Cherry Blossoms and The Tales of the Heike

Cherry blossoms at UW

After three years of living in Seattle, I finally made it to the UW campus to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Everyone else wanted to see the cherry blossoms too; the freeway exit to UW was backed up and cars prowled the campus for parking.

My workplace has cherry blossoms by the amphitheater, but the ones on the UW campus are on a whole different scale, old and grand, with branches that sprawl high into the sky. Children ran around the muddy grass. Parents, eager for a photograph, implored them to stand still for a second and smile. A bride posed with her groom in the center of the quad, as strong winds swirled pink petals into the air. Here, there were old and young, students, everyone, enjoying the majestic beauty of the cherry blossoms. The quad was a lovely madhouse.

I took a photo of one of the cherry trees. The flowers look like they are blooming on the trunk.

Blooming cherry blossoms at UW
Blooming cherry blossoms at UW

At work, I am often reminded by my coworkers that the Japanese love cherry blossoms. With their short, transient blooms, they are a symbol for impermanence in life. It made me pull out an essay I wrote ten years ago about The Tales of the Heike. This is back when I randomly threw in big words to appear smart. I like how I write now. I use common words and my writing is clearer. It helps that my personal writing has no minimum length requirement, double-spaced.

The Tales of the Heike is a warrior tale, a dramatized account of the battles of the Genpei war and the political intrigue surrounding it. It is interesting that one of the first stories recounted in The Tales of the Heike is not about an aristocrat or warrior, but a woman, a lowly dancer named Gio. Gio’s story seems insignificant; Kiyomori’s mistreatment of her does not create any of the hostilities that precipitate the war. But Gio’s story is important in that it has a pedagogic purpose: to emphasize the impermanence of life and implicitly connect Kiyomori’s immorality with the downfall of the Heike clan.

The Heike clan and the rival Genji clan both respect warrior values; however, unlike the Genji, the Heike believe courtly tradition and aristocratic power are important too. Kiyomori’s decadent lifestyle reflects his attachment to the material and the Heike’s loss of military discipline. In the capital, Kiyomori “indulge[s] in one caprice after another” (16). He lavishly provides for the dancer Gio and her family. When Hotoke, a young and skilled dancer, shows up to Kiyomori’s mansion because she wishes to entertain Kiyomori, Kiyomori is offended and arrogantly refuses to see her, as it is against his “principles” (18) to admit an entertainer that he did not summon. The fact that his “principles” do not relate to religion, but rather who he is willing to admit into his presence, and his remark that he does not care whether Hotoke is a “god or a Buddha” (17), show his disregard for religion. Kiyomori does not seek to uphold moral values, but rather pursues his own pleasure. At Gio’s request, Kiyomori sees Hotoke. Hotoke sings a propitious song: “Since I met you, / I’m like the little pine destined for a thousand years! / On turtle-shape isles of your pond, / how many the cranes that flock there!” (18). Kiyomori is pleased by the song’s theme of longevity (pines, turtles, and cranes are symbols for longevity), because he refuses to acknowledge the transience and insignificance of his own life. In his pride he believes he is important, so much so that he does not respect the imperial family and subverts the imperial court, betraying the very people that enabled the Heike to be so powerful in the first place. The loss of support from the retired emperor contributes to the downfall of the Heike. Hotoke not only wins Kiyomori’s favor, Kiyomori “immediately [falls] in love with her” (18), showing Kiyomori’s impulsiveness and fixation towards worldly desires. Hotoke’s song is juxtaposed to the poem Gio writes when Kiyomori forces her to leave: “Those that put out new shoots, those that wither are the same, / grasses of the field—come autumn, is there one that will not fade?” (19). This poem invokes the theme of impermanence; like grass, beauty fades with age, and every person will inevitably die.

Gio reluctantly returns to Kiyomori’s mansion and sings a song at Kiyomori’s request. The song is about how even the venerated Buddha was just a mortal, so all mortals have the capacity to be morally righteous like Buddha and achieve enlightenment. But though people are capable of great good, in reality many (like Kiyomori) stray from what is moral. Gio sings “how sad this gulf that divides us!” (21). People’s unrighteous actions and desires stand in contrast to Buddha’s righteousness and detachment—this separation, this disparity in righteousness, is like a gulf. Also, while existing on earth, people are spiritually separated from Buddha who resides in the Western Paradise. Kiyomori is clearly displeased with the theme of her song, as he is the only one in the room who is not “moved to tears” (22) and he immediately dismisses Gio. Kiyomori is not trying to live morally righteous, and this song reminds him of his own capricious desires and immorality.

In spiritual and political matters, Kiyomori is an example of what not to do. Kiyomori lacks humility; he does not realize his own insignificance. Though Kiyomori’s mistreatment of Gio is minor in comparison to the punishment he deals others, his callousness towards Gio, who is innocent of any wrongdoing, is uncalled for. Kiyomori ignores Hotoke’s pleas to let Gio stay in the palace, allow Gio to sit near them instead of in an “inferior” seat, and allow her to leave. Likewise, because of his ego, Kiyomori turns “a deaf ear to censure” (16) from the general populace and even creates a group of boys to harass those who criticize him, causing resentment among the public (hastening the future decline of the Heike). Kiyomori accumulates negative karma for his excesses, and the rest of the clan is punished for it.

Gio, her sister, and her mother become nuns to escape from “further grief” (24). Hotoke later joins them when she realizes the insecurity of her own position, that one day she too will fall out of Kiyomori’s favor. Hotoke says, “What joy and delight we have in this world is no more than a dream within a dream…To revel in a moment’s happiness and not be heedful of the life to come would be a pitiful course or action indeed!” (25-26). Suffering is caused by dependence on worldly attachments, which are themselves transient. Thus, it is futile to pursue worldly desires. The women, disillusioned, turn to religion to free themselves from worldly attachments and the suffering they cause. They realize their goal should be to seek enlightenment, thereby preventing further suffering by breaking free of the cycle of reincarnation. The narrative notes how young Gio, Gio’s sister, and Hotoke were when they became nuns. It is also mentioned that Hotoke, who was admired for her “captivating… hairdo and costume” (18), shaves her head and wears the garb of a nun. For all the emphasis placed on the triviality of the material, this narrative frequently mentions the material in its descriptions of people since appearance reflects social position. Wealth, status, appearance, even years of life are cast aside in the pursuit of enlightenment, and these sacrifices are particularly moving. Though the women suffered in the earthly realm because of Kiyomori, they are rewarded for devoting themselves to the pursuit of enlightenment when they are reincarnated in the Western Paradise. This stands in contrast to Kiyomori’s burning, painful death. Kiyomori does not pray to Buddha to be reincarnated into the Western Paradise, his only wish is for the head of the Genji leader Yoritomo. For his sins and lack of repentance, he is sent to hell.

By including Gio’s story in the beginning of the narrative, Kiyomori is indirectly characterized through his actions and future events are explained. All the suffering the Heike underwent “came about because… Kiyomori… showed no respect for the ruler above or the slightest concern for the masses of common people below. He dealt out sentences of death or exile in any fashion that suited him, took no heed of how the world or those in it might view his actions… There can be no room for doubt—it was the evil deeds of the father, the patriarch, that caused the heirs and offspring to suffer this retribution!” (168). Kiyormori’s decadent living style and immorality is the karmic cause of the decline of the Heike clan—no other explanation is given. Gio’s story puts a human face on the repercussions of Kiyomori’s immorality, and gives an otherwise discordant collection of stories some fluidity by establishing causation between events.

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