A ten foot hut on a mountain side, and Heraclitus.

Art, culture, history, illustration

Mixing up my inspirations , Heraclitus inspired me today and sent me spinning off into a totally different direction towards Japan. How?  Heraclitus was a guy who lived before Socrates did, and lived where modern Turkey is today.  He was a loner, didn’t mix well and liked to encourage his readers to question themselves as opposed to rely on previous erudite classical authors like Homer. So far so good then. He wrote with precision, using language to attract the reader in a witty way, often writing quite obscurely in order that the reader thought about the content. He wrote in Greek and he liked paradox.  I warmed to him very quickly. listening to Melvyn Bragg and his guests on Radio 4. One of the ideas that we talk of today is attributed to him,  the idea of permanent flux,

“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”

The  river will be experienced differently each time we step into it, since the water and ourselves are changed.  This idea is similar to the thoughts expounded by Kamo no Chomei, a writer in Kyoto who lived between 1153 and 1216.  He wrote a long essay called ‘An Account of my Hut’ which I have read in translation and was transported in time and place. His writing is heartbreaking in places, describing the disastrous times through which he lived, seeing the devastation of the Great Fire, Whirlwind, famine, the move of the capital and its effects on the people and earthquake. Too much witness for one man. Here are some of his beautiful sentences ,translated into English. It opens with the same thought from Heraclitus.

  Though the river’s current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same.  Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long.  In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing. 
First came the fire,
 I heard that the fire broke out in Higuchitominokoji, in a shack where a dancer lived.  Then, spread by the wind, it touched place after place, until finally it reached everywhere, like the unfolding of a fan.  Houses far off became engulfed in smoke as  those near the center were caught up in swirling flames.  The brightness of the fire was reflected against the solid cloud of ashes blown up in the night sky, a deep red at the center, which, as the wind had flames leaping 100 to 200  yards, kept shifting.  People caught in the middle gave up all hope.  Some died as they were completely overcome by  the smoke, others as they became dizzy in the eye of the flame.  Still others, who barely escaped with their lives, lost everything they owned.  Some of the great treasures in the Palace were also reduced to ashes.  How great was the damage?  Sixteen buildings in the Imperial Court were burned, but it is impossible to calculate the total loss.  Perhaps a third of the capital city was destroyed by this fire.  Scores of men and women were killed, and who knows how many horses and cattle? 
Then came whirlwind, followed by the move of the capital, the government buildings and the people.
 I happened to visit the new capital, at the seaport in Settsu, at this time.  It was obvious that the place was too narrow even to lay out the streets properly.  On the north side the mountains were crowding in and the south side was sloping into the sea.  The sound of the waves was noisy all year long, and the salt water wind was especially strong.  The Imperial Palace was right in the mountains, and the trees used to build it became the fashion, with comments about the peculiar points of elegance it had.  Houses were re-constructed from the components of so many being floated down the river as almost to dam it; still, though unoccupied land was plentiful, few new houses had been built.  So the old capital was already ruined, while the new capital was not yet established.  People came to feel like floating clouds.  The natives of the place complained because they had lost their land, and those who had moved there about the difficulties of building in this new place.  The people I saw on the streets who ought to have been riding in ox-carts were on horseback, and instead of kimono, ancient headdress, and formal wear most had assumed the clothing of soldiers.  The manners of the capital had changed, became no different from those of country samurai.  People wondered if, in these troubled times, courtly manners would be lost completely, and whether this might not presage greater catastrophes to come.  Finally, after all the complaints, in the winter of that year the emperor returned to Heian-Kyo.  However, by then most of the mansions had already been pulled down, and I don’t believe that as many new ones were ever built. 

Then the famine arrives.

After a year of such suffering, people hoped the new year would be better, but the misery increased as, in addition to the famine, people were afflicted by contagious disease.  Everyone suffered from malnutrition, until 
gradually to say that “All the fish will choke in shallow water” would fit very well.  Now even those wearing bamboo hats, with legs wrapped in leggings, walked frantically from house to house begging.  I saw vagabonds of this kind, as they were walking, suddenly collapse and die.  Close to the roofed mud wall at the side of the road, the number of bodies dead from starvation continually increased.  Because no one even tried to clear away those corpses, the odor of the putrefaction became offensive throughout Heian-kyo, and people could not even  stand to look at them.  The city was permeated by the smell, and the mountain of corpses accumulated along the Kamo river bed until there were places where horses and carriages could not pass.  Poor woodcutters, becoming exhausted, were unable to carry firewood into the city, and, as fuel became scarce, people were breaking up their own houses and selling the wood in the city.  However, all the wood a man could carry would not sell for enough to sustain him for a single day.  And it was not unusual to find red paint and gold and silver foil here and there among the firewood, because desperate people would sneak into temples and steal the image of the Buddha, or pull down temple ornaments and furniture to  turn into firewood.  I was born into a world in which this kind of thing could happen.
followed by earthquake,
 Not long after this (1185) there was a violent earthquake, causing unbelievable damage.  Mountains crumbled, rivers were completely filled up, and waves from the sea inundated the land.  The earth split and water gushed out.  Boulders broke off in the mountains and tumbled into the valley.  Ships were tossed around on the sea, and horses were unable to keep their footing on the roads.  In the vicinity of Heian-kyo, temples, shrines, and towers were sodamaged that not a single one was left in good condition.  Some collapsed; others were turned upside down.  Dust and  ashes billowed up like smoke.  The sound of the movement of the earth, and of the destruction of houses, was like thunder.   People who were inside the houses might be crushed at once, but those who ran outside were faced by the cracks in the earth.   Since they did not have wings, they could not fly up into the sky, or become dragons riding in the clouds.  We can only imagine their misery.  Among the most dreaded of catastrophes, we must conclude that the earthquake is the worst of all.
He ponders about the ways of the world,and how the modern ways concern him.
 Someone of low status who becomes a neighbor of a man of power, even when he has cause to be very happy, cannot celebrate loudly, or if his sorrow is severe, his lamentation and weeping must be muted.  His conduct is controlled by anxiety, for in any situation he is as fearful as a sparrow caught in a hawk’s nest.  Poor people, living as neighbors to the rich, morning and evening are embarrassed by their poorly dressed appearance, even as they go nto and leave the house, seeing their neighbor’s flattering condescension.  The wife and children envy the neighbor’s servants, who look down on them with haughty expression, provoking bad feelings.  They can never have peace of 
mind.  If it is crowded in the neighborhood, and the next-door house catches fire, there is no escaping the spreading fire.  If you live outside the city, where it is sparsely populated, it is difficult to go and come, and you have to worry about being attacked by thieves.  People want power and authority, for if their family has none, others look down on 
them.  But people who have property have many worries, too, just as the poor people who envy them do.  Whenever you must rely upon others, so are not self-sufficient, then those others come to possess you.  Even helping a stranger, if you are drawn to that person, infringes on your independence of spirit.  On the one hand, it is difficult to maintain independence in following the standard social conventions, but, if you do not, you will seem absurd, will look like a lunatic.  And wherever you live, whatever you do, in the short period of time of this life, you should seek  peace of mind–but this seems impossible for human beings. 
As Thoreau was to do later in history, he retires to the mountains, and lives a simple hermitic life,
  In general, the past, present, and future history of human beings is a product of the mind.  If there is no peace of mind in possessing the elephant or horse, or the seven wonders or treasures of the world, it is meaningless to have palaces and buildings of many stories.  Now I dwell in my tranquil residence.  It is only a ten-foot hut, but I love it.  
 When I want to go to the capital for something, I may feel ashamed to go in the appearance of a beggar, but I return feeling sorry for the people I see there, who are so caught up in and preoccupied with wealth and honor, so busy doing things.  
He ends the letter at the end of March 1212, reporting that he is now a priest and remains in the tiny hut on the mountain.
I feel love towards this dead Japanese priest.  He has produced a feeling of love in a middle aged woman in Europe nearly a thousand years after he lived. How fantastic is that?  I hope he found peace. I think he found some.

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