Section One: Causes of Buddhist responses to cherry-blossom

by Stephen Sōshun

Japan’s Buddhism vs. indigenous beliefs

            Above, it has been suggested that cherry-blossom, or saku-ra, has long formed a site of conflicting embodiments. Such dualism results from the third-century import from continental Asia of one version of Buddhism, and its State-organized diffusion. But why?

Japan’s pre-medieval Buddhist culture in a nutshell

            While India-born Buddhism draws heavily upon symbolism provided by India’s lotus, it of course makes no use of cherry-blossom. Nevertheless, Buddhist thought, as received, transmitted and developed in Japan, and one Japanese significance of cherry-blossom do properly belong together.

            For this approach to living taught a certain view of human life, and of deeds as affecting fate after death. On one hand, this view was alien to the deepest layer of the fuzzy indigenous beliefs already entertained in Japan. That layer was concerned with purity vs. defilement; and, as lodgings chosen by the kami, obviously saku-ra were inherently pure. On the other hand, Buddhism brought with it the concepts of wrongful practice, and of fetters constituted by such. Delight in physical beauty inevitable led to clinging regret for its decay and loss. And this was very likely to interfere with maintaining the necessary, serene awareness of the illusoriness inherent in worldly experience. On top of this, the extreme fragility of the glory of cherry-blossom became a warning to the beholder, as Buddhist.

Here, however, we have temporarily to leave aside the subject of cherry-blossom, to deal with why this should be so.

Welcome to Hotel Total Transience!

            The teachings of the Buddha insist that, in this universe, nothing whatever is lasting – save the validity of those teachings. Now, Jesus Christ, as a Jew addressing fellow-Jews, inevitably taught from a framework provided/imposed by the Judaism of his era. Similarly, the Buddha had to teach acknowledging the framework provided/imposed by the Hindu concept of potentially-endless rebirth. And, with that, went belief in individually-accrued karma, which determines as what you would, after each death, find yourself reborn. Karma was a sometimes-gaudy but ultimately-cruel carousel; and the Buddha’s primary concern was with how anyone could quietly alight.

            As to quietly alighting, one point that his teachings leave unmistakable is as follows. There is a trap, awaiting us all. And this trap is assuming that anything else encountered during this life can offer some kind of reliable, trustworthy permanence. Such a belief will only entice us into engaging with one hindering delusion after another. And so the true name of this, our mortal game, is impermanence.

            Part One dealt with ‘salt of the earth’ – a.k.a. Japan’s peasantry. Part Two shifts focus, to the second half of the first millennium, C.E, and the pre-modern capital of Japan, Kyoto. For it concerns the culture of those whose ancestors have jockeyed and slaughtered their way to status, authority, and wealth. And with authority and affluence comes leisure sufficient for developing artistic accomplishments, refining social graces, and facing the next world.

On one hand, those in power (‘the [Yamato] nobility’) are both insistently erotically adventurous and otherwise enthralled by worldly matters. On the other, however, they are simultaneously being rendered panic-stricken by being repeatedly reminded of two grave matters. (This panic is induced by a clergy surely intent on securing a stable economic basis, in alms from wealthy lay-persons.)

The end is at hand; put thou thy house in order!

The first of these grave matters is that, before he died, the Buddha himself had made a prediction forbiddingly pessimistic. This was that, for the first thousand years after his death, his teachings might well survive in their true form. During the next thousand years, however, those teachings would deteriorate, to become a superficial simulacrum of what they should be. And, finally, their transmission would so degenerate as to become a disgraceful chaos of lies and greed.

The notion of this ultimate period of decadence has induced in the elite a form of aristocratic, fatalistic millenarianism. To them it seems more than possible that the final stage is upon humanity already. To wit, the world as this nobility presently knows it is about to meet its end. Accordingly, it is deemed high time that everybody starts ‘putting their house in order’.

And the second pause-giving matter is equally dismaying. This nobility takes for granted a life-style that it knows is exploitative, privileged, leisured, aesthetically-sophisticated, and highly-sensuous. Everything that makes it so delightful for them is, however, not simply mere transient froth upon the surface of existence. For, far worse, it constitutes a network of snares and traps within each of which awaits trammeling attachment. The Buddha has taught that we live in the very midst of universal, fleeting impermanence. Any refusal to let go entirely whatever has now vanished, or been cruelly withdrawn, leads inevitably to pain. This pain, caused by perception of deprival, in turn causes grief and / or cankerous resentment.

And the only thing that can be done is, as soon as possible, to submit to taking the Buddhist tonsure. By doing this, one renounces sensual pleasures and physical luxury, and concentrates on various kinds of rightful action. Among these activities number giving alms to the clergy and the indigent, temple-building or temple-endowment, and engaging with Buddhist texts. Also required is shedding response to all those allurements, and ego-demands – such as love for individuals – that once seduced one. Renouncing this world is, however, a step that most people not yet elderly wished to defer, for a bit. And, usually, then just a bit more – etc; nevertheless, one does have to start by at least being somewhat better-behaved.      

The value of [possibly-]autobiographical poems written by this elite during the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. is not only literary. These also constitute one of our principal sources of access to the minds of educated pre-medieval Japanese. And the following point is worth noting. It is in poems ostensibly concerning Spring flowers that uneasiness about remaining thrall to worldly concerns can most be detected.

Having read this far, you are now invited to read Section Two of Part Two, in which we return to cherry-blossom.

Section Two: The fragility of blossom as a memento-mori

Is it only saku-ra-trees that bloom so briefly, and therefore in vain?

We are now in the living-quarters of a ninth-century nobly-born, notoriously-choosy beauty, and highly-celebrated poet, known by her soubriquet ‘Ono-no-komachi’.

Though she has enjoyed her share of amorous liaisons, being independently-wealthy she has never accepted a husband. It is the dreary monsoon season, during which potential suitors of her own, elevated rank regrettably keep to their residences. The weather, and pride in her own fastidiousness as to consorts, leaves her yet again alone (her gentlewoman-attendants don’t count). She takes up her ink-brush, to give highly-allusive written form to her complex feelings:

as those glories  of bright spring fade,hana no^iro wa
pass, all – and all  for nothing, so aloneutsuri-ni-kéri na
on and on I gaze  out through ceaseless rainitazura ni
my days lost in thoughts  of one I maywaga mi yo ni furu
expect no longernagamé-sé-shi ma ni

Human affairs as embodied by the natural, and fused with the latter through pivot-wording

It may be said that two central concerns of Japanese poetry have always been human affairs and their non-human environment. Again, what characterizes the diction of poetry composed in the indigenous language is use of pivot-wording, a.k.a. (usually) serious punning. (This device is made possible by two characteristics of that language – which, as employed for poetry, incorporated few Sino-Japanese loan-words. One is that its syllables are made up of either single vowels or else single vowels preceded by single consonants. The other is that, the voicing of consonants could conveniently be left unrepresented in writing. Thus /sé ni/ and /zéni/, for instance, could both be written せに, thereby communicating an eye-pun.

            We of other cultures associate puns with (mostly feeble) humor. And, likewise, use of pivot-wording in pre-modern aristocratic poetry often descends to the level of the merely-clever. But, in Komachi’s poem above, her thoughtful employment of this device is the source of its profound, and disconcerting, resonance. For this use allows her, within this brief poem (in the original, of 5+7+5+7+7 syllables) skillfully to combine two motifs. One is the tyranny of the monsoon-season, and the damage that its rains and Time itself inflict on lingering blossom. The other is a human state-of-mind – although this matter is but hinted at.

Not just a poem about things natural

            The first three segments seem to indicate that this is a poem mourning a pattern annually manifested by things natural. (‘Oh, how the brilliance of (Spring’s) flowers[hana no iro] glows – only to fade and vanish!’) And, but for one subversive element, almost all of the rest of the text would seem to support this assumption. (‘While, everywhere [yo ni], the long rains [naga-[a]] just fall and fall [furu].’)

The fourth segment, however, unexpectedly intrudes /waga mi/, meaning the speaker of the text, or anyone similarly-positioned. Immediately, this not only activates alternative meanings for /yo ni furu/ (as ‘getting through this life’) and /nagamé/ (‘gazing abstractedly’). Equally importantly, it suggests a double relevance for /itazura ni/ (‘for nothing’) – made possible by its positioning within the text. With this, Komachi’s poem, in Japan long-famous, brings us to the significance of cherry-blossom as viewed from a Buddhist world-view.

For this positioning merges the destruction of the flowers of Spring with the speaker’s manner of passing her rain-besieged days. Such ambiguity renders this unexceptional phrase conspicuous to the reader’s mind. And this conspicuity draws attention to something else, which is being uneasily hinted at.

This ostensibly-secular – indeed, worldly-seeming – poem has to it an implicit ground-note. And this is an unsettling awareness of that endless and inescapable transience [utsuri] which characterizes life in this world [yo]. The impermanence mutedly lamented extends to not only natural beauty but also once-requited love, and even to human beauty itself.

The scattering blossom urges, Seize the day!

This suggests a consciousness, on the speaker’s part, of one way of spending time that would certainly not be ‘useless’. For she could choose no longer to devote her days to a yearning as gloomy and repetitive as perpetual rain. This time could instead be spent in Buddhist devotions, as wise preparation for death and the life then to follow.

And, according to rumor, Ono-no-komachi has quite a lively and also capricious way of engaging with her besotted male admirers. She is even held to have, through both arrogance and coldness, caused the death of one of these (identity disputed). Nevertheless, the exceptionally-high standard met by her entire poetic output proves her to be a person of indubitable intelligence. So, if cruelty has indeed characterized her conduct, she will be well aware of the seriousness of these her errors. Buddhism teaches that post-mortem salvation is the sole possibility of certainty in the face of endlessly-repeated rebirth and death. Her misdemeanors must, however, pose a grave threat to her chances of escaping from this cycle. And, here, what is most significant is this coupling of spring flowers with a sense of the immanence of death.

Next, let us consider another highly skillfully-wrought poem, this time by a likewise-celebrated ninth-century nobleman-poet. He, Ariwara-no-Narihira, was also similarly, and equally relevantly, notorious for his scandalous love-affairs:

were this world  to hold not one yo no naka ni
single saku-ra  how tranquil taé-té saku-ra no
how unperturbed  would staynakari-sé-ba
the heart each spring! haru no kokoro wa

Yo is not only – as in Komachi’s verse – brought in, but even allotted a whole segment, which ostensibly seems unnecessary. For the adverb taé-té (‘completely’) and the adjective nashi [inflected here as nakari-] (‘non-existent’) would together have been quite enough. Moreover, here, too, yo no naka specifically means ‘this world’, with all that the expression connotes for a Buddhist.

For further investigation of cherry-blossom as embodying impermanence, partly through validation of the above interpretation, please proceed to Section Three.

Section Three: Cherry-blossom and death

This interpretation is confirmed by the response-poem inspired by Narihira’s verse, during a poetry-contest held while viewing cherry-blossom:

it is just because  their petals scatterchiré-ba koso
that this blossom so charms us; but thenitodo saku-ra wa
whatever is there  in this life of sorrowsmédétakéré
that will perdure?uki-yo ni nani ka

In composing a response-poem, contemporary literary etiquette required the writer to incorporate plural items from the poem being answered. The chief ideas in Narihira’s poem are a world devoid of saku-ra, and a springtide consequently free of perturbation. Remarkably, the replier instead picks up on what appears, upon first sight, to be a minor element: yo no naka. Moreover, a paraphrasing instead with the term uki-yo (‘this world of sin and suffering’) presents it from a more-clearly-Buddhist standpoint. Such a rephrasing forcibly brings to mind what one is still neglecting to get down to accomplishing for one’s salvation.It also suggests a realization that, through one’s procrastination, with each spring, yet more time is being squandered. For the destruction of Spring blossom becomes a reminder that there lie in wait death followed by some potentially-terrible rebirth.

Oh, to meet one’s end gazing up at a full moon framed by cherry-blossom

The following, equally famous poem presents an instance of a more direct interrelation created among Buddhism, death, and saku-ra flowers. It was written by the twelfth-century itinerant Buddhist priest, and ambitious poet, Saigyō:

could I be granted  my most dear wishnégawaku-wa
I would die  in spring beneathhana no moto nité
its blossom  and a March-tideharu shina-n
bright full moon[1]sono kisaragi no
mochizuki no koro

Contemporary lunar March ran from the second third of solar March to the first third of the following April. Moreover, the fifteenth night, that of its full moon, is believed to be that on which the Buddha tranquilly died. And the pre-modern literature of Japan has often employed the full moon to symbolize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings.

We’ve all got to go

            The final example will – and not so coincidentally – reappear in the final Part of this discussion. There, however, it will function as not so much a quotation as object of a perverting hijacking. It is the following haiku, by another largely-itinerant Buddhist priest, of the last third of the Edo period, Ryōkan (1758-1831):

saku-ra that scatters …chiru saku-ra
and saku-ra that flowers yetnokoru saku-ra mo
must scatter toochiru saku-ra

As to its communicational intent, this work is enigmatic – since it seems to express only what is quite obvious. What, however, its laconicness certainly does not suggest is idealization, let alone eroticization, of the impermanence that it asserts. (As to the former, see Part Five, and, as to the latter, turn to Parts Three and Four.) And yet these two poems will effectively help prepare the way for a much-later Japanese government to valorize suicidal battle-death.

[1] The wish that Saigyō expresses above was, famously, granted.

This article is part of a series:
(use the links below to access other articles)
Part 1: “Cherry-blossom and the spirit of fertility
Part 2: “Causes of Buddhist responses to cherry-blossom
Part 3: “Japan’s cherry-blossom, subversion, and ambiguity
Part 4: “The Yoshiwara-quarter: a ghetto entirely dedicated to non-procreational hetero-eros
Part 5: “Beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle
Articles contributed by Stephen Sōshun

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

Leave a Reply