Thursday, September 3, 2020

Heraclitus in Japan

I've long felt that anything worth knowing with respect to how to live in the World has been known for centuries, and that our task is to seek out those who possessed that knowledge.  This feeling increases with age, particularly in times when human folly and malice make themselves more noisomely evident than they usually are. Comparisons (nearly always unflattering to the present age) are inevitable.

Better, then, to leave this age behind, and embark upon a search in more congenial regions.  For instance, one may discover Heraclitus in 13th century Japan:

"The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before.  Bubbles that bob on the surface of the still places disappear one moment, to reappear again the next, but they seldom endure for long.  And so it is with the people of this world and with the houses they live in.

"In the shining capital, ridgepoles soar side by side, roof tiles vie for height, and the dwellings of eminent and lowly alike seem to endure for generation on generation.  But if you inquire into the matter, you find that old houses are in fact very rare.  This one burned down a year ago and has just been rebuilt this year; that great mansion fell into ruin, to be replaced by smaller houses.  And it is the same with the people who live in them.  The sites are unchanged; the people occupying them are many.  But of those I used to know, hardly one or two out of twenty or thirty remain.  One dies in the morning, another is born at evening -- they come and go like froth on the water.

"These persons who are born and die -- no one knows where they come from or where they go.  And these dwellings of a moment -- no one knows why their owners fret their minds so over them or are so anxious to make them pleasing to the eye.  For both owner and dwelling are doomed to impermanence, no different from the dew on the morning glory.  Perhaps the dew may fall and the flower remain; yet though it remains, it will wilt in the morning sun.  Perhaps the flower may wither before the dew has dried; but though undried now, it will vanish by evening."

Kamo no Chōmei (1153-1216) (translated by Burton Watson), Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut (Hōjōki) (1212), in Burton Watson, Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life (Shambhala 2002), pp. 47-48.

Of course, Kamo no Chōmei knew nothing of Heraclitus.  His river meditation is the product of centuries of Japanese culture coupled with centuries of Buddhism, the Buddhism in turn flowing from China (with Taoism mixed in for good measure) by way of India.  And yet we have Heraclitus in Japan.  It is all one.

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937), "Doldowlod on the Wye" (1935)

We do not know exactly what Heraclitus said about rivers, since all of his thoughts come to us second-hand: reports of what somebody said he said.  Plutarch gives us this: ". . . for it is impossible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to lay hands twice on mortal substance in a fixed condition."  (G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge University Press 1962), page 381.)

Plutarch's version finds its way into this:

               Heraclitus on Rivers

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die; and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Given what Kamo no Chōmei tells us, we could perhaps change the title of Mahon's poem to "Kamo no Chōmei on Rivers."  "The same river is never the same/Because that is the nature of water."  "The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before."  "All these things will pass away in time."  "For both owner and dwelling are doomed to impermanence, no different from the dew on the morning glory."  

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Autumn by the River"

But let us return to Heraclitus in Japan:

"The world is as unstable as the pools and shallows of Asuka River. Times change and things disappear: joy and sorrow come and go; a place that once thrived turns into an uninhabited moor; a house may remain unaltered, but its occupants will have changed.  The peach and the damson trees in the garden say nothing -- with whom is one to reminisce about the past?"

Kenkō (1284-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), in Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 25-26.  The Tsurezuregusa was likely written between 1330 and 1332.  (Ibid, page xiii.)

The passage is quite reminiscent of Kamo no Chōmei's passage.  One wonders if Kenkō had it in mind as he wrote.  On the other hand, Kenkō and Kamo no Chōmei both became Buddhist monks late in life, so the similarity may simply reflect their common spiritual pursuits.

Keene provides this note on the first sentence of the passage: "The Asuka River, a stream near Nara, figures prominently in Japanese poetry.  Reference is made here to the anonymous poem in Kokinshū, 'In this world what is constant?  In the Asuka River yesterday's pools are today's shallows'."  (Ibid, page 26.) The Kokinshū (a shortening of its longer title, Kokin Wakashū), which appeared in or about 905, was an imperial anthology of 1,100 poems.

The poem translated by Keene is a waka, and has been alternatively translated as follows:

     In this world of ours
what is there of constancy?
     Yesterday's deep pool
in the River of Tomorrow
today becomes a rapid.

Anonymous (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 205.

This is the romanized (romaji) Japanese text of the waka: "yo no naka wa/nani ka tsune naru/asukagawa/kinō no fuchi zo/kyō wa se ni naru."  (Ibid, page 205.)  Asukagawa means "Asuka River." However, McCullough translates it as: "the River of Tomorrow."  She provides this explanation:  "The first part of the river name Asuka is homophonous with asu ('tomorrow').  This famous poem made the Asuka and its vagrant channel a symbol of change."  (Ibid, page 205.)

"The River of Tomorrow" is quite lovely, isn't it?  It also appears in another poem from the Kokinshū:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), Ibid, page 82.

On a sunny afternoon last week I came upon a spray of five green oak leaves that had fallen to the ground. Beside the spray lay an acorn.  I walked on, and soon a single rusty leaf rattled toward me on the asphalt pathway, spun by the wind.  A long thin river of feathery white cloud stretched from west to east.  The sky suddenly seemed to be an autumn sky: a slightly deeper blue.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"


George said...

Socrates tells Theatetus that philosophy begins with wonder. Somewhere around the time of Locke, wonder went out of fashion: Locke found St. Augustine's difficulty with the nature of time wrong-headed. W.V.O. Quine, a true descendant of Locke, thought that Heraclitus made too much of the river question:

It is well that the poets haven't in any numbers given up on wonder.

Thomas Parker said...

Amid all the current talk of transhumanism and engineering immortality, I find myself leaning in a contrary direction and feeling more and more the rightness of one generation achieving what it can, for good or ill, and then making way for the next and being forgotten - except for the usual retroactive assigning of blame. What the heck - I suppose once you're dead you can take that well enough. (In any case it seems to me we should establish the fully human before we worry about transcending it, and the first job isn't done by a long sight.)

Your post immediately made me think of one of my favorite pieces of writing, Oliver Wendell Holmes's address delivered on Memorial Day, May 30th, 1895, and published as "The Soldier's Faith." It concludes this way:

Three years ago died the old colonel of my regiment, the Twentieth Massachusetts. He gave our regiment its soul. No man could falter who heard his "Forward, Twentieth!" I went to his funeral. From a side door of the church a body of little choir-boys came in like a flight of careless doves. At the same time the doors opened at the front, and up the main aisle advanced his coffin, followed by the few grey heads who stood for the men of the Twentieth, the rank and file whom he had loved, and whom he led for the last time. The church was empty. No one remembered the old man whom we were burying, no one save those next to him, and us. And I said to myself, The Twentieth has shrunk to a skeleton, a ghost, a memory, a forgotten name which we other old men alone keep in our hearts. And then I thought: It is right. It is as the colonel would have had it. This also is part of the soldier's faith: Having known great things. to be content with silence. Just then there fell into my hands a little song sung by a warlike people on the Danube, which seemed to me fit for a soldier's last word, another song of the sword, a song of the sword in its scabbard, a song of oblivion and peace.

A soldier has been buried on the battlefield.

And when the wind in the tree-tops roared,
The soldier asked from the deep dark grave:
"Did the banner flutter then?"
"Not so, my hero," the wind replied,
"The fight is done, but the banner won,
Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,
Have borne it in triumph hence."
Then the soldier spoke from the deep dark grave:
"I am content."

Then he heareth the lovers laughing pass,
And the soldier asks once more:
"Are these not the voices of them that love,
That love - and remember me?"
"Not so, my hero," the lovers say,
We are those that remember not;
For the spring has come and the earth has smiled,
And the dead must be forgot."
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
"I am content."

Esther said...

Oh my, you’ve really outdone yourself!

I was immediately reminded of this favorite little poem by Ogden Nash.

The Middle

When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

Bishop Moule uses the same image of the river to explain the obscure phrase “grace for grace” in the KJV. “The picture before us is as of a river. Stand on its banks, and contemplate the flow of waters. A minute passes, and another. Is it the same stream still? Yes. But is it the same water? No. The liquid mass that passed you a few seconds ago fills now another section of the channel; new water has displaced it, or if you please replaced it; water instead of water. And so hour by hour, and year by year, and century by century, the process holds; one stream, other waters, living not stagnant, because always in the great identity there is perpetual exchange. Grace takes the place of grace….”

The other day I thought of you when I walked past the little park at the bottom of the hill and heard all three types of semi “singing”: the boiling oil kind, the meeeeen meeeeen kind (a great favorite), and the elegant wissus wissus wissusssss kind. Even as I often find cherry blossom petals on my balcony in the spring, during this season I occasionally find the remains of a cicada who has gone to that great Tree in the Sky, and as I "render the last offices" I thank him for the joy his brief song has brought to my summer.

John Maruskin said...

Surprises are best. This is a lovely surprise; a perfect beginning to the weekend. I feel better already. Do you know Basil Bunting's wonderful poem, "Chomei at Toyama." If not, I highly recommend it. My favorite passage is toward the end:

I am shifting rivermist, not to be trusted.
I do not ask anything extraordinary of myself.
I like a nap after dinner
and to see the seasons come round in good order.

Hankering, vexation and apathy,
that’s the run of the world.
Hankering, vexation and apathy,
keeping a carriage wont cure it.

Keeping a man in livery
wont cure it. Keeping a private fortress
wont cure it. These things satisfy no craving,
Hankering, vexation and apathy ...

I am out of place in the capital,
people take me for a beggar,
as you would be out of place in this sort of life,
you are so I regret it so welded to your vulgarity.

Basil Bunting, “Chomei at Toyama”

"you are so I regret it so welded to your vulgarity." If that doesn't capture the tenor of our times? It takes a poet to choose "welded" as the verb in that phrase."

At the bottom of the meadow where Chap, my dog, and I walk every morning, the underbrush has flourished a rainbow, Ironweed purple, Jerusalem artichoke yellow, Johnson grass seed heads red, masses of anonymous green foliage, and blue morning glories. Attention and gratitude, I think is key. Have good walks. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for sharing Socrates' thought, which is lovely (and new to me). Your knowledge of philosophy and philosophers is far deeper and wider than mine, but my general sense is that, like most else in the "modern" world, philosophy has, to use your phrase, "given up on wonder" (and become "scientific" and "analytic"). I don't sense that there are any Kierkegaards or Schopenhauers out there. No passion.

I am completely ignorant of Quine's work, and have no intention to correct that deficiency, but I greatly appreciate the link to your post from January of 2019. I am slow on the uptake, so it goes over my head, but I appreciate what I perceive to be your defense of Heraclitus. The excerpt you provide from Quine confirms my feeling that I will remain ignorant of his work. (By the way, I was happy to see you quote Guy Davenport's translations of Heraclitus in your post. I am fond of them.)

I heartily agree with your final thought.

As always, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for another thought-provoking comment, and for sharing the passage from Holmes (as well as the wonderful poem within it). Having been a "Civll War buff" from my youth (it started with experiencing the Centennial), I am aware of the 20th Massachusetts, and of Holmes' service in it. But I somehow missed the "The Soldier's Faith." (However, having just read it now on the internet after searching it out, parts of it do seem familiar, although not the section you have shared. I must have seen them quoted in other places.) Thank you.

I agree with you: there will be no "transhumanism and engineering immortality" for me. As you say, it is more than enough to work at being "fully human," which is a never-completed task. There is quite enough to do in that regard, and then to depart. Moreover, I've never been fond of the modern gods of Progress, Science, and utopian political and social schemes, so I'm more than ready to be free of them for good. This year has certainly confirmed that feeling.

Thank you for stopping by again. It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. That's very nice of you.

And thank you for sharing Nash's poem and the passage from Bishop Moule. The former is quite moving. It brought to mind many loved ones. And the thoughts by Moule fit perfectly here. I love this: "always in the great identity there is perpetual exchange." Wonderful. For some reason it brought to mind Wordsworth.

Finally, thank you very much for the report on your "little park," and the semi. I used to love the little parks and small shrines of Tokyo, throughout the seasons. Your description of the various sounds of the semi are wonderful. Having grown up in Minnesota, and travelled in the South, I was familiar with the sound of cicadas, but that didn't prepare me for summer in Japan! One grows to love them. And, yes, finding one of them on the ground is a sad occasion. "That great Tree in the Sky": lovely. And now a haiku by Bashō comes to mind (I'm sure you know it): "Nothing intimates,/In the voice of the cicada,/How soon it will die." (Translated by R. H. Blyth.) Isn't there another haiku by Bashō (or someone else), about a semi singing itself out until nothing but its empty shell remains?

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for reminding me of "Chōmei at Toyama," and for sharing part of it. I had forgotten about it: I have not read much of Bunting's poetry -- only a few things I have come across in anthologies. The poem appears in Philip Larkin's The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. (It doesn't seem like Bunting would be Larkin's cup of tea, but then Larkin can be surprising. Or else he was trying to make the anthology representative of the century.) I turned to it in Larkin's volume after receiving your comment. Bunting is faithful to Hōjōki, but, as I'm sure you've noticed, his distinctive personality finds its way into his articulation of Chōmei's thoughts. Which is to be expected, of course. "Hankering, vexation and apathy,/That's the run of the world" is a nice way of putting things.

However (and I am wary of raising this point, because I don't want to be "critical" or to turn this, God forbid, into a "literary" discussion), I wonder if "so welded to your vulgarity" (a phrase which has appeal, I admit), reflects more of Bunting than of Chōmei. Almost at the end of Hōjōki, Chōmei chides himself: "But however much you imitate a saint's appearance, your mind is still steeped in impurity." (Translation by Burton Watson.) Although Chōmei, throughout Hōjōki, does certainly call into question all of the things we cling to in this world, "so welded to your vulgarity" sounds a bit harsh being placed into his mouth (even though the phrase is qualified by "I regret it"). I sense more gentleness in Chōmei. But, again, I should keep my mouth shut. I shouldn't quibble. And I certainly may be wrong. I am grateful that you shared it. And I will read it again. Above all, we owe Bunting thanks for bringing Chōmei into the "modern" world.

Finally, thank you for the field report on late summer/early autumn. Things are changing quickly. September. You are exactly right: "Attention and gratitude" are indeed "key."

It's good to hear from you. I hope that all is well.

Anthony Hill said...

Wallace Stevens on the one hand (The River of Rivers...), George Herbert on the other (everything, more or less). Do we dwell, ironically, in evanescence and take our comfort there or do we make our peace with a scouring, yet tender God? Don't know. But those two are the main operators. The finest poetic/philosophical atheist (despite sickly tales of late conversion) and the one whose frustrated intimacy with the divine is devastating.

I'm with them both.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: It's a nice coincidence that you mention "The River of Rivers in Connecticut": I was greatly tempted to include it in the post, but decided not to do so for two reasons. First, it has appeared here on a few occasions, as recently as February of this year, so, although I am not averse to repeating myself, I decided it was too soon to bring it back. Second, the post was getting too long. However, I think the contrast you provide between the alternatives of Stevens and Herbert is a fine one (although I confess that my knowledge of Herbert is limited). "I'm with them both" is a reasonable way of putting it, and I tend to agree.

However, that being said, I have to put in a word for the Japanese poets (Bashō, Saigyō, and Ryōkan come first to mind for me), the Chinese poets (Po Chü-i, T'ao Ch'ien, and Wang Wei come first to mind), and the Wordsworth of 1797 through 1807. I find their way of living in, and looking at, the World to be essential. But this shouldn't be taken as a criticism of either Stevens or Herbert. As I said in the post, "it is all one." There is a common thread, and we each follow it in our own way, not knowing where it may lead.

Thank you very much for your thought-provoking observations, and for stopping by again.

Anthony Hill said...

Mr Pentz: your frequent references to Eastern poetry are much appreciated. I have no knowledge in that area and it is great to be prompted to explore

Herbert is superb. "Love (III)" is overwhelming, as I am sure you know. His other comparator is the beautiful, dancing Donne, of course. May I recommend "Music at Midnight: The Life and poetry of George Herbert", by John Drury, if you don't have it. He was graced.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: Thank you for the follow-up thoughts. I have now read Herbert's "Love (III)", and it is lovely. It seems to encapsulate Herbert's life as presented in his poetry (from the little I know of it) quite well, doesn't it? (Although "encapsulate" is too cold a word.) Thank you as well for the recommendation of Drury's book, which I was not aware of. Having explored some excerpts I found on the internet, it does seem very interesting, and I like Drury's approach. I noticed that he begins the book with a marvelous discussion of "Love (III)." (And the connection between the poem and Simone Weil is an unexpected and intriguing gift.)

As for Donne, I run hot and cold, I confess. I fear he is far too clever for me. Which is my fault, not his.

I realize he comes later, but I tend to prefer Henry Vaughan. Perhaps he is quieter than either Herbert or Donne, at least for me. But I am far out of my depth discussing this group of poets with you, I'm afraid. In any case, none of this is in the nature of a "critical" judgment: they are all welcome companions for me.

Finally, I appreciate your comment on the presence of Japanese and Chinese poetry here. As I said in the post, I do believe that "it is all one," and that there are common threads that run through the World, and life. Not that they are subject to being put into words, of course.

Thank you again for sharing your further thoughts.