Cherry Blossoms at the Heian Shrine, Kyoto.
In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon are sometimes compared to different flowering trees that bud and bloom in the spring. Reserved and contemplative as she was, Murasaki is thought of as similar to a cherry blossom, a traditional symbol of purity, while the gregarious, slightly more promiscuous Sei is likened to a vibrant red plum blossom.
A Sakura in Washington, D.C.
March is the month of the first Cherry Blossom or Sakura Festivals in Japan and in Washington, D.C. If you cannot get to Japan, the festival starts in our nation’s capital on March 27th this year. Even if you don’t particularly love cherry blossoms, there’s at least a parade with an enormous Hello Kitty balloon.
Gold on indigo-dyed paper - from the later part of the Heian period.
This illustration is from the later part of the Heian period, approximately a century after Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu lived, wrote, and gossiped about each other. Considering that Buddhist compassion and forgiveness has been in the news lately following Tiger Woods’ televised apology, which contained references to his childhood visits to Thai Buddhist temples, this particular worked seemed timely. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the Mahayana belief that Buddha’s compassion is open to all, regardless of position in life. Heian aristocrats would take comfort in such a belief, despite the fact that had a noted lack of empathy for the poor that bordered on disdain.
Last night and into the morning, a new blizzard hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, bringing with it a good half foot of snow or more. While this winter has been particularly cold, and being cooped up indoors induces a form of winter madness in all but the hardiest souls, waking up to newly fallen snow is an undeniably joyous aspect to an otherwise frozen, barren season.
“The Pillow Book” famously starts with the line “in spring, it is the dawn”, as Sei Shonagon poetically describes the loveliest time of day per season. In winter, it is the early morning:
“In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes” —-Sei Shonagon
Frozen salt marsh.
A flock of crows on slushy ice of brackish water.
I know I am!
Heian literature requires a great deal of effort to translate from the original Japanese, and must be altered totally from its initial form. Why might that be, you ask? A common Heian literary conceit, which was considered elegant at the time, was the excessive overuse of a single adjective in a sentence – to the point of using a strong adjective perhaps four times in the same sentence.
Sei Shonagon in “The Pillow Book” frequently used adjectives such as “charming” over and over and over again in an anecdote. Were such a passage directly translated, the meaning of the writing would be utterly lost on a modern day reader. It would be far too boring and mind-numbingly repetitive.
On the other hand, perhaps this repetitiveness isn’t too far from the experience of the modern day literature fan. Many writers today, whether of novels, newspaper articles, or blogs, seem to re-use the same vocabulary.
I know I overuse the words ridiculous, hilarious, weird, amazing, awesome, and random. Maybe that assortment of words captures my particular take on life. Possibly I should start looking at a thesaurus every once in a while.
If anyone calls you out on your slim vocabulary or overuse of a few choice adjectives, turn the tables on them. “Oh, I do that on purpose,” you’ll say. “I find it elegant. It’s very Heian.”
They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. You win.
There are times in life when one hires a religious figure to complete a ceremony or needed task. Whether it is a priest, pastor, rabbi, or shaman, sometimes a spiritual authority is needed and thus summoned. We expect the figure to behave with the requisite solemnity or authority of someone in such a post. However, at times this is not what happens. A minister at a wedding stumbles over the vows, or a priest sneezes from an excessive amount of incense. Hateful!
So goes another anecdote from Sei Shonagon’s Most Hateful List:
“Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcising too many evil spirits lately, for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful!”
Get yourself some tweezers and a small pair of scissors. Recently, a make-up kit was found in a Heian tomb in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Inside the kit was a pair of tweezers and some shears, in addition to a small mirror from China.
Since the tomb was outside of Kansai Prefecture, and thus far from Heian Kyo, it appears that the lady may “have had a close relationship with an influential person who ruled the local area on behalf of a lord who lived in Kyoto, the capital at that time,” according to Shiro Yamashita, the Head of Public Relations for the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology in Harimacho. It’s interesting that Yamashita didn’t mention the possibility of the lady’s being the wife or daughter of a provincial governor, that much-dreaded post occupied by the father of Murasaki Shikibu and later husband of Sei Shonagon.
Why tweezers were needed.
However, one thing is certain. Whoever owned this historic make-up kit needed it for a very specific purpose: removing all of one’s noticeable body hair, eyebrows included. How else could one paint on thick, black, caterpillar-like replacements without looking silly?
Just before Christmas, millions of people travel to visit far off relatives, and many of them will do so by car, leading to traffic and road rage. Sei’s list of “Hateful Things” provides insight into the annoyances one encountered in the Japan of 1,000 AD, and it seems that merely the rage-inducing technology has changed.
Sei complains about low quality, ill-kept carriages making irritating sounds:
“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am traveling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.”
Sei may appear finicky in this statement, but if one imagines traveling in an 11th century carriage, it becomes apparent that those wooden carriages would have been mind-numbingly slow, possibly traveling a few miles per hour on their wooden wheels. If a loud, creaking carriage were to approach one, it would be audible for a terribly prolonged period of time with no escape, and if one happened to travel in a friend’s squeaking carriage, well, it was even longer.
This holiday season, as you spend time sitting in traffic or traveling great distances, look at things from a Heian perspective. Traffic may be hateful, and you may despise the cars as well as the drivers surrounding you, or find all manner of rude behavior on the roads.
But hey – at least you can choose to ignore a car. You can’t ignore a massive squeaking carriage.