The Samu-rise and Escaping that Burning House

by Ben deButts

Friday night with snow falling all around me, I lied with my back against the huge tree on the prez lawn and looked up to observe the web of branches, struck by their natural complexity.


Branches against a gray sky

weaved into a wooden web,

nature’s own puzzle.


This week we covered the transition from the Heian period into the rise of the samurai.  Of aristocratic roots, the samurai as a class were interesting because they existed to serve (saburau directly meaning “to serve”) and protect with fighting, while on the other hand displaying their roots with strict rules of conflict even utilizing poetry (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). To me, the fact that such a system could exist without a few abusers of these rules (attacking when your opponent is writing their battle poem for example) really testifies to the strength of these traditions. Within The Tale of Heike, a novel that covers this period of time, Kiyomori undoubtedly represents one of the central themes: nothing lasts and the higher you rise, the farther you fall. Achieving among the highest of positions, essentially ruler of Japan, it was only fate he would die a painful fiery death, “his flesh [rising] into the skies over the capital as a transitory plume of smoke” (Heike, 212). Equal to everyone else following death, Kiyomori was no more then any other piece of matter on earth– in this case a “plume of smoke”. While I agree with the transitory plume of smoke, I don’t agree with the idea of karma as the case may be. Those who rise higher (those that hit +12 go to -12) fall lower isn’t foolproof. I think the lines are pretty blurry between what constitutes a zero and a positive number. It seems in Hojoki, Visions of a Torn World, Kamo-no-Chomei’s small hut of only life’s necessities constitutes a “zero” by many standards. Yet, he had all the resources needed to live on and spend his time leisurely writing a lengthy novel—to me that sounds like a pretty positive existence. Perhaps the lack of pain is positive and pain itself is negative? Maybe I’m taking the number line too seriously, but I like it as a way of grasping a pretty abstract idea. The Buddhist’s would have me believe that so long as you are in the burning house of samsara you are negative, or certainly prepped to plummet to it (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). Could Kiyomori have been saved had he been told of the house?

In classic Japanese fashion, they seemed to shift the symbol of the house into the real with the expression shukke or leaving the house and starting anew (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). The aforementioned Kamo-no-Chomei particularly embodied this action when he left behind his life of relative affluence to live in a hut in the remote mountains near Kyoto (Hojoki, 14). As both a participant in and viewer of this transitory period in Japan, Chomei provides a very unique perspective. Witnessing tragedies ranging from earthquakes to plagues, Chomei develops what the book aptly names a “torn world”. Far off in seclusion, he ponders the uncontrollable chaos of this world, the “Sinful times!” as he cries out in exasperation at one point (Hojoki, 48). When all things must fail and life exists in a burning house, why bother pretending it isn’t? “We and our houses fleeting, hollow” (Hojoki, 54). Much like the foam on the river in the beginning of the novel, humans are just flashes of life in an incomprehensibly longer timeline (Hojoki, 31). I really like the comparison made here because of the play between the big and small picture–foam being the parts that make up the whole river just as humans (and their houses) are momentary slides of the whole earth’s slideshow.

This entry was posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Samu-rise and Escaping that Burning House

  1. Avatar of Min  Zhong Min Zhong says:

    First, I really enjoy your poem. Your poem is simple and interesting, which makes me think about our nature. You give a very good summary at the beginning of your article. Your essay is well organized. You understand the fact that living a simple life in a hut is too avoid being too happy and being too sad.

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