The title of this post is from Bazan’s death poem. He died in 1730 at the age of 69 years. His death poem refers to “dew” an image of transience in Buddhist literature. In my childhood, too, dew would settle, overnight, on the blades of grass, on leaves and flowers like a miraculous secretion on the surface of organic life. It shimmered and glinted in the dawn light as if the whole world was bejewelled and then within the briefest of spans it would disappear. For Bazan, our life, human life was as brief and as ephemeral as dew.
Another Zen poet, Chine, a woman wrote in her death poem, a haiku-
It lights up as lightly as it fades: a firefly.
Fireflies were another marvel of my childhood. There they would be in midair, twinkling and blinking, in the evening. Even now as an adult they continue to dazzle and surprise. For Chine, I think, it was the fact of their pinprick incandescence, the switching on and off in the briefest of time that symbolised something about how our lives in the context of cosmological time are but a mere flicker. Mere footnotes, if that, in the margins of the great unknown.
I have had these Zen poets in mind since visiting the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York. Fifteen thousand Africans buried in lower Manhattan over a period nearly 200 years and then covered over with buildings until 1991. Forgotten.
The African experience of America is one of the extremes: tragedy, anguish, survival and triumph of the human spirit over unbelievable cruelty. I imagine a young man or woman born in Ekiti, perhaps Ikole or Ado, dislodged by the Yoruba wars of the 17 and 1800s and caught and, trafficked in the most perilous manner to Badagry and then sold and transported by English slave traders across the Atlantic. Separated from parents and siblings from town and friends, from everything that made life worth living, kinship, language and culture. Then landed in America, New York and worked to death, without respite or human decency.
These Africans were sold and battered as savage. But, their treatment at the hands of Europeans revealed who was really savage in outlook, disposition and behaviour. Here beneath the ground , 60 feet underneath Broadway, underneath skyscrapers, lay 15000 dead and covered over.
As I wrote this, I was cruising in a boat on Lake Winnipesaukee from Weir’s beach to Wolfeboro and back. The outlook was wooded and mountainous. A cool breeze was blowing and the lake’s surface was glinting in the early morning sunlight. There were grand houses nestling in the foothills with jetties prodding into the lake. The sky had brilliant white clouds, like candy floss. The air had a subtle haze in the far distance.
The lake was a meeting point for Native Americans for centuries. They came from modern-day Canada, Maine, and New Hampshire to gather at the water, to feast and enjoy life. And today that form of life, the heroic bravery and poetry of horseback skill, fishing and dance, chanting to speed the gods and fate on, and to persuade time to cease for a moment before plunging headlong to the future, all that has ended. Like fireflies that twinkled briefly one short summer and then died.
At its widest, the lake was 15 miles and the wonder was that we could see that far, out to the rim where the mountains acted as escarpments holding in the water. The green of the forest and the pale slate blue-grey of the mountains contrasted against the undefinable black of the water. The clouds were dark and premonitory of rain perhaps even of a storm.
And as we journeyed around the lake I read Plutarch’s Life of Pericles-
The secret of Pericles’ power depended …not merely upon his oratory, but upon the reputation which his whole course of life had earned him and upon the confidence he enjoyed as a man who had proved himself completely indifferent to bribes.
But his powers were matched by his weakness for Aspasia, a Milesian, who
carried on a trade that was anything but honourable or even respectable, since it consisted of keeping a house of young courtesans.
Here was a life that was like an arc of light, one that burnt on a slow and long fuse but in the end like all lives died out and was yet no more than dew on the grass and dried off in the sun. The briefest of spells indeed.
Photos by Jan Oyebode