Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Sadness of Being Human

Yesterday I came across this passage from a recent New York Times article on the Japanese love of cherry blossoms:

The theme of many of Kenko’s passages is impermanence, a central tenet of Buddhism. Wealth, material goods, position, knowledge—all are passing, and all are meaningless. “The truly enlightened man has no learning, no virtue, no accomplishments, no fame,” Kenko writes in another essay, concluding, “All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.”
That idea—that everything in life is temporary; that all desire, whether altruistic or selfish in nature, is meaningless—helps explain the culture’s adoration of the sakura. If the cherry blossom can still be relied upon to bloom at a specific time, it can also be relied upon to die soon after: For 51 weeks, one waits, and within seven days at most, one is consigned to waiting once more. The pleasure of seeing a cherry tree in bloom is the sorrow of knowing that it will soon be over. To be in the presence of one is to be humbled before nature, and moreover, to be welcoming of that humiliation. A sakura is the human life condensed into the period of a week: a birth, a wild, brief glory, a death. It is to us what we are to the sweep of time—a millisecond of beauty, a memory before we are even through.
The article continues:
Even now, there is something haunted about the sakura; it is associated with death in a way that people cannot articulate to their satisfaction…

Which of course put me in mind of John Rain's thoughts about Aoyama BochiAoyama Cemeteryin A Lonely Resurrection:

I found myself near Nogizaka Station, and realized I had been unconsciously moving northwest. I stopped. Aoyama Bochi was just across from me, silent and brooding, drawing me like a gaping black hole whose gravity was even greater than that of surrounding Tokyo.

Without thinking, I cut across the road, hopping over the metal divider at its center. I paused at the stone steps before me, then surrendered and walked up to the graves within.
Immediately the sounds of the street below grew detached, distant, the meaningless echoes of urban voices whose urgent notes reached but held no sway over the park-like necropolis within. From where I stood, the cemetery seemed to have no end. It stretched out before me, a city in its own right, its myriad markers windowless tenements in miniature, laid out in still symmetry, long boulevards of the dead.

I moved deeper into the comforting gloom, along a stone walkway covered in cherry blossoms that lay like tenebrous snow in the glow of lamplights to either side. Just days earlier, these same blossoms had been celebrated by living Tokyoites, who came here in their drunken thousands to see reflected in the blossom’s brief and vital beauty the inherent pathos of their own lives. But now the blossoms were fallen, the revelers departed, even the garbage disgorged by their parties efficiently removed and discarded, and the area was once again given over only to the dead.

I thought of how Midori had once articulated the idea of mono no aware, a sensibility that, though frequently obscured during cherry blossom viewing by the cacophony of drunken doggerel and generator-powered television sets, remains steadfast in one of the two cultures from which I come. She had called it “the sadness of being human.” A wise, accepting sadness, she had said. I admired her for the depths of character such a description indicated. For me, sad has always been a synonym for bitter, and I suspect this will always be so.

Hoping I'll be back there this spring, researching the next Rain book, A Killing Affair.

1 comment:

Traxus said...

I once read this ....
'Tsukanoma no koto'
which was translated as
'The fleetingness of things'
and I nodded and smiled ......