Taming the River for Recreation and Reflection

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

A river, because of its vital importance for human life, often defines the identity of the place where it runs through and the people who live along it. Consider, for example, the Indus. The name “India” and the word “Hindu” both come from the Indus, or the native word for river, sindhu, which the Greek changed to India and the Persians to Hindu. The Indus has thus given birth to, and defines, India as a nation and Hinduism, the term invented by the British in the nineteenth century to refer to a system of thought and social customs practiced by the Hindu, or the people of India.

There is another river that is vitally important for the people of India. That river is, of course, the Ganges, the longest river in India. The Ganges, which is symbolically represented as a Goddess, is known as a sacred river. The reverence with which the people of India regard the Ganges comes from the popular belief that it used to flow in heaven before it was pulled down to earth to purify the souls of the dead. Shiva, the god of destruction in the Trimurti, or the three forms of supreme reality in Hinduism, the other two being Brahma the god of creation and Vishnu the god of preservation, is said to be the god who took on the painful task of supporting the Ganges on his shoulders before it came down to earth, as is shown in many carved statues.

The Ganges also plays an important part in Buddhism, for it was along this great river that the Buddha lived during his years of teaching. In fact, the Buddha employs the Ganges as a metaphor, or a simile, in many of his teachings. A metaphor of crossing the river to the other shore to reach enlightenment is easily understandable when we think of the wide water that separates this shore and the other shore of this great river. The Buddha also employs the Ganges as a simile for something that is vast and uncountable, as when he explains to a brahmin at Rajagaha that samsara is without discoverable beginning, saying: “Imagine, Brahmin, the grains of sand between the point where the river Ganges originates and the point where it enters the great ocean: it is not easy to count these and say there are so many grains of sand, or so many hundreds of grains, or so many thousands of grains, or so many hundreds of thousands of grains.” (Samuyutta Nikaya 15:8)

Turning our attention to Japan, Kamo-gawa, or the river Kamo, provides us another good example of a river that defines the identity of the place where it runs through and the people who live along it. Originating in one of the mountains in the north of Kyoto, Kamo-gawa runs through this ancient capital city from north to south. Covering the distance of about 30 km from its origin to its merging point with Katsura-gawa in Fushimi, a southern district of the city, Kamo-gawa is not a long river, compared with other major rivers in Japan such as Shinano-gawa and Tone-gawa, both of which are over 300 km in length. But the shortness of its length and the smallness of the area it covers do not take away the special place Kamo-gawa occupies in the hearts and minds of the people who live along it.

In the first place, Kamo-gawa is different from other rivers in Japan that it is named after the Kamo family, a rarity in the country where naming a river, or a mountain for that matter, after a real person or a family is an exception rather than a rule. The Kamo family, whose ancestry is said to go back to the reign of Emperor Jinmu, was a ruling family in Yamashiro. Their descendants have been entrusted with the job of serving as priests for Kami-gamo shrine and Shimo-gamo shrine, both named after their family name, though written in different Chinese characters.

More than anything else, the significance of Kamo-gawa today for the people of Kyoto as well as for the visitors to this city of many historic shrines and temples is the space it provides for recreation such as cycling, fishing, running, walking, and picnic. These recreational activities are made possible because Kamo-gawa has wide riverbeds that run on both sides of the shallow flowing river and are enclosed by the two banks. Indeed, a legend has it that it was on the riverbeds along Kamo-gawa that Izumo-no-Okuni staged her show of song and dance in the sixteenth century, which would develop into the present day Kabuki. The riverbeds of Kamo-gawa are also known as lovers’ lanes, as many couples come out and sit along the river in summer evenings, leaning against each other and whispering words of love while watching the water flow down gently before their eyes.

Before Kamo-gawa was turned into the favorite place for recreational activities for the people of Kyoto as well as for the visitors to the city, it took a series of engineering works to turn the sometimes-violent river that used to bring misery to the people who lived along it into a gently flowing river that it is today. Kamo-no-Chomei (1155-1216), the author of Hojoki, or An Account of My Ten-Foot Square Hut, is one of the people who lived along Kamo-gawa. Watching the water going down the river, sometimes violently and other times gently, it is not surprising then that Kamo-no-Chomei wrote one of the most beautiful accounts of the Buddhist teaching of anicca, or impermanence, in Japanese literature. Translated into English, the opening lines go something like as follows: “The water of the flowing river never stops, and the water that flows down is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant parts of the river, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So it is with the people and their dwellings in the world.” Those who are lucky enough to be able to do walking meditation today along Kamo-gawa near Shimo-gamo shrine, where Kamo-no-Chomei used to have his hut, will have a chance to reflect on the vicissitudes of life so beautifully expressed by him, while watching the water flowing down gently—most of the time.