Growing pains, and then solace
Two years ago - back before so much had happened here - I told about a poem written some 800 years ago by the Japanese poet Kamo no Chomei. What I said then is still available at kenwoodpress.com/pub/a/9253?full=1. The poem is titled “Hojoki”, meaning “Written in a Small Hut.” The English translation by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins is further subtitled “Visions of a Torn World.” Here is my rendition of the opening lines:
The river's flow is constant, although
the water always changes;
and where water falls cascading into pools
bubbles appear, only to burst.
So it is with people, and
the homes of the world in which they live.
We are such churned froth -
film stretched thin to contain our small part of
the Eternal Infinity that embraces us.
We reach within just now, just here,
to gather something about ourselves
that reaches beyond in all directions,
everywhere and forever.
The world that had been torn apart was that of the capital city Heian-ky_ - now known as Kyoto. In seven short years, four centuries of tranquility came to an abrupt and tragic end. Hundreds of thousands of people died. The city suffered a great fire, followed by an enormous tornado, a drought that produced a famine followed by plague, then a devastating typhoon and flood, and finally, in 1185, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake.
During this brief time Japan also suffered the political storms of intrigue, conspiracy, corruption, and open rebellion. The government eventually abandoned the capital as a great civil war erupted, with a coup that introduced six centuries of feudal shogunate states composed of marauding samurai warriors. Two years ago I wrote: “with the fires and floods, the earthquakes, rising seas and climate change - and with the political upsets that are ushering in great changes in our governments - do we find ourselves there again, today? And if so, what do we do?”
The poet removed himself from the city to a small hut on a remote mountainside, to consider the question and to write his poem. It's good to step outside the box for a breath of fresh air, and to gather a greater picture of what's been taking place. I began writing this month's column in a serene place quite distant from the Valley of the Moon, in the landscape of the Delta where the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers meet - a distance that helped me gain a sweet perspective.
Now we, too, are in a time of great transition, crossing the threshold from a reminiscent past toward an inscrutable future that looms ahead; and grief for our losses may blind us to what we can gain. The lowly worm that creeps into its chrysalis may sadly not recognize its destiny, as it begins the painful transformation into becoming a creature of flight. Why, we wonder, must it hurt so much? Jim Morrison of the Doors addressed this question, singing “before I sink / into the Big Sleep / I want to hear… / I want to hear… / the scream of the butterfly.”
The Buddha told us yes, there is pain - but we do not need to suffer, nor need we despair. Rather than being a victim of events we can become a witness, recognizing that what we have called pain can be better known as effort and evolution, rather than damage. Changing ourselves this way requires a true paradigm shift - changing our opinion, our attitude, our mind. Pain is exacerbated by a resistance to progress, an attachment to what we have been rather than to what we can become.
Effort, on the other hand, is what exercises the ego - as we discover an appetite for enthusiasm, and reach toward the runner's high. The effort of travel is rewarded by progress upon our journey, for falling from foot to foot propels us forward. The resistance of the road gives us traction for moving along our journey - otherwise, we would slip and slide into a future where things happen to us, rather than our making things happen.
According to the Gospel of Thomas Jesus once said, “Bring forth what is within you, and that will save you; if you find nothing within you to bring forth, that will kill you.” We have come once again to that longest, darkest time of the year, the winter solstice - which Google tells me will occur on Friday afternoon, Dec. 21, at 2:23 pm. Ceremonies of every religion celebrate the light that endures deep within a great darkness. Offering its eventual return, this light reminds us that That-which-is-Beyond - and may seem out of reach - always lies within. If we do not look to find and bring that light forward, we will die.
Two years ago I did not speak about the final stanzas of “Hojoki.” Perhaps I couldn't then, without knowing what I have learned since. The poet wrote about discovering companionship with a boy a half century younger than himself: himself. He wrote about how they traveled together, old man and young boy, through a natural and numinous landscape that seemed to heal the torn world he had left behind. It's not difficult to believe that healing will come from seeing what we had once seen through the eyes of a child.
The final lines of his poem (again, my rendition) read:
my mind knows there is no useful answer
to these impossibly stupid questions,
and stops thinking.
I recite the Buddha's name a few times,
and become silent.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.