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.

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.