When flowers fall, flowers just fall

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
While meaninglessly
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.”

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. Hakuun Yasutani, Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan, Shambhala, 1996, p. 7.
  4. Ibid., p. 104.

Thirty-six views of the Eiffel Tower

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai (1760-1849) is arguably the best known among the works of art created by Japanese artists. Created as one of a series of 36 woodblock prints collectively known as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, “The Great Wave”, as it is popularly known today, is a masterpiece of composition, contrasting the relentlessness of natural forces represented by an immense wave with the helplessness of humans represented by the people precariously clinging to swaying boats. We are also struck by the tension Hokusai skillfully creates by depicting a motion temporarily frozen and a drama momentarily halted, reminding us of the unsettling condition of our existence in the world of impermanence and mutability.

It is well known to students of art history how Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”, along with works of his fellow artists in Edo Japan such as Utamaro (1753-1806) and Hiroshige (1797-1858), sent a great shock wave through the European art scene in the middle of the nineteenth century. In fact, European artists were so shocked and amazed by the novelty of composition, lines and colors used by the Japanese masters that they went on to produce Japonism, an artistic style that mimics, interprets, and translates the style used by these masters. Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Monet (1840-1926) are among the many European artists who, inspired by artists in the far-off land in the East, tried to recreate the scenes they saw in Japanese woodblock prints on their canvases.

The idea of depicting different views of the same object, as exemplified by Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, also turned out to be a source of inspiration for Henri Riviere (1864-1951), a French artist who published a volume containing 36 lithograph prints titled Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower in 1902. Unlike Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views, in which a natural object—a mountain that is greatly revered by the Japanese—is depicted, Riviere’s Thirty-six Views depicts a work of human engineering, a majestic tower constructed in commemoration of the 1889 Exposition Universelle held in Paris.

Some prints depict the actual process of constructing the Eiffel Tower from the ground level up. One showing the workers assembling materials at the foundations does not give any hint that these foundations would soon become the great tower that we know today. Another showing the foundations beginning to take the shape of a tower actually resembles Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” in its composition, with the soon-to-be massive structure on the left towering over the people on the ground. Riviere also includes scenes of the workers doing the job of constructing the great tower at dizzying heights above the ground. In addition to these prints showing the Eiffel Tower in the foreground, suggesting its majestic scale, there are other prints showing the Eiffel Tower in the background, with other famous landmarks of Paris such as Jardin du Tracadero, Place de la Concorde, and Notre Dame placed in the foreground. As a matter of fact, some of these other prints show the Eiffel Tower only as a tiny speck in the distance, almost disappearing from the scene.

Just as Mount Fuji is only one element in each of the 36 composite sceneries Hokusai creates in his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, the Eiffel Tower in Riviere’s Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower is also only one element in each of the 36 composite sceneries. The message is that the Eiffel Tower is not a thing that exists by itself apart from other things depicted—humans, buildings, trees, streets, rivers, ports, clouds, and the sky. The Eiffel Tower, in other words, exists only in the context of relationships among all these things and becomes visible only when conditions are right. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, the Eiffel Tower—every one of some 15,000 pieces of iron, every one of some 7 million nails that were used—is an “interbeing”. As such, it is made up of non-Eiffel Tower elements—those things depicted as well as those things not depicted by Riviere—and is inherently empty.

If the Eiffel Tower is inherently empty from the perspective of Buddhist thought, it is also empty from the perspective of quantum mechanics. Saying that it is empty does not mean that the Eiffel Tower does not exist, for it surely does as an “empirical reality”; it is Paris’ most visible landmark and attracts millions of visitors every year. However, to a French physicist like Bernard d’Espagnat, an advocate of quantum field theory, the Eiffel Tower is not an independent object but a composite of properties such as its height, weight, size, and shape, expressible by a vector representing these properties. What is it, then, that these properties represent? “The only answer I am able to provide is that underlying this empirical reality is a mysterious, non-conceptualizable ‘ultimate reality,’ not embedded in space and (presumably) not in time either,” writes d’Espagnat in his blog piece published in The Guardian on March 17, 2009. In distinguishing between “empirical reality” and “ultimate reality”, we can see that d’Espagnat comes very close to the Buddhist distinction between “conventional reality” and “ultimate reality”.

Whether we look at the Eiffel Tower from the perspective of Buddhist thought or from that of quantum mechanics, we are thus led to the conclusion that it is devoid of intrinsic existence. The Eiffel Tower only exists as a potentiality in the latent world, or the realm of “veiled reality,” which is another term d’Espagnat uses. It comes into existence in the manifest world of “conventional reality,” thus becoming visible as an “empirical reality” when we choose to view it—on a clear day, that is, when Paris is not covered with a thick fog.