Dust

Lafcadio Hearn, born June 27, 1850, was an Irish-Greek author, translator, and teacher most famous for his writings about Japan.

Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu
Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu

He was born on Lefkada, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, and educated in Ireland, England, and France before immigrating to the United States in 1869. For a decade he lived in New Orleans, reporting on street life in the Vieux Carre and Creole and Cajun culture. In 1890 Hearn moved to Japan, where he took the name Koizumi Yakumo, became a citizen, married into a samurai family, held a chair in English literature at Tokyo University, and authored over a dozen books on Japanese life, literature and religion.

In 1897 he published Gleanings in Buddha-Fields Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East, a collection of sketches on Japanese Buddhism. In his introduction to The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (1977), Kenneth Rexroth wrote,

Hearn’s role in the spread of Buddhism to the West was a preparatory one. He was the first important American writer to live in Japan and to commit his imagination and considerable literary powers to what he found there. Like the “popular” expressions of Buddhist faith that were his favorite subject, Hearn popularized the Buddhist way of life for his Western readers.”

Hearn had lost faith in his native religion before he reached the age of 20. He did not convert to Buddhism, however, and as Rexroth mentions, “he remained skeptical about certain of Buddhism’s key doctrines — such as the relationship of karma and rebirth — but he passionately believed that Buddhism promoted a far better attitude toward daily life than did Christianity.” And he wrote about the Buddhism of the masses, popular Buddhism, not what he termed “Higher Buddhism,” although he probably felt more comfortable with this latter form of dharma, which he thought comparable in certain respects to the “evolutional ideas of our own time.”

In honor of the 164th anniversary of his birth, here is a excerpt from the chapter “Dust” in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields. In this lyrical selection, Hearn muses over death and emptiness:

Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things as having the nature of space,—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without substantiality.”—SADDHARIMA-PUNDARÎKA.

hearn1897I have wandered to the verge of the town; and the street I followed has roughened into a country road, and begins to curve away through rice-fields toward a hamlet at the foot of the hills. Between town and rice-fields a vague unoccupied stretch of land makes a favorite playground for children . . .

And they play at funerals,—burying corpses of butterflies and semi (cicadæ), and pretending to repeat Buddhist sutras over the grave . . .

Children in all countries play at death. Before the sense of personal identity comes, death cannot be seriously considered; and childhood thinks in this regard more correctly, perhaps, than self-conscious maturity. Of course, if these little ones were told, some bright morning, that a playfellow had gone away forever,—gone away to be reborn elsewhere,—there would be a very real though vague sense of loss, and much wiping of eyes with many-colored sleeves; but presently the loss would be forgotten and the playing resumed. The idea of ceasing to exist could not possibly enter a child-mind: the butterflies and birds, the flowers, the foliage, the sweet summer itself, only play at dying;—they seem to go, but they all come back again after the snow is gone. The real sorrow and fear of death arise in us only through slow accumulation of experience with doubt and pain; and these little boys and girls, being Japanese and Buddhists, will never, in any event, feel about death just as you or I do. They will find reason to fear it for somebody else’s sake, but not for their own, because they will learn that they have died millions of times already, and have forgotten the trouble of it, much as one forgets the pain of successive toothaches. In the strangely penetrant light of their creed, teaching the ghostliness of all substance, granite or gossamer,—just as those lately found X-rays make visible the ghostliness of flesh,—this their present world, with its bigger mountains and rivers and rice-fields, will not appear to them much more real than the mud landscapes which they made in childhood. And much more real it probably is not.

At which thought I am conscious of a sudden soft shock, a familiar shock, and know myself seized by the idea of Substance as Non-Reality.

This sense of the voidness of things comes only when the temperature of the air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a body. Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams.

To-day is one of those warm, hushed days when it is possible to think of things as they are,—when ocean, peak, and plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All is mirage,—my physical self, and the sunlit road, and the slow rippling of the grain under a sleepy wind, and the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the rice-fields, and the blue crumpling of the naked hills behind everything. I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted,—haunted by the prodigious luminous Spectre of the World.

There are men and women working in those fields. Colored moving shadows they are; and the earth under them—out of which they rose, and back to which they will go -is equally shadow. Only the Forces behind the shadow, that make and unmake, are real,—therefore viewless . . .

Read all of Gleaning in Buddha-Fields here.

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2 thoughts on “Dust

  1. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and poignant piece. Just a thought:

    “Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams.”

    Reminds me why I think winter is really when we grow old and in summer we grow and are revitalized, almost youth-like.

    1. Your comments remind me of this:

      Look around, the grass is high, the fields are ripe,
      It’s the springtime of my life.
      Oh, seasons change with scenery,
      Weaving time in a tapestry,
      Won’t you stop and remember me . . . ?
      I look around, the leaves are brown,
      There’s a patch of snow on the ground,
      Look around…

      Paul Simon, A Hazy Shade of Winter

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