Spent part of last night reading some Chinese poetry, I guess it’s my way of getting ready for my trip. A friend recommended the works of Li Bai, here’s one of his pieces, his beautiful Ziyi Song.
Amidst the flowers a jug of wine,
I pour alone lacking companionship.
So raising the cup I invite the Moon,
Then turn to my shadow which makes three of us.
Because the Moon does not know how to drink,
My shadow merely follows the movement of my body.
The moon has brought the shadow to keep me company a while,
The practice of mirth should keep pace with spring.
I start a song and the moon begins to reel,
I rise and dance and the shadow moves grotesquely.
While I'm still conscious let's rejoice with one another,
After I'm drunk let each one go his way.
Let us bind ourselves for ever for passionless journeyings.
Let us swear to meet again far in the Milky Way.
-- by Li Bai
On Thursday morning I ordered a bunch of books from Amazon. Lately I’ve started reading and in some cases re-reading texts related to the Samurai tradition, I’m not sure why other than I guess I need something to immerse myself in. Thursday afternoon I learnt that one of my uncles has passed away, so it was with mixed feelings I received a delivery from Amazon today containing, amongst other texts, a collection of Japanese Death Poems – in Zen they are often referred to as Parting of Life Verses since tradition has it that they composed by individuals on the verge of death. I’ve been reading a lot related to Zen lately and it’s not a secret that I have a bit of an obsession with haiku and also tanka. I am amazed to think of the presence of mind needed to compose the kind of verses I’ve been reading as the last thing these men and women did before succumbing to death.
It feel’s inadequate to describe these verses as beautiful in fact I can’t think of any adjective that does them justice. As I read some of them, I found that they forced me to reflect on recent events in my life, particularly the death of my father, I’m reminded of the pain that I feel and that I know I have been hiding from (something a friend at Talis forced me to confront on Thursday afternoon when he gave up part of his afternoon to see if I was ok, and to whom I am grateful).
As much as it hurts to think about it I find that I’m smiling, my father used to say that no-one could really choose the time of their passing, that it was inevitable and we should not fear it, but what we should do is make the most of the time we have and try to be the very best that we can.
He did and He was.
… and that’s a comforting thought 🙂 .
As for this collection of verses, as deeply profound as they all, one that captivated me the most so far was written by a woman, Oroku:
And had my days been longer Nagaraete
still the darkness kono yo no yami wa
would not leave this world- yomo hareji
along death's path, among the hills shide no yamaji no
I shall behold the moon. iza tsuki o min.
I’m currently reading Zen and the Samurai which is a beautifully written work, much of it is devoted to anecdotes about the lives many famous Samurai and how Zen deeply influenced them. The book makes reference to the beautiful verse below which was composed by the Samurai General Uesugi Kenshin on his death bed. It was a practise amongst many Samurai to write a verse in either Chinese or Japanese at the moment of death, this was Kenshin’s Parting of Life Verse:
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
When I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither
… pretty much how I feel right now … maybe someday I’ll get it right.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I kill you, I kill you... I kill you!!
This little ditty was composed our very own Silver Fox, who is hell bent on turning me into a ‘caricature, of a caricature, of myself’ … and also because he said I wouldn’t dare post it up!
An extract from one of Tennyson’s earlier poems … Love and Duty.
The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,
The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill,
And all good things from evil, brought the night
In which we sat together and alone,
And to the want, that hollow'd all the heart,
Gave utterance by the yearning of an eye,
That burn'd upon its object thro' such tears
As flow but once a life. The trance gave way
To those caresses, when a hundred times
In that last kiss, which never was the last,
Farewell, like endless welcome, lived and died.
-- By Lord Alfred Tennyson