“Summer Afternoon”: Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” These are the words of Henry James as quoted in A Backward Glance, an autobiography of Edith Wharton published in 1934. Summer afternoon in the English countryside must have been lovely back in the early years of the twentieth century, for it was in 1908 on the occasion of his visit to Bodiam Castle with Edith Wharton that Henry James uttered these words. Edith Wharton expresses her agreement with Henry James when she opens the paragraph in which these words are quoted with a line: “One perfect afternoon we spent at Bodiam.”

This was, of course, back in the first years of the twentieth century when the term “global warming” was not in wide circulation as it is now. In fact, it was in 2001 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, with a warning about the potential impact of global warming on the future of human civilizations. Would Henry James use the same words now to describe summer afternoon in the English countryside where the high temperature often goes well beyond 35˚C (95˚F)? For example, the high temperature reached 38.5˚C in August 2003 in Haversham, Kent, which is adjacent to East Sussex where Henry James was in the summer of 1908. And what about Shakespeare? It was back in 1609 when he published his Sonnets, which includes a sonnet that begins with a line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Would he continue to use a summer’s day as a metaphor for loveliness and temperateness? What imagery would he use now to describe a summer’s day when the brutal summer heat covers the English countryside, not just the cities?

As we all know by now, it is not just England that started to see the record high temperatures in the twenty-first century. In 2007, 15 countries set the record for high temperatures. It is no coincidence, then, that the Japan Meteorological Agency decided to introduce a new category of “Extremely Hot Summer Days” in April 2007 to refer to the days of brutal summer heat with the high temperature exceeding 35˚C. The decision to introduce the new category, in addition to the two previous categories of “Summer Days” (25~29˚C) and “Hot Summer Days” (30-34˚C), was in response to the recognition, on the part of the Japan Meteorological Agency, that “Extremely Hot Summer Days” are occurring too often and that the public need to be warned about the health hazards of high summer temperatures. As a matter of fact, it is customary for weather forecasters now to include the warning about the potential danger of heat strokes whenever the high temperature is expected to exceed 35˚C in the days ahead, advising people to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to take plenty of liquids.

Hiking is certainly one of those strenuous outdoor activities that we need to refrain from on “Hot Summer Days,” let alone on “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Strenuous or not, Matsuo Basho, known as the finest master of haiku, is also known for his extensive travels on foot while composing his haiku. It was on July 13 of 1689 that Basho composed one of his best-known haiku for summer: “sizukasa ya/ iwa ni simiiru/ semi no koe (In serenity/ Deep into rocks penetrate/ Cicadas’ chorus)”. Basho was at Risshaku-ji in Yamagata Prefecture when he composed this haiku. Since Risshaku-ji is also known as Yamadera, or “Mountain Temple,” constructed as it is on the side of a rocky mountain, it must have been a strenuous walk for Basho to reach this temple, with no easy access like a railroad station nearby which is now available to visitors. Considering how secluded the temple must have been back then, it is easy to imagine how Basho must have enjoyed a serene moment of meditation there, while listening to cicadas’ chorus. Perhaps summer heat was not as bad as it has since become.

Yamagata Prefecture, though located in the northern region of Japan, is not exempted from “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Yamagata City, the capital of the prefecture, had the high temperature of 40.8˚C back in July of 1933, the highest recorded temperature in Japan until August of 2007 when two other cities broke the record with the high temperature of 40.9˚C. Even this new record did not last long, and was replaced by another record high temperature of 41˚C in 2013. Then in 2018, two cities matched this new record high temperature and another city set yet another record with the high temperature of 41.1˚C. What is becoming increasingly clear is that an extremely hot summer afternoon is not suitable either for hiking or for serene meditation even for a vigorous walker like Basho. Instead of appreciating serenity amid cicadas’ chorus, a twenty-first century disciple of Basho might compose a haiku that expresses a sense of sympathy for cicadas singing in the brutal summer heat: “natu no gogo/ mosho ni aegu/ semi no koe (Summer afternoon/ Even cicadas’ chorus/ Sounds feeble with heat)”. Whether we like it or not, it is time to ask for a second opinion as to whether “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language or, for that matter, in any language.

“The Hungry Ghost Ceremony”: A Mid-Summer Night’s Operetta?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Segaki hoyo, or “the ceremony for feeding the hungry ghosts,” is one of the ceremonies conducted at Buddhist temples in Japan. Many temples conduct the ceremony during the Obon period in August when the Japanese pay respect to their deceased ancestors by visiting their graves. While a typical ceremony conducted at Buddhist temples such as a funeral ceremony or a memorial service tends to be a sober occasion for adults and a boring experience for children, the ceremony for feeding hungry ghosts, or “the hungry ghost ceremony” for short, is an exhilarating experience for adults and children alike, especially the one conducted at Zen temples of Obaku lineage. This is so because Obaku Zen temples are known for the use of many percussion instruments in their ceremonies. The hungry ghost ceremony is no exception to this. As a matter of fact, a typical hungry ghost ceremony at an Obaku Zen temple is like an operetta in three acts with fascinating story lines performed by a group of monks chanting to the accompaniment of a rich variety of percussion instruments.

Act I of “The Hungry Ghost Ceremony” takes us back more than 2,500 years to India in the days of the Buddha. The story told by the chanting by one of the monks—a lead singer in the operetta, if you will—is about Ananda. As the faithful attendant to the Buddha in the last 25 years of his master’s life, Ananda was a constant companion of the Venerable One, traveling with him and listening to his discourses. However, Ananda did not gain enlightenment while the Buddha was still alive, though he did his best as a devoted disciple, doing all the meditation practices recommended by his master. On this particular occasion, as the story unfolds, Ananda was doing sitting meditation in a wood, when he was visited by a fierce-looking demon. It was a hungry ghost who, with fire coming out of his mouth and smoke coming out of his hair, shouted at Ananda: “Ananda, you will never attain enlightenment no matter how hard you practice. You will fall into the realm of us hungry ghosts just like your mother did within three days.” Terrified with these words, Ananda turned to the Buddha for an advice as to what he could do to save himself from falling into the realm of hungry ghosts. The Buddha’s advice to Ananda was to pacify the angry mind of hungry ghosts by feeding them with food while chanting. The leading monk chants this story facing the altar, where the Buddha statue is placed, prostrating many times while chanting.

The scene of the story in Act II is no longer ancient India but contemporary Japan—the temple where the ceremony is being held, as a matter of fact. Here the leading monk, now sitting on a high chair and facing the audience in attendance, begins a new series of chanting. The first chanting is one intended to cast out demons from the temple, with the monk employing a variety of mudras, some of which are employed in esoteric Buddhism. With demons cast out, the next chanting is to invite Maitreya into the temple to receive blessings from him. The chanting, which is quite melodious, is accompanied by the loud playing of percussion instruments, including the drum, the wooden fish, the large bell, and a tiny bell held by the leading monk. The idea behind this Obaku-style combination of chanting and percussion instruments is to make sure that Maitreya will listen to the earnest wish of those in attendance for his visit. Whether it succeeds in attracting Maitreya’s attention or not, there is no question that the loud playing of percussion instruments surely wakes up those in attendance, some of whom doze off while the monotonous chanting is going on.

The scene of the story in Act III is still the temple as it was in Act II, except that those in attendance are now given their chance to participate in the ceremony. The chanting is offered to pay respect to the deceased ancestors, relatives, and friends of those in attendance as the ceremony is taking place during the Obon period when their spirits return to be reunited with the people who have come to the ceremony. The chanting is also intended to pacify the spirits of those ancestors, relatives, and friends who are roaming in the realm of hungry ghosts, sent there because of their unwholesome deeds, by feeding them with rice and other kinds of food assembled for the occasion. The idea behind feeding hungry ghosts is to satisfy the hunger of these hungry ghosts with food and release them back, not to the realm of hungry ghosts but to the higher realm of humans, preferably to the realm of ashuras or devas. Recognizing that there are hungry ghosts among those in attendance as well, food is also distributed to them. To the delight of those children who have sat through a long and boring ceremony to them, candies and cookies are thrown at them by a group of monks performing the ceremony. These children are actually enacting the role of hungry ghosts who become happy humans after receiving the food distributed. As the children go home satisfied with the goodies they received, so do the spirits of hungry ghosts to their new home in a higher realm. Act III ends with the chanting and the mudra that signify that the gate of the realm of hungry ghosts is now shut, as there are no hungry ghosts left to be fed.

With the combination of chanting and percussion instruments, the hungry ghost ceremony conducted at Obaku Zen temples is quite a spectacle, to say the least. However, it is one thing to stage a colorful ceremony to call the attention of those who are in attendance but quite another whether the real message behind the ceremony, which is to remind them of the importance of observing the Buddhist Dharma, is conveyed to them. Whether or not they have fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts because of their own unwholesome deeds, there is no question that there are quite a large number of people in the world who are trapped in the state of miserable existence. To extend the message of loving-kindness and compassion to these people with the generous sharing of food and other resources would be the kind of hungry ghost ceremony that is needed in the world today. Indeed, the ceremony needs to be performed as a form of practice—reciting the Five Contemplations, for example—every day in every household, not as a mid-summer night’s operetta performed once a year at Buddhist temples.