Wednesday, November 18, 2020

How To Live, Part Thirty: Happenstance

A few nights ago, as I drove to a restaurant to pick up dinner, a small grey rabbit, white-tailed, began to cross the street in front of me -- distant, in no danger.  I stopped to let it pass.  Illuminated in the headlights, it paused for a moment, looked in my direction, then continued on, scampering toward the bushes in someone's yard.  We went our separate ways.

"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us!  The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty."

Kenkō (1283-1350), Tsurezuregusa (Chapter 7), in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 7.  

Keene provides this note to "Adashino": "Adashino was the name of a graveyard, apparently situated northwest of Kyoto.  The word adashi (impermanent), contained in the place name, accounted for the frequent use of Adashino in poetry as a symbol of impermanence. The dew is also often used with that meaning."  Ibid, page 8.  With respect to "Toribeyama," Keene notes: "Toribeyama is still the chief graveyard of Kyoto.  Mention of smoke suggests that bodies were cremated there."  Ibid, page 8.

An ancient Chinese burial song comes to mind:

How swiftly it dries,
The dew on the garlic-leaf,
The dew that dries so fast
To-morrow will fall again.
But he whom we carry to the grave
Will never more return.

Anonymous (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 38.

Who knows what will come our way?  In this year, of all years, I need not remind you of that, dear readers.

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937)
"Halton Lake, Wendover, Buckinghamshire"

Something about the encounter with the rabbit touched my heart: there was a sudden, sighing catch of breath inside me as I watched it move across the road, pause briefly, glance at the headlights, then go on in its careful, intent way.  Why?  What had happened?  Some may say it was merely a rabbit crossing a road, an everyday occurrence. Others may say I'm a sentimental old fool.

I'm afraid I have to conclude that this is where words end.  Think of the handful of luminous moments that remain in your memory.  Your life.  You know them well.  Can you put into words why they are brilliantly clear, unchanged and unchangeable?

"Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

Epictetus, Encheiridion (Section 5), in Epictetus, Discourses, Books III-IV; The Encheiridion (translated by W. A. Oldfather) (Harvard University Press 1928), page 491.

Best to keep silent, wait, and pay attention.  

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

Alexander Jamieson, "The Old Mill, Weston Turville" (1927)

Just a rabbit crossing a road on a night in late autumn.  Fragile, precious, tenuous, irreplaceable, hung by a gossamer thread.  Fare thee well, dear friend.  Be safe, and live a long rabbit life.

                         Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Alexander Jamieson, "Doldowlod on the Wye" (1935)

Thursday, November 5, 2020


Of course, one should never expect to witness the disappearance of human folly, malice, and bad faith while one is still above ground. "The vale of Soul-making" is no picnic, after all.  Not unexpected are the perennial ways of humanity: it has all been done, seen, and said before.  But it is tiresome nonetheless.  Best to let it all go.

   Autumn Night: Depicting Busyness in the Midst of Silence

White-haired, in clear autumn touched by scenes and emotions,
among hills, moon my companion, living out the last of my life:
night deepens, no lingering echoes from the ten thousand pipes;
all I hear is the sound of the sōzu tapping the rock.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 25.  

Watson provides a note on the sōzu: "The sōzu is a device made of a bamboo tube that periodically fills with water from a stream, tips to pour out the water, and then returns to its original position, striking a rock and producing a sharp rapping sound as it does so.  It was intended to scare deer away from the garden."  Ibid, page 25.

Eustace Nash (1886-1969), "Poole Quay from Hamworthy, Dorset"

Watson also provides a note to the phrase "ten thousand pipes" in the third line of the poem:  "The 'ten thousand pipes' . . . is a reference to the famous passage on the noises made by the wind in the forest in the second chapter of Chuang Tzu."  Ibid, page 25.  Here is a portion of the chapter referred to by Watson:

"Tzu-yu said, 'By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles.  But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?'

"Tzu-ch'i said, 'Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'

"Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy.  Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome.  In sleep, men's spirits go visiting; in waking hours, their bodies hustle.  With everything they meet they become entangled.  Day after day they use their minds in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty.  Their little fears are mean and trembly; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming. They bound off like an arrow or a crossbow pellet, certain that they are the arbiters of right and wrong.  They cling to their position as though they had sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory.  They fade like fall and winter — such is the way they dwindle day by day.  They drown in what they do — you cannot make them turn back.  They grow dark, as though sealed with seals — such are the excesses of their old age.  And when their minds draw near to death, nothing can restore them to the light."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 32.  The brackets appear in Watson's original text.

Explaining Chuang Tzu's meaning, Watson says this about the use of the word "Heaven" in the passage: "Heaven is not something distinct from earth and man, but a name applied to the natural and spontaneous functioning of the two."  Ibid, page 32.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

Yes, it all becomes quite tiresome.  Best to let it go.  The soul's home is in other places.

In paddies among the mountains
girls transplant
rice seedlings —
the sound of their singing
drifts up from far away.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Ryōkan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan (Columbia University Press 1977), page 30.  The poem is a waka.

Robert Coventry (1855-1914), "The Haven" (1908)