New Year’s and the Snow: Manyo (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)


Manyo-shu is the oldest anthology of short poems (waka, directly translated as short songs) in Japanese history, including 20 volumes and 4,536 short poems and Chinese verse. This huge collection ends with the following poem.


あたらしき としのはじめの はつはるの
きょうふるゆきの いやしけよごと

On this New Year’s day
As auspicious snow falls on and on
May joys be blooming on our way

For some people snow brings refreshing feel of a white, sparkly winter wonderland and sweet reminiscences of their childhood while for others it’s all about permanently runny nose and flushed cheeks as well as curing up in oversized sweater and keeping shoveling the snow.

This song is written on the New Year’s day, 759, with provincial governors greeting the Ministry building. Ohtomo no Yakamochi, the leading poet from Manyo-shu, wrote it and was arguably one of the editors.

Snow was then believed to be an auspicious sign. Some people still have a positive attitude towards occasional snowfalls but for others it’s just another sign of a cold, bleak winter. People, centuries ago, seem to see something special in a change of the weathers, and of the years. We still learn how differently people see things happening from day to day.

Enlightenment At This Moment


Enlightenment is pretty much misunderstood. People tend to believe enlightenment is something you are yet to attain or achieve, but Dogen(1200-1253) gives it a different definition. Arguing that no bird ever attempts to understand everything about the sky, he debunks the idea that the path won’t be open to us until we achieve enlightenment. Instead, he argues that it is in our living that we can be open to the world. Enlightenment exists in our everyday existence. He adds to it a further explanation as follows.


The space and the path is beyond the grasp of numerical calculation, beyond the concept of possession, beyond the measure of time. They don’t either last or emerge, but they just exist as they are.

That’s beyond preference over either pursuing material affluence or finding richness in a simple, frugal life style. Instead, that’s what we have now. That’s beyond boundaries. Our life is interdependent. What we have now is here because someone else has worked it out at the expense of their time and energy. Just as we take in someone else’s ideas, we do have some impact on someone else’s life. While hoping to feel authentic, we know some parts of our existence are sustained by interaction with others. We know the value of the lessons we take from history, which is incessantly reinterpreted. What seems old often turns out to be new, and vice versa. It follows that nothing can be fixed in terms of shape or meaning. It’s just here in interaction. It’s something grasped by our broadened mind and perspective.


Only after do you take flight, you get to know how to use your wings. You lose your perspective when you get bogged down in the attempt of knowing. Instead, expose yourself to the world. You become aware of the richness and abundance of the world, which is shared with other people and is incessantly interpreted or deconstructed. It is much more resourceful than you ever know. Enlightenment is not what you achieve. It’s not what you can find in a different, sublime realm. It’s right here at this moment.


Fish, Birds and Day-to-day Enlightenment


Do you obsess yourself with full research to prepare for your trip or try to make it as spontaneous as possible? People sometimes do a thorough research on towns and cities they are going to visit but all too often things don’t make sense until you actually jump in and immerse yourself in that environment. Open-mindedness over knowing is the key. In his Zen cannon, Shobo Genzo, Dogen speaks to us about how enlightenment comes about, taking fish and birds for example.

うを水をゆくに、ゆけども水のきはなく、鳥そらをとぶに、とぶといへどもそらのきはなし。(…) しかあるを、水をきはめ、そらをきはめてのち、水そらをゆかんと擬する鳥魚あらんは、水にもそらにもみちをうべからず、ところをうべからず。このところをうれば、この行李したがひて現成公案す。このみちをうれば、この行李したがひて現成公案なり。

Fish swims in the water but they never reach its end. Birds fly in the air but they never reach its end. (…) But if they try to know everything about the water or the sky before they dip into the water or take a flight into the sky, the path nor space will never be open to them. If we are open to the space and the path, we find ourselves enlightened in our day-to-day existence.

魚は水を泳ぐ。しかし、いくら泳いでも水の果てはない。鳥は空を飛ぶ。これまた、いくら飛んでも空の果てはない。(…) ところが、水を究め尽くしてから水を行こうとか、空を究め尽くしてから空を行こうと考える鳥や魚は、水にも空にも道を得ることはできない。有り処を得ることもできない。この有り処とも言えるものを得られれば、日常生活の中に森羅万象を感じられ、この道を得ることで、日常生活の中に悟りを得る。

Before we start something new, we often have a lot of anticipation. Visiting new places, striking up a new relationship with people, and carrying out unfamiliar procedures. All of these involves a lot of anticipation. The problem is that you are so scared that you just try to know everything beforehand, which keeps you from even getting your feet wet.


Knowing things beforehand doesn’t necessarily mean knowing things well. Now that you can do thorough research on anything online, you may be able to equip yourself with knowledge and information that you believe are necessary. You could check out the area with the map application. You could check out all different reviews on hotels and books. But in many cases things turn out to be different from what you expected to be or much clearer and more vivid when you experience them, so much so that you finally take things to heart.


What is stressed here, however, is not about urging people to make a try before giving a second thought. It’s about how you keep in mind that there is still something you never know after all research. That’s how you stay open to what surrounds you. You are aware of the limitless space but never bewildered about endless path. You never be desperate for the goal or frustrated by the absence of achievement. This will help you see the path unfold. That’s how you are open to the path.


Among language learners good at communicating in their target language, some are aware of the impossibility of perfect mastery. This keeps them away from getting desperate in learning. They are just able to take in what they experience in a quite natural way. That’s the way you are open to whatever surrounds you.


Some people create an intimate atmosphere in instant. Some people show their enthusiasm and optimism. Instead of being desperate about understanding everything, they just take in whatever unfolds before them. For them, each encounter with people and events is perceived as seeing things as they are.


Lost in Enlightenment


Some ten years ago I came across an interesting book on the definition of “beautiful” women. It examines how beauty has been differently defined over time and visits different areas around the world to see how the definitions differ from culture to culture.


Women were asked about their own definition and condition of being beautiful. Many of them pointed out the inner beauty. The supplementing comment on that page concluded that it’s a matter of whether you are content with yourself or not. How can you be content with yourself? This question has led me to rereading one of the most important Zen canons, Shobo Genzo by Dogen.



“Learning Buddihist principles means learning yourself. Learning yourself means forgetting yourself. Forgetting yourself means being open to whatever surrounds you. Being open to whatever surrounds you means leaving behind whatever you are physically and psychologically bound to.”


This passage is from Genjo Koan, a volume from the Shobo Genzo. What matters to be enlightened is to forget yourself, discard the concept of achieving from your mindset. It follows that your desire to be content with yourself is the very reason why you are not content with yourself. A problem arises when you want to get wherever you want to be. If you want to achieve something or some particular state of being, you always frustrated, wondering “I’m yet to be there.”


We are all afraid of getting lost on the path of life and desperate to find the “right” track. The truth is, there is nothing like the right track. Once you get the idea of hoping to achive the state of enlightenment, you will be lost in an eternal state of getting nowhere. Acknowledging the state of being lost and the fact of no goal coming into sight will lead you to peace and serenity.


Being open to whatever surrounds you means that your understanding of the universe is more direct. You don’t try to interprete or define things by the use of a language. Expose yourself to whatever surrounds you without giving them names. Everything is on the flux. Whatever you see now will change its face in the course of time. You just see them in the transition. You just don’t have to give names to each and every wave on the sea. Once you step away from the realm of definition, you will see beauty, not as someone else defined it but you will see it as it is.


One of My Pet Peeves is…: Sei Shonagon and Her Language


We all know too well that making a mistake makes us feel awkward and annoyed. For a change, why not think about failure from a different point of view?  Sei Shonagon, one of the most renowned Japanese women writers from the 11th century, wrote about pet peeves in her great classic prose, “Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book)”, a thick volume of notes with as many as 300 chapters. OK. Here is what she says:



Annoying and helpless are the things like these:
You’ve finished writing a poem, or a reply, and only after have you sent out someone with it, you think that a couple of words should be changed.
You’ve finished sewing something in a hurry and you pulled out the needle in full satisfaction, then you notice that you forgot to make a knot at the end of the thread.


Arguably, at the age of 28, she started to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi, 18, much respected for her sophistication. The Pillow Book contains a variety of topics such as diary entries, character sketches and detailed record of upper-class Court life. Her language is varied but compressed, rapturous in adoration for Empress but still lyrical. The limpid beauty of her language marked by repetitiveness, which might be too banal and naïve for Western readers, gives the passages a stylistic rhythm and musicality that still resonate with modern Japanese readers. What do you think?


Tag: Dear Mistakes…
Mistakes are The Norm
Danger Keep Out
Trouble Is A Friend
Variations Sauvages
One of My Pet Peeves is… Sei Shonagon and Her Language

For All Eternity: Basho’s Poetics


Here is the opening part of his most popular travel prose, “Oku no Hosomichi (The Back-country Trails)”. Aesthetic sensitivity here is a little different from other conventional Japanese attitude toward life and beauty.



The Months and days. They’re on a journey for all eternity. The years that come and go. They’re also wayfarers. Transporters grow old making a living on ships or leading workhorses. They are travelers for ever. They find their homes wherever their travels take them.


The common attitude toward the fact that life is too short is to regretfully lament over and find sentimental beauty in its frailty or to focus on the present and be determined to make the best of what you have now. Basho, however, jumps into the gushing current of life. He tries to ride the life’s mane, not knowing where the journey takes him.


The Stillness: Basho’s Poetics


Matsuo Basho, a haiku master in the 17th century, is famous for his travel journal, Oku no Hosomichi (The Back-country Trails). He is arguably the greatest master of all haiku literature. What makes him stand out is his focus on the creation of a unity of perception and expression, though he sometimes revised his poems over and over again. To be genuine you need to share in the life of an object.One of the most popular haiku is one he wrote when visiting a rustic temple at the top of the rugged mountain and finding himself in its serene and ethereal atmosphere.

閑かさや shizukasaya
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimiiru
蝉の声 semi no koe

The stillness
Permeating the rocks
cicadas’ trill

The ideal of Basho’s poetics is to achieve “不易流行(Hueki Ryuko)”: standing the test of time while moving with the times. Seemingly contradicting but ideally integrated, his poetics has survived for ages. At the age of 37, he decided to retreat from snobbish salon society and to search for a way to incorporate poetry into everyday life, then he went on a journey to lend himself to soul-searching. After the journey he gradually added to his austere poetry some humor and a more down-to-earth, laid-back tone. Basho, as a spiritual seeker at the expense of urban, social, efficient life style, knew very well that life is compared to a journey and he lived out his principle.




Let Life Flow


With its variability and frailty, what do you compare life to? Let’s look into the opening of “Diary from a Cabin” by Kamo no Tchomay, which is one of the most famous prose in Japanese literature.



Rivers never cease to flow and never stay the same. Even where the water looks stagnant, the bubbles rise, form and disappear with no exception. Nothing stays the same even in human society – man and his home… One is to die in the morning. Another is to be born in the evening. Everything is in an ever-changing flow of birth and death.
– Kamo no Tchomay Diary from a Cabin


{Read more…} “Let Life Flow


Full moon, Full bloom


Why is it that your heart throbs to see the clouds covering the moon, the withered flowers on the ground?花は盛りに、月は隈なきをのみ見るものかは。雨にむかひて月を恋ひ、垂れこめて春の行方知らぬも、なほあはれに情け深し。咲きぬべきほどの梢、散りしをれたる庭などこそ見どころ多けれ。

Who says we should appreciate cherry blossoms only when they are in full bloom, the moon only when it glows without covering clouds? There is something more touching in wishing to see the moon behind the dark, rainy skies or doing nothing but imagine how spring passes us by behind the closed shades. Truly remarkable are bursting buds on the treetops, gardens dotted with faded flowers.
– Kenko Ramblings


One of the striking characteristic features of Japanese traditional sensitivity is sensing something that is not around – loss, distance, lack, something hidden or out of sight, or incompleteness. It’s about the moon behind the clouds. It’s about failing to see something enjoyable.

In appreciating beauty, imagination still plays a significant role. The image you get with the naked eye is what is passively received; what cannot be seen stirs up imagery in mind. Sometimes regrets or disappointments over failing to see blossoms can evoke aesthetically deeper feelings than joy and pleasure you get by seeing blossoms in full bloom.

Another factor is suggestion. Suggestion comes into play when something is about to happen and something is gone. Beauty resides in the process or transition from the beginning – through the middle – to the end, just as stories can not be told without any of these three stages. The beginning suggests promise; the end reminiscences. Buds suggest their coming prime; fallen, faded flowers their past. This attitude allows you to see things the way they are, to be aware of a rich story behind what can be seen and to find that beauty abounds.

Beauty cannot be appreciated only when something is in the prime or in each stage of its transition. See beauty in its whole transition just as incompleteness suggests past effort and future growth. Take things as a whole, in their transition. Then you can take on the universe.





Flawless Completion Is Something Undesirable


Learning is something of a journey with no perfection in sight.


In everything, flawless completion is something undesirable. Intriguing is leaving something incomplete so that there is room for growth. – Kenko Ramblings


With all knowledge and experience you have, you still get your skills radar chart showing that you lack a particular skill(s), which means that what you get is something far from the perfect hexagonal chart. You still lack fluency. You get the feeling of missing something, a rough and coarse texture. Dents and repairs. But it’s through your yesterday’s embarrassments and surprise over cultural gaps that you gain insights. That’s what makes growth possible. Assured, decided and committed to what really matters, you let the greatness shine through. That’s the beauty of imperfection.