Meet Conan, a male chihuahua from Naha, Japan, who’s renounced more traditional doggy pursuits for Dogen—a formative style of Zen from the 13th century that equates meditation and enlightenment as one and the same—chasing after the ever-spinning shiny wheel of rebirth before he’s even taken human birth. Buddhist priest Joei Yoshikuni (pictured) of the Jigenin temple didn’t comment as to whether his own meditation practice had gone to the dogs... Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP
Mostly unheard of in Western culture, where the document most commonly associated with death is a will—a binding legal document descriptive of property but little poetry, jisei, or death poetry, is a poem completed near the time of death; a profound, personal epitaph for a once in a lifetime event—suitably fitting farewell to one's life. While death as a theme in poetry is not uncommon; witness death as one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson:
More than the Grave is closed to me More than the Grave is closed to me -- The Grave and that Eternity To which the Grave adheres -- I cling to nowhere till I fall -- The Crash of nothing, yet of all -- How similar appears -- —Emily Dickinsonor as sublime meditation on the nature of reality:
I and Death My body saw death Without fear. My heart conquered death With love. My soul embraced death With compassion. I employ death With no hesitation. —Sri Chinmoy—a poem written to mark one's own death, or more accurately, to uniquely commemorate a life lived, is a practise that reached its eventual refinement in Japan, in Zen Buddhism in particular. It was also common in China until the twentieth century. Jisei by convention are written in a graceful, natural manner, and never mention death explicitly, using instead metaphoric references to nature, often in the form of sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossoms:
When autumn winds blow not one leaf remains the way it was. —TogyuAs elsewhere in Japanese art, feelings of bitter-sweetness and impermanence dominate, a feature of the Zen Buddhist informed aesthetic mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), a conception of beauty virtually part of the national character. While the popular image of jisei is as a part of ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), death poems were also written by Zen monks, haiku poets, and from ancient times literate people on their deathbed. Poems were not always composed the moment before death; respected poets would sometimes be consulted well in advance for their assistance, and even after death one's poem could be polished or even rewritten by others—a deed never mentioned lest the deceased's legacy be tarnished.
Had I not known that I was dead already I would have mourned the loss of my life. —Ota DokanNormally highly poetic and somewhat oblique, jisei could also contain elements of a traditional will; not the mundane affairs of an estate to be settled, but for example reconciling differences between estranged relatives. Prominent exponents of jisei include the famous haiku poet Basho; Asano Naganori, the daimyo (fuedal leader) whose forced suicide was avenged by the forty-seven ronin—now almost a national myth; and Yukio Mishima, prominent Japanese writer of the mid-twentieth century who inexplicably committed traditional seppuku in 1970:
Yukio Mishima’s Death Poem A small night storm blows Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’ Preceding those who hesitate —Yukio Mishima
CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Listen, not for nothing, but do you know the story about the Zen master and the little boy? Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Oh is this something from Nitsa the Greek witch of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania?1 Gust: Yeah as a matter of fact it is. There's a little boy. Now on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful the boy got a horse,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says “How terrible,” and the Zen master says “We'll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful”... Charlie: Now the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Gust: So you get it? Charlie: No. No, cause I’m stupid... Gust: You're not stupid, you’re just in Congress.Impermanence is at the heart of Japanese culture, and the Zen tradition with which it is intrinsically bound. In Japan, appreciation of art and life itself is informed with an implicit understanding of the true impermanence of reality, that we each are here today, gone tomorrow—we and everything else in this world. Such an appreciation of impermanence sees a half clouded moon as more beautiful than one full, fallen cherry blossoms upon the ground more so than spring’s first bloom. As symbols, the clouded moon and decaying cherry blossoms both capture the truth at reality’s heart, and truth is infinitely more beautiful in Zen—and spirituality in general for that matter—than illusion or untruth.
When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. —John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819It is a pre-modern take on the Law of Entropy informed by millennia of inward reflection, no less valid because empirically verified by the experience of heart and soul. We don’t need a particle reactor to know that everything in this universe comes to an end.
“All men think all men mortal, but themselves.” —Edward YoungIn the context of Charlie Wilson’s War, this parable of the fleeting nature of reality is used to illustrate that today’s victory may be tomorrow’s loss, today’s loss tomorrow's victory. It is 1989, and real life congressman Charlie Wilson has just seen has seen himself vindicated, his policy of arming the Afghani Mudjahadeen paying off spectacularly in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet army, a pivotal turning point in the Cold War. Yes it is a victory says CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, but where will today’s success take us tomorrow? Spirituality sees success and failure as obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, the coin of human experience which leads gradually, steadily and unerringly to the experience of true reality—the experience of truth with a capital ‘T’—the infinity, immortality and eternity of the human soul.
If I stoop Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud, It is but for a time; I press God's lamp Close to my breast; its splendor soon or late Will pierce the gloom; I shall emerge one day. —Robert BrowningFrom a spiritual point of view to live only for success is as mistaken as to avoid failure at all costs; both represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. Understanding life from a deeper perspective, a perspective grounded upon truth requires a longer, broader point of view than the present moment alone, with its ups and downs, victories and losses, happiness and sadness, for success and failure all are equally valid, greater and lesser steps towards the self-same goal—realisation of the ultimate truth.
No Failure No failure, no failure. Failure is the shadow Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the changing body Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the fast approaching train Of the greatest success. —Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, Part 13, Agni Press, 1973.With parables by meditation teachers in film rarer than actual masters of meditation in real life, the quoting of a Zen koan in Charlie Wilson’s War alone makes it eligible as a “Beautiful Moment in Film”—whatever the quality (and it is by no means inconsequential) of the cinematography, acting or directing. How often are the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow? How often do we even make the distinction? All too frequently the sayings of celebrity, beauty and power are writ larger in this world than their words alone justify; not frequently enough the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow. One day the words of wise people may actually be worth more than the wisdom of ‘fools.’ I can’t wait to see the films made when that day arrives.
“Human life is limited, but I want to live for ever.” —Yukio Mishima, final written words.
- “After Gust Avrakotos’s outburst against the head of the Clandestine Services, he was unemployable in the CIA. Stung, Gust went home to Aliquippa and asked a family friend (the town witch) to create a curse against his boss Graver. Had any of the teams in the CIA found out about the curse, they would have sent Gust away for psychiatric evaluation, but the curse was a private affair.” Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile.
Found poetry is the rearrangement of words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages that are taken from other sources and reframed as poetry by changes in spacing and/or lines (and consequently meaning), or by altering the text by additions and/or deletions. The resulting poem can be defined as “treated” (changed in a profound and systematic manner) or “untreated” (conserving virtually the same order, syntax and meaning as in the original). —Wikipedia on Found PoetryI am not new to search engine serendipity—Through the Google Glass and Follow the rainbow both exercises in found poetry and random prose, and among the most read articles on this site—but Sumangali.org has gone one better and invented “Keyword Haiku,” the random, zen-esque art of creating poetry from Google-generated keywords. Poets of yesteryear took words out of the ether or dictated disembodied voices in their heads. In this 21st century approach to inspiration, the creative process is aided by the random chatter of a million computers. With chance and serendipity the goals, surely both approaches are equally valid. The rules to Keyword Haiku are simple—take your top 25 keywords and arrange them in any order to create a poem:
Keyword haiku yes, but is the above really haiku? Technically no. While haiku is conventionally termed as poetry comprised of 17 syllables arranged in 5-7-5 form—length and structure somewhat different from the rules of keyword haiku—when written in Japanese haiku uses not syllables but rather ‘on’ or sounds—a unit of language close to but not exactly the same as a syllable. This fact combined with words in Japanese being polysyllabic—that is composed of multiple, very short sounds (like ‘radio’ in English)—means that haiku should more accurately be written with 10-14 syllables in English. Whatever. Haiku or not, it is probably safe to say that poet and father of the 17 syllable form Matsuo Basho, who wrote, shortly before his death and with spirit heavy, “disturbed by others, I have no peace of mind,” would find little peace still in this search-engine spawned derivative...
now then, let's go out to enjoy the snow... until I slip and fall! —Basho (1688)
Keyword haiku elsewhere
In the Indian spiritual tradition, mahasamadhi is the state of leaving one’s body consciously—a willful, self-caused death that is not really a death, but a permanent union with the limitless consciousness realised while inside the body. One can only enter mahasamadhi it is said, if the non-dual state of nirvikalpa samadhi has been attained, a state of consciousness which sees the duality of subject and object, “I” and “you,” body and surrounding world, finally and completely resolved. With spiritual masters said to be fully in control of their own passing, it is at the very least a grand, elaborate coincidence that Sri Chinmoy’s departure from our world concurred with a highly significant spiritual date—the day the gods in Japan go on holiday. October in Japan is known as Kan'na zuki, literally “the month when there are no gods," for on October 11—the beginning of the month according to the traditional Japanese lunar calendar, the eight million kami or gods of the Shinto tradition leave their more than eighty thousand shrines for a 30 day holiday, obeying a heavenly summons to Izumo Taisha—the oldest shrine in the nation. Like the gods of Japan—a country he repeatedly stated his reverence and fondness for—Sri Chinmoy also went on holiday on October 11, only his holiday was somewhat extended, and without a return ticket—a permanent vacation in the sunny climes of the inner worlds. And with eight million gods in the air, it would have been an extremely busy day traveling... * * * Of course in leaving our world, Sri Chinmoy didn’t really go on holiday, and as a spiritual master he didn’t really leave this world—a spiritual master is first and foremost a master of the spirit, and lives on in that realm, which pervades and is the true source of this physical one, eternally. As Sri Chinmoy wrote in his final poem, published on the night of October 10:
My physical death is not the end of my life I am an Eternal journey.* * *
* * * With more than eighty thousand shrines and eight million kami, or gods, Japan has an awful lot of divine beings to go around admittedly rather a lot of shrines, so it is just as well said deities are presiding over a land famed for its harmony and order—it would not be Japanese to let a little disagreement over living quarters lead to fighting words or, heaven forbid, flailing swords. One does of course assume that these figures are accurate—but then precision and accuracy are very Japanese qualities, and more than likely a team of monks spent decades counting every shrine and associated kami, from A through to Z, cataloguing them all together in a multi-volume work bearing a highly poetic name of exactly seventeen syllables.
The SamadhisWhat is savikalpa samadhi? Savikalpa samadhi Is The experience Of Purity-sea And Integrity-sky. What is nirvikalpa samadhi? Nirvikalpa samadhi Is The experience Of loftiest Self-transcendence. What is sahaja samadhi? Sahaja samadhi Is Reality's message simplified: Ignorance lost Forever And Immortality won. In the Cosmic Game You discover That you eternally and supremely are What all along, From time immemorial, You have been Helplessly and desperately Aspiring to become. —Sri Chinmoy, The Dance Of Life, Part 15
Eighty-five years old next week, Donald Keene is a man described as having done more for Japanese literature and culture than anybody in the world. A former wartime translator, author of 25 books in English and 30 books in Japanese, he is Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University and holder of eight honorary degrees. Serious credentials in anyone’s book. Yet despite eminent qualifications, I have to confess that it is only Donald Keene’s status as friend and translator of writer Yukio Mishima that piqued my interest in him. I doubt he would be offended—he is I am sure long resigned to being known for his connection to the most famous, perhaps infamous Japanese author of the twentieth century.
About midnight on the night of the incident, the telephone rang in my apartment in New York. The call was from a Yomiuri reporter in Washington. He informed me briefly what had taken place a few hours earlier in Tokyo and asked my impressions (kanso). I was too stunned to make a coherent reply. The telephone rang all night long, from many Japanese newspapers and magazines. Each asked the same question, and I gradually grew more articulate in my response, until I felt as if I were reciting lines from a play.As is obvious from his output and recognition—the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Literary Prize and only the third non-Japanese person to be designated“an individual of distinguished cultural service” by the Japanese government—Keene is a fine writer in his own right, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the following account of an attempt to rewrite Mishima’s modern No plays for their first ever staging outside of Japan:
The producers were unsuccessful in raising the money, with or without strings. They decided that the problem was that the three modern No plays they had chosen for a program were too similar in tone, and suggested to Mishima that he write a modern Kyogen to be played in between“Aoi no Ue” and “Sotoba Komachi.” Mishima was aware of the difficulty of preserving in a modern adaptation the humor of Kyogen, which depends so heavily on exaggerated gestures and inflexions of speech. He decided nevertheless that it might be possible to make a modern version of “Hanago,” with the daimyo of the original changed into an industrialist and Tarokaja into a butler. The Zen meditation scene could be rewritten as yoga, then popular in New York. Finally, knowing of my special interest in Kyogen, he asked me to write the“kindai kyogen.” He recognized that certain passages in the original, quite normal expression in medieval Japan, would not be tolerated in a modern play. For example, when the master threatens to kill Tarokaja if he does not obey his command, this would not seem comic to a modern audience. On the other hand, Mishima thought that when the daimyo's wife threatens to beat Tarokaja if he does not reveal why he was sitting in meditation, this was amusing and could be retained. Even today a woman carried away by anger might say the same. Mishima gave various other tips, but I was unable, even with great effort, to do what Mishima always did so easily. I tried everything, even making it a comedy in the manner of Moliere and giving the characters Greek names. Nothing worked. I confessed my failure to Mishima, who thereupon bought a notebook of the kind American junior-high school students use and wrote a modern Kyogen, based not on“Hanago” but“Busu.” He dashed off the manuscript at full speed, changing hardly a word. The producers attempted to find backers with the new combination of two modern No and a modern Kyogen, but they still had no success. This time they decided that the problem was that Americans did not like one-act plays. They asked Mishima to rewrite three of his modern No plays as a single play. I thought this was virtually impossible, even for Mishima. The plays have entirely different characters and atmosphere. How could he join them into a single play? But Mishima was so desirous of seeing the plays performed in New York that he did the impossible: he made one play of the three plays. He gave the new play an English title with a double meaning—“Long After Love.”One of only three people to receive a personally addressed farewell letter from Mishima, Keene is frustratingly reticent in his recollections of his friend of sixteen years, and understandably defensive. He describes himself as not a“kokoro no tomo” (bosom friend) of the writer, who from the outset of their friendship made it clear that he did not desire what he called“sticky” relations—the sharing of vulnerabilities or emotions.
We did not share secrets or ask each other for advice. We enjoyed meeting and conversing, whether about literature, the state of the world, or mutual acquaintances. It was also a working friendship. I translated not only Mishima’s serious works of fiction and plays but also amusing essays he wrote for American magazines. Our relations were always rather formal. This was mainly my doing. He once asked that we drop polite language and talk in the informal manner of old friends, but I found this difficult and somehow unnatural. I did not grow up in Japan and had never talked Japanese to my family or to classmates. Calling Mishima kun instead of san would not have made me feel any closer, and might have sounded affected. Mishima, noticing that I did not respond to his request, never again asked me to speak more informally. Although we were unquestionably friends, his politeness was unfailing and extended to every aspect of our relationship. He was my only Japanese friend who always answered letters promptly. He was never late for an appointment. When he invited me to dinner, it was invariably to a fine restaurant, even though I often suggested we eat in less expensive places. His conversation gave me greater pleasure than any meal. While eating, we laughed a great deal. Sometimes his laugh rang out so loudly that other diners in the restaurant turned in our direction. Yoshida Kenichi once said that Mishima laughed with his mouth, but not with his eyes. Perhaps this was true, but sincere or not, Mishima’s laughter was infectious. In the summer of 1970 Mishima invited me to Shimoda where he was accustomed to spend August with his family. He normally worked on his writings every day from midnight to six, slept from six to two, then went to kendo practice or to some gathering until it was time to return home and start writing. He spent little time with his children, but he made up for the neglect by devoting to them the month of August. I almost cancelled my trip to Shimoda because of a painful attack of gikkuri-goshi (slipped disk), but I was instinctively certain that Mishima had planned every moment of my stay in Shimoda from arrival to departure and I could not bear to upset his plans. On the train I debated whether or not to mention my gikkuri-goshi, but when I saw him on the platform, sunburned and cheerful, I decided I would act like a samurai and keep the pain to myself. We had lunch at a sushi-ya. Mishima ordered only chu toro. Afterwards, I was able to guess the reason: he had no time to waste on lesser fish. That evening we were joined by the journalist Henry Scott Stokes who later wrote a book about Mishima. Mishima took us to a restaurant where lobsters were served out of season. He ordered five dinners for the three of us. When the five dinners appeared, he ordered two more, not satisfied with the quantity. I thought this was peculiar, but no doubt he wanted to be sure we would have our fill of lobster at our last meal together. The next day Mishima and I went to the hotel pool. He did not enter the water, but he was pleased to display his muscular body. We talked about his tetralogy“The Sea of Fertility” that was approaching completion. He said he had put into the work everything he had learned as a writer, adding with a laugh that the only thing left was to die. I laughed too, but I must have sensed something was wrong. Violating our pledge not to discuss“sticky” matters, I asked, "If something is troubling you, why not tell me?" He averted his glance and said nothing. But he knew that three months later he would be dead.I’m going through something of an extended, on again off again Mishima phase at the moment—an interest encouraged by his sensitivity, aesthetics, effortless writing ability and preference for action over ideas; utterly discouraged by his fascination come obsession with violence—if read literally. Yet in reading about Yukio Mishima I have inadvertently discovered Donald Keene—writer of some of the most lucid, insightful commentaries in existence on his tragically flawed friend, but much more than that as well. Keene’s fascinating essays on Mishima form only a small part of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, a series of forty-eight, serialised installments written just last year; each well worth reading aside from their compelling insights into a most famous author.
I have often regretted that I haven't kept a diary. A diary would surely help me to recapture much of the past. But perhaps it is just as well to have forgotten so much. If I remembered everything, I would recall things that frightened me when I was a small child, teachers I disliked at school, friends who I thought had betrayed me, people I loved who did not love me. No, it is probably better not to try to remember. I hope that this chronicle, for all its deficiencies, has at least suggested how one human being spent an essentially happy life.The following is one of my very favourite passages, admittedly from only a very small sampling of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, yet more than adequate representation of the author’s life-long pacifism and love of Japan—either of which are enough to make me his kokoro no tomo, and unabashed fan:
One day I noticed a large wooden box containing captured documents. The documents gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. I was told that the little notebooks were diaries taken from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers or found floating in the sea. The odor came from the bloodstains. I felt squeamish about touching the little books but, carefully selecting one that seemed free of bloodstains, I began to translate it. At first I had trouble reading the handwriting, but the diaries, unlike the printed or mimeographed documents I previously had translated, were at times almost unbearably moving, recording the suffering of a soldier in his last days. Members of the American armed forces were forbidden to keep diaries, lest they reveal strategic information to whoever found them; but Japanese soldiers and sailors were issued with diaries each New Year and were expected to write down their thoughts each day. They were aware that they might be required to show their diaries to a superior, to make sure the writer's sentiments were correct, so they filled their pages with patriotic slogans as long as they were still in Japan. But when the ship next to the diarist's was sunk by an enemy submarine or when the diarist, somewhere in the South Pacific, was alone and suffering from malaria, there was no element of deceit. He wrote what he really felt. Sometimes the last page of a Japanese soldier's diary contained a message in English, asking the American who found the diary to return it to his family after the war. I hid such diaries, though it was forbidden, intending to return the diaries to the diarist's family, but my desk was searched and the diaries were confiscated. This was a great disappointment. The first Japanese I ever really knew were the writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met them.
Crazy-eyed or slack-jawed? If you've ever struggled to differentiate between the two you’re not alone, as according to a Japanese behavioural scientist, culture is a determining factor as to whether one looks to the eyes or the mouth to interpret facial expressions. According to a recently conducted study, Masaki Yuki of Hokkaido University has confirmed what he had always suspected as a child—people in Japan tend to look to the eyes for emotional clues, whereas Americans look to the mouth. As child he remembers being fascinated by pictures of American celebrities, and in particular, their strange smiles.“They opened their mouths too widely, and raised the corners of their mouths in an exaggerated way.” In Japan as a rule, people shy away from overt displays of emotion, and rarely smile or frown with their mouths, perhaps as Yuki explains, to conform to the cultural prerequisites of conformity, humility and hidden emotion, all of which are said to promote better relationships. It could be because Japanese in a social setting try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do, he suggests, and the eyes, more difficult to control than mouth, provide better clues about an emotional state when a person is trying to hide. So it appears the eyes are the window to the soul after all. The origin of this ancient phrase may be lost in the mists of time, but its truth appears as timely as it ever was. Maybe the great poets knew a thing or two about human nature after all... Yuki’s study began in the most unlikely of places—email emoticons. As a graduate student communicating with American scholars by email, he was confused by their use of the ubiquitous smiley :-) and sad :-( faces. “It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces,” he related. Emoticons in Japan emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;).“After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles.” The study had American and Japanese students rate the degree of happiness in first computer generated emoticons and then computer manipulated photographs of actual faces, with the following result: Japanese subjects judged expressions based more on the eyes than the mouth, rating those with sad eyes as less happy their American counter-parts. Which makes me feel a little better about my own since childhood disposition not to broadly smile. “But I'm smiling with my eyes...”
I See I see tears in his eyes. They look so beautiful. I see tears in his heart. They prove so soulful. I see tears in his soul. They are so fruitful. I see his eyes smiling. I enjoy it. I see his heart smiling. I value it. I see his soul smiling. I treasure it. —Sri Chinmoy (Excerpt from The Dance Of Life, Part 13 by Sri Chinmoy.)