"October 6, 1940. Late in the season as it is, a dragonfly has appeared and is flying around me. Keep on flying as long as you can -- your flying days will soon be over."
Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.
The passage is lovely in itself, but it moves into a deeper dimension when one considers the life of Taneda Santōka. When he was eleven years old, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in a well. Santōka watched as her body was pulled from the well. He attended Waseda University in Tokyo for a year, but was forced to leave due to a drinking problem, which persisted throughout his life. He married, but the marriage ended in divorce. He entered into a business venture (a sake brewery) with his father, but the business failed. After he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by standing in front of a train, he was taken in by the head priest of a Zen Buddhist temple. At the age of 43, he was ordained as a Zen priest.
After serving briefly as the caretaker of a temple, he became a mendicant monk, spending much of the remainder of his life on constant walking journeys throughout Japan, in all seasons -- walking and walking, forever walking. He survived by begging and by sleeping in cheap inns or, often, out in the open air. But he maintained a loyal group of friends who came to his aid when times were most difficult. And, through it all, he wrote haiku -- lovely and moving haiku. He died in his sleep at the age of 58.
Burton Watson appends the following note to the passage by Santōka quoted above: "This is the last entry in Santōka's diary, written four days before his death."
Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)
As is usually the case, the arrival of beauty betokens an opening, not a closing. Thus, Santōka's dragonfly brought this to mind:
Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
For know, all things
Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
Hover, and whip away.
Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.
I apologize for repeating myself: Simonides' poem appeared here last month. But this is how beauty works: one thing leads to another. A dragonfly. An ancient Greek poet born on the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea. A Japanese haiku poet-monk of the 20th century. And here we are: all of us together at the turning of the year.
Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)
As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve in Japan, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times: once for each of the sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of. At this time each year I am reminded of a haiku:
Never to grow old, --
But the temple bell sounds.
Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.
So it is in this dragonfly World of ours, a World in which each year, each moment, is a gift.
Happy New Year, dear readers.
Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)