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other corners of South East Asia. The Sun, of course, is always sacred, just like the moon.

Here is another of mine referencing the moon from 2009:

 

道分からずに
雪の月も
淋しい

 

Michi wakarazu ni
yuki no tsuki mo
sabishii

 

Lost, and
even the snowy moon
is lonely

 

The word, ‘lost,’ does not refer to the moon, but to an individual, either in the first person, second person, or however you experience it. The Japanese, michi wakarazu, literally means to not understand the path, road, or way. But nature, from our perspective, often reflects our own sentiments. When we are happy, we see a happy moon, even if we do not always consciously catch it as such. But an angry person may look at that same moon and see an angry one.

DEEPER INTO THE FOREST

This was from December 2009:

 

娼婦の死体
大雪で
白くなる

 

Shoufu no shitai
Ohyuki de
Shiroku naru

 

The corpse of a prostitute
in the heavy falling snow
becomes white

 

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:

 

奥へ,奥へと
冬森に
月光が。。。

 

Oku eh, oku eh to
Fuyu mori ni
gekko ga…

 

Deeper, deeper
into the winter forest–
the moonlight…

 

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.

A LAMENT OVER THE PATHOS OF THE LIFE OF A PROSTITUTE

I wrote a bit on the pathos of life referencing the prostitute a few posts back. These are haiku I composed from November and December 2008:

 

冬の道
老いの松に
一人の娼婦

 

fuyu no michi
oi no matsu ni
hitori no shoufu

 

The winter road,
by the old pine tree
a lone prostitute.

 

冬の道
一人の娼婦
風の声

 

fuyu no michi
hitori no shoufu
kaze no koe

 

The winter road
a lone prostitute
voice of the wind.

 

The voice of the wind, is of course, the sound of the wind. I remember one early Saturday morning in Tokyo in February, I had missed the last train home (about 1:15) and stayed at a Big Boy restaurant or maybe a Denny’s–I forget what it was—somewhere in Shinjuku. They closed for cleaning about 4:45 as I recall, and the first train was a bit after 5:30. It was pretty cold as I made my way towards the train station, and I had to pass an area filled with love hotels, where rooms were paid for by the hour (actually 2 hours was a normal block of time. Though there was a special service time between 1:00 am and 7:00 am typically, where you could stay for about the same rate as a 2 hour block of time). A middle-aged woman in a purple trench coat stepped out of a corner, shivering, and asked me if I would like to get warm. I thought I heard her but I wasn’t sure? ‘Sumimasen?’ (I’m sorry?) I said to her (Surprised she would even attempt Japanese with me–most Japanese assumed I couldn’t speak it). She asked again if I wanted to go someplace warm, adding, with a bed.

She wasn’t that bad looking, and I felt sorry for her. But my Filipina wife is a very jealous type and she knew where I was, and what time I’d be home on the first train. ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘my wife’s waiting.’

‘We could go in there for a short time.’ pointing to the love hotel behind her. I took her hand, and held it between mine. It was ice cold. ‘I’m sorry. Maybe next time.’ I said, and headed on to the train station, leaving her to shiver in the corner of the street, trying to stay out of the wind. I wonder what she would have done if I took her over to a coffee shop and bought her a hot coffee, and let her warm up there? Of course, at 5:00 in the morning, there was no coffee shop open in Shinjuku, at least not back in the late 1980’s.

 

道の中
一人の娼婦
底冷え也

 

Michi no naka
hitori no shoufu
sokohie ya

 

In the middle of the road
a lone prostitute
Oh! the deepest cold

 

Sokohie means the coldest day or time of the year. The point of bitter cold. Being a humid climate in Japan, bitter cold there is not the dry cold of Colorado, where a coat and sweater will warm you up. In Japan it is a humid bitter cold that seeps down to the bones.

 

寺門前
娼婦の死体
露霜也

 

Jimon mae
shoufu no shitai
tsuyujimo ya

 

in front of the temple gate
the corpse of the prostitute
frozen dew!

 

Notice the beauty of nature juxtaposing the profane tragedy of life.

 

道中に
娼婦の死体
枯れ野月

 

Michi naka ni
shoufu no shitai
kareno tsuki

 

In the middle of the road
corpse of a prostitute
moon over the withered moor

 

This is actually a late fall haiku—the withered moor being a dead dry field.

 

底冷え也
闇に娼婦は
仏なり

 

sokohie ya
yami ni shoufu wa
hotoke nari

 

The coldest day of the year!
in the darkness the prostitute
becomes a Buddha

 

Hotoke is buddha, but it is commonly used to refer to someone passing on. The idea of calling a dead person a buddha comes from a Japanese concept that death purifies a person from the ignorance and lust that taints the living.

 

大雪也
夜道に娼婦
仏なり

 

Ohyuki ya
yomichi ni shoufu
hotoke nari

 

The big snow!
in the night road a prostitute
becomes a buddha

 

重い雪雲
血を吐く
娼婦が待つ

 

Omoi yuki gumo
chi o haku
shoufu ga matsu

 

Heavy snow clouds
the prostitute, coughing up blood
awaits.

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.