SO COLD THE WINTER….

Here is a loose translation of another old Japanese waka for the season of winter:

So cold the winter!
The wind never ceases
In the mountain village.
Still the sleet is falling
Ever more heavily.

As previously mentioned, a waka in form is like a hokku with two extra lines.  It has a “turning point” in the middle that acts both as the last line of the hokku portion and as the first line of the second (originally 5/7/7/ phonetic units) part.  In this verse it is “In the mountain village.”

We can separate them like this:

So cold the winter!
The Wind never ceases
In the mountain village.

In the mountain village,
Still the sleet is falling
Every more heavily.

 

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BRIEF INTERVAL

Another loose translation of a very old Chinese poem, this time by Chen Zi’ang (661-702)

A Song on Climbing Youzhou Tower

Unseen are those who came before;
Unseen are those to come after.
Thinking how endless are heaven and earth,
Alone and disconsolate, the tears drip down.

前不見古人

後不見來者

念天地之悠悠

獨愴然而涕下

Qián bù jiàn gǔ rén
hòu bù jiàn lái zhě
Niàn tiān dì zhī yōu yōu
dú chuàng rán ér tì xià

We cannot see the people of old times who came before us, nor can we see those who will come after we are gone.  On thinking of the vastness of time, the endlessness of heaven and earth and the brief interval of our short lives, the poet is filled with sadness and cannot hold back the tears.

ONLY WHITE CLOUDS….

Here is a loose translation of a poem by Wang Wei (王維; 699–759):

Amid the hills are many Dharma friends;
Meditating, chanting, gathering in groups;
But look out from the far city wall,
And only white clouds are seen.

山中多法侶
禪誦自為群
城郭遙相望
唯應見白雲

shān zhōng duō fǎ lǚ ,
chán sòng zì wéi qún 。
chéng guō yáo xiāng wàng ,
wéi yīng jiàn bái yún 。

“Dharma friends” refers to those who practice the Buddhist way.
Meditation 禪 (Chán) is the Chinese word for Jhana — Buddhist Meditation, the same character that in Japan is used for “Zen.”

The point of the poem is the separation — physical and psychological — of the Buddhist practitioners from the busy world of the city — the “world of dust.”  When one looks from there to the far mountains where they live and meditate, only white clouds are seen.  It reminds me of the title of the Thomas Hardy novel Far From the Madding Crowd.

REFLECTION

The old year has departed.  Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c.  872-945).  You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added.  In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:
5/7/5/7/7.

Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance.  It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.

Regrets
At the ending year —
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:

1.
Regrets
At year’s end;
A mirror.

2.
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there.  It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was.  That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.

As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!

How beautiful is youth,
Which nonetheless is fleeting!

We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku:  the passing of the year  is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.

 

WINTER SIMPLICITY

Another winter hokku by Issa:

Evening snow;
People passing by
In silence.

It is not difficult to see how the elements of this harmonize.  The evening and the snow are both Yin, and though there is movement, that movement takes place in silence — which is also Yin.

It calls to mind a winter verse by Yaha, this time with greater contrast:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here it is the contrast between the voices and the midnight cold.  Inside in the chilly darkness, one does not see the people passing; just the voices are heard briefly, then all returns to silence.

Note the simplicity of these verses, which is an important quality of hokku.  In English, each requires only seven common words, yet each is quite effective.

 

 

David

WINTER VACANCY

We have seen a version of this hokku by Issa before:

Snow falling;
A “House for Rent” sign
That wasn’t there yesterday.

There is something rather Dickensian about this.  People don’t like to move in winter — and particularly not in very cold weather.  The sudden appearance of the sign raises unanswered questions, and in hokku, unanswered questions are deliberately never answered.  Did the tenant/tenants leave because they could not pay rent or were evicted?  Did someone die?  There are different possibilities, but the path of hokku is not to tell stories, but rather to create a kind of physical-psychological effect in the reader.   The point of the verse lies in the sudden and unexpected emptiness of the house in the falling snow.  The emptiness (Yin) of the house is in keeping with the chill and emptiness (Yin) of winter, and both in keeping with the “absence of knowing” — the unanswered question.

In reading this, we should keep in mind the “poverty” of hokku, and from that, know the vacant house is not at all in a fashionable or well-to-do neighborhood, which makes it all the more significant.

David

SOLITUDE

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

(Winter)

Solitude;
The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.

David