Burning House

Burning House  – Liza Lim

Original Japanese poem by Izumi Shikibu
Translations by Jane Mansfield and Mariko Aratani.

English translation:

Wakened by the scent

Of the flowering plum…

The darkness

of the spring night

fills me with longing.

Come quickly – as soon as

these blossoms open,

they fall.

This world exists

as a sheen of dew on flowers.

This poem contains three references to the Lotus Sutra, whose central message is that although Buddhist teaching can take many forms, according to time and circumstance, there is ultimately only one Way.  Each of the references is to an illustration of this idea.  In the first, omoi is used as a pivot-word, with the dual meanings of “thinking” and “burning”.  The burning house as an image for the world of delusion comes from a story intended to illustrate the concept of skillful means: a father sees his children playing inside a house they do not realise is on fire; because they refuse at first to come when he calls them, he describes three fascinating toys (representing the three main schools of Buddhist teaching) he has with him in the yard.  But when the children, enticed by his description, run out, they see that in fact what awaits them is only a single cart drawn by a white bull: the Buddha’s one teaching.  The second and third references, translated here as “taste the pure rain’s / single truth, ” are in the phrase ichimi no ame, which means literally “the one taste rain.”  The image-concept underlying “one taste” is this: just as the ocean appears in many forms and places but is everywhere suffused with the single flavour of salt, the teaching has only one flavour.  The rain comes from a description in the sutra’s fifth chapter of the way one rain falling from the sky nourishes many kinds of plants and beings.

Reproduced with permission from Vintage Books, Random House Inc., N. Y.
Written for Bass koto by British composer Robin Williamson in 1987