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"