Of Burning Houses and Rain

Photo by Sitthan Kutty on Pexels.com

Here is another wonderful poem (previous posts here and here) by the 11th century Japanese poetess, Lady Izumi (izumi shikibu 和泉式部 in Japanese), that I found in The Ink Dark Moon by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani:

Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
ものをのみMono o nomiShould I leave this burning house
思ひの家をOmoi no ie oof ceaseless thoughts
出でてふるIdete furuand taste the pure rain’s
一味の雨にIchimi no ame nisingle truth
ぬれやしなましNure ya shina mashifailing upon my skin?
Translation by by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

The headline for this poem reads:

On the night of the sixth, the sound of the night monk’s voice reciting the Sutras mingled with the sound of incessant rain, and truly this seemed to be a world of dreams…

Lady Izumi cleverly makes not one, not two, but 3 separate allusions to the famous Lotus Sutra, in this poem. I’ve talked about the Lotus Sutra before. It’s a very influential Buddhist text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and contains many parables and dramatic allusions, compared to some of the drier, more textbook style Buddhist sutras. Thus, allusions to the Lotus Sutra are found throughout literature in East Asia. In my opinion, understanding the Lotus Sutra is key to understanding Buddhism in East Asia: Zen, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and Vajrayana, etc.

The “burning house” here alludes to the Parable of the Burning House of third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. I’ve talked about it here, among other places. This is pretty straightforward to understand in the poem: the Burning House here is symbolic of the world we live in, burning with passions, craving, anger, delusion, old age, disease, and so on. We can step out of the burning house if we choose to, but we are often distracted by things in the house, and thus unaware that the timbers all around us are on fire, putting us in mortal danger.

The second allusion is that of rain. In the fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, there is a famous parable of rain on plants, the so-called The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs:

What falls from the cloud
is water of a single flavor,
but the plants and trees, thickets and groves,
each accept the moisture that is appropriate to its portion.
All the various trees,
whether superior, middling or inferior,
take that is fitting for large or small
and each is enabled to sprout and grow.
Root, stem, limb, leaf,
the glow and hue of flower and fruit-
one rain extends to them
and all are able to become fresh and glossy,
whether their allotment
of substance, form and nature is large or small,
the moistening they receive is one,
but each grows and flourishes in its own way.

The Buddha is like this
when he appears in the world,
comparable to a great cloud
that covers all things everywhere,
Having appeared in the world,
for the sake of living beings
he makes distinctions in expounding
the truth regarding phenomena.

Translation by Burton Watson

This is, for me, one of my most favorite parts of the Lotus Sutra. As a sutra, it’s very inclusive anyway (cf. the Parable of the Dragon Princess), but it also acknowledges that there is a huge variety of people in the world. Some people are just different than others, but they can all benefit from the Dharma in their own way, just like the various plants in world drinking from the rain.

Finally, the third allusion in this poem is that of a single “taste”. Both the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Medicinal Herbs make a single point: the Dharma of the Buddha appears in a variety of ways, or “gates” for one to enter, but in the end the Dharma tastes the same equally, and is but one truth. So, whichever gate one enters, the rain will ultimately taste the same. For the Burning House, when the children come outside, their father has, in the end, a single magnificent cart (not many) to offer them as an incentive.

Turning back to Lady Izumi, it’s obvious that she was very thoughtful of these things, even if she struggled to practice them amidst her life. Even when she was surrounded by scandal, and lost both her lovers and her daughter to illness, she could see past it and look at the greater picture.

Namu Amida Butsu

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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