Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” This well-known last line of a poem titled ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) illustrates the keen awareness the people living in a country like England develop of the passage of seasons. Before spring turns into lovely and temperate summer, “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”, Shakespeare (1564-1616) writes in one of his sonnets. That summer, too, will soon be replaced by the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, as John Keats (1795-1821) writes in his poem titled ‘To Autumn’.
Those of us who live in places with four seasons cannot but be reminded of the passage of seasons as winter is followed by spring, spring by summer, and summer by autumn, observing changes taking place all the time in the world around us. The Japanese, like the British, are known for their keen awareness of the passage of seasons, which they have converted into their inclination—perhaps “passion” may be a better word—for writing poems about the constantly changing sceneries in the natural world since the days of Manyoshu (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). In the case of haiku, the subtlety with which one manages to insert a word about a season within seventeen syllables is regarded as a sign of high artistic achievement. Observing constantly changing sceneries, it is not surprising that the Japanese have converted the Buddhist philosophy of anicca into an artistic concept called mujo to express their felt sense that all things in the world exist in impermanence, including themselves.
Ono no Komachi, recognized as one of the Six Master Poets in Kokinshu (The Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern), expresses this mujo, or impermanence, that she felt as she watched the passage of seasons taking place in the world around her in the following waka:
Flowers have withered
And their color has faded
I spent my days in the world
Watching the long rains fall1
As someone who is said to have been one of the most beautiful ladies in Japanese history, Ono no Komachi was reflecting on the withering of her own figure and shape and the fading of her own youth and beauty as well, while she watched spring coming to an end with the withering of flowers, which are cherry blossoms in this case, and the fading of their color.
Cherry blossoms in spring serve as a most visible reminder of the passage of seasons for the Japanese, not just to a poet like Ono no Komachi. Consider, for example, the following:
Flowers in spring
Cuckoos in summer
The moon in autumn
The snow in winter
Glistening and shivering2
These words in a waka composed by Dogen (1200-1253) seem to suggest that the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan was also keenly aware of the passage of seasons, as he matched each season with a word symbolizing that season. Is Dogen, with this poem, reminding us of the passage of seasons and, therefore, of the impermanence of all things in the world around us?
The answer is, “No”. Why not, then? Note that Dogen does not say, “Flowers have withered” as Ono no Komachi does; he simply states, “Flowers in spring”. Although written as a waka, Dogen’s verse is not saying that spring is followed by summer, summer by autumn, and autumn by winter. It is not, therefore, mujo, or the sense of impermanence, that Dogen is trying to convey to us. The four seasons and what the Japanese typically notice in the natural world as representing each of the four seasons are simply itemized in a manner that does not suggest any passage of time. What, then, is Dogen trying to convey to us with this poem?
The poem is actually Dogen’s way of expressing genjokoan, which means, according to Yasutani Roshi, that “the subjective realm and the objective realm, the self and all things in the universe, are nothing but the true Buddha-dharma itself.”3 As Dogen himself writes in Genjokoan, “We don’t think that winter becomes spring. We don’t say that spring becomes summer.”4 What Dogen means is that winter is just winter, spring is just spring, and summer is just summer. Each season, in other words, is just a dharma, a phenomenon in the natural world, to which we give a name to distinguish it from other phenomena. “Flowers fall.” We know that much now from Newton’s law of gravity. But we are not to infer from the falling of cherry blossoms, Dogen tells us, that spring will soon become summer. A season is, just as all the other dharmas in the universe are, a koan in the sense he redefines it in Genjokoan, a manifestation in itself of the Buddha-dharma: “It is just as it is.”
- Translated into English by the author from the original Japanese version:「花の色は移りにけりいたずらにわが身世にふるながめせしまに」(小野小町)
- Translated into English by the author from the original Japanese version:「春は花夏ほととぎす秋は月冬雪さえて冷しかりけり」（道元）
- Hakuun Yasutani, Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan, Shambhala, 1996, p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 104.