Satisfaction on an Autumn Evening
Here is an interesting poem. Partly because it sounds good in Japanese. Like the sound of a stream as you step over it. And because a cascade of thoughts and feelings come from it:
この道や, 行く人なしに, 秋のくれ
Kono michi ya, Yuku hito nashi ni, Aki no kure
Along this country road, Goes no one, This autumn evening
That first line could also be “This road, and…” Meaning “here is a path, and…”
The second can be read “goes no one” or “no one goes.” The first way is sometimes interpreted as pointing to the no-self nature of the poet walking along, or his complete union with the natural world he inhabits, in the Taoist ideal, as he harmonizes with it and is indistinguishable from it.
But this line can also be taken in the sense that – “here is a path and no one is taking it…” The word pronounced “Michi” is also pronounced “Do,” literally meaning a path or way or road, but also as cognate of Tao, understood to mean the way of all things or the way things are or a path of personal cultivation. As is “karate-do”, etc.
There is no “this” in the Japanese in the third line. It just says: “Autumn’s evening” or it could be “Autumn’s ending.” The word kure also can connote being absorbed in something. It is also homonymous with the word “give.”
This path, And no one is on it, Autumn is ending
This path, No one is going, Absorbed in Autumn
So, the constellation of images is rich. A cascade of allusion floods the mind. And there is no reason to pick one. One you reflect on will stand out, but it can give way to another. And many views, many feelings, many memories and dreams, will be evoked at once.
No matter which way you hear it, the sense of impermanence, the passing of time and moving through space, is clear.
The contemplation of impermanence is the classic entry point to vipassana or insight practice. This practice is based on a foundation of mental clarity and stability, samadhi, which allows for sustained, focused attention.
Observation of impermanence begins by noting the arising and passing away of phenomena. The breath is often used as the object of attention on which this observation is made, because it is easily accessible and always available. But there are many other objects which are recommended, such as the rise and passing away of feelings, or the changing postures of the body. There are many ways to observe this rise and fall of phenomena which characterize impermanence.
This recognition gives access to the other two characteristics of all phenomena. Until we train to recognize them, we miss them, and this mistaken view traps us and holds us back from freedom.
As we get used to noticing the impermanence of phenomena, we begin to see the unsatisfactory quality of objects and states of mind. This unsatisfactory quality is the second of the three characteristics of all phenomena. This isn’t anything hard to understand, it means that we are never finished, never fully satisfied, there is always something more to be done. This does not seem like the biggest deal, at first. But after a while it becomes burdensome and ominous. When will the wanting end? When will the danger be over? When will we have peace? (If Mick Jagger couldn’t get no satisfaction, with everything that he had going for him, we may conclude that, as conventionally understood, satisfaction can’t be gotten. Even if he was not speaking for himself alone, but giving voice to the feelings of his millions and millions of fans, we can reach the same conclusion.) That is why we want to recognize unsatisfactoriness, deeply and clearly.
(Note: For some people the Mick Jagger reference may seem antique or obscure. The song it refers to was written in 1964. The poem at the beginning of this post is from 1694. The poet who wrote the poem was called Basho. He lived in Japan at the time when it was closed off from the rest of the world. Both references point to a world of experience familiar to us here and now. By the way, nothing screams impermanence like love songs. They come in three flavors: yearning, rapture and nostalgia. That’s it. You can follow the lieder back centuries before the birth of rock n’ roll, and find the same pattern. It continues with hip hop. Impermanence in pop will never stop.)
The third of the three characteristics of phenomena is that none have a permanent essence, sometimes expressed as no-self-nature. This is a recognition that all phenomena which arise will pass away, that all phenomena are based on causes and conditions, which change, and as they change, the phenomena they have produced change too.
This insight, even the suggestion of it, can feel unsettling and disorienting. Why would you even want to see the world this way?
Partly because it is that way. And because without seeing this we are trapped. What is so profound and liberating about this, what makes this something other than sophistry or speculation, is that it shows how, by engaging in wholesome action we can produce joy and freedom, and have the results we want. We are not stuck in a fixed constellation of unsatisfactory conditions, or in a permanent, suffering life. That’s why.
There is more to insight into impermanence than observing the arising and passing away of phenomena. A more advanced stage of insight practice is to focus only on the passing away of phenomena. The arising phase moves to the background. The ubiquitous awareness of passing away is what leads to liberative insight. This awareness does not lead to extinction, nihilism, or carelessness. It leads to freedom from suffering; the freedom to do some good for the world.
That is what this poem points to. In every line. Its insight is quite spectacular.
Note: I am applying early Buddhist tools and techniques to analyze a Zen work, a tradition which uses different language and has a different approach to practice. There is one truth. Not all roads leads to it, but different roads do. There different ways to apprehend the ungraspable.
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