Making Sense of Natural Disasters with 'Hojoki'
The hurricanes that in the past few months have ravaged Texas, Florida, eastern Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean have left vast regions swamped and in anguish. Massive earthquakes continue to pummel Mexico.
And most recently, raging fires have devastated large regions of Northern California, destroying thousands of homes and taking over forty lives.
Whether we’re directly affected by these disasters or not, nature’s seeming indifference to human suffering has left many reeling, disillusioned—broken. Immersed in the meaninglessness of such horrors—devoid of any semblance of pattern—we are forced to contemplate our human mortality and the inevitability of suffering.
At the same time, these recent catastrophes have tested our ability to persevere, to anchor ourselves to one another with compassion and love—the ultimate salve to death and destruction. As one saying that has made its way around the scorched regions of Northern California goes, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
We may not be able to control or make sense of these horrors of nature, but we can still choose how to react when the horror strikes. Our uniquely human capacity to think and act a certain way liberates us from the seemingly insurmountable forces of fate and chance that heave us about.
Of course, as long as there have been natural disasters to afflict humanity there have been philosophers, spiritual thinkers, and artists trying to make sense of them, to find some means of coping with them—to answer that timeless question: why?
Medieval Japanese writer and poet Kamo no Chōmei was particularly preoccupied with the eathquakes, fires, and storms that he witnessed devastate Kyoto throughout his lifetime. His meditations on the misery Kyoto and its inhabitants suffered culminated in one of the greatest literary works of medieval Japan: Hojoki, a lyrical, reflective, and stunning meditation on impermanence, suffering, and detachment from “this unkind world.”
One of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature, Hojoki begins with these words:
The flowing river
and yet the water
upon the pools,
never lingering long.
So it is with man
and all his dwelling places
here on earth.
In this passage alone, Chōmei’s verse reveals the sweep of the universe. Life is fleeting, Chōmei contemplates; if we accept that we never linger long on this earth, that humanity and its civilizations are constantly scattering and reforming, then the pangs of loss, destruction, and death become blunted.
Chōmei’s imagery evokes one of the key precepts of Buddhist thought: that life is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, and that the way to end suffering is to end desire. Without desire the death knell becomes mute.
Powerfully evocative and calming, bleak but consolatory, Hojoki is as relevant today as ever. Ruminating on Chōmei’s visions of the torn world he witnessed centuries ago can help us make sense of the torn world we’re currently living in.
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Written by Nikolas Bunton