From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "'Almost as Japanese as Haiku" (December 31, 2003)
A collection of articles by Lafcadio Hearn, who, at the end of the nineteenth
century, set off for Japan, never to return.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 1896
"Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things
as having the nature of space,—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without
by Lafcadio Hearn
I HAVE wandered to the verge of the
town; and the street I followed has
roughened into a country road, and begins to curve away through rice-fields
toward a hamlet at the foot of the hills.
Between town and rice-fields a vague
unoccupied stretch of land makes a favorite playground for children. There
are trees, and spaces of grass to roll on,
and many butterflies, and plenty of little
stones. I stop to look at the children.
By the roadside some are amusing
themselves with wet clay, making tiny
models of mountains and rivers and ricefields; tiny mud villages, also,—imitations of peasants' huts,—and little mud
temples, and mud gardens with ponds
and humped bridges and imitations of
stone-lanterns (toro) ; likewise miniature cemeteries, with bits of broken stone
for monuments. And they play at funerals,—burying corpses of butterflies and
semi (cicadae), and pretending to repeat
Buddhist sutras over the grave. Tomorrow they will not dare to do this;
for to-morrow will be the first day of the
festival of the Dead. During that festival it is strictly forbidden to molest insects, especially semi, some of which have
on their heads little red characters, said
to be names of Souls.
Children in all countries play at death.
Before the sense of personal identity
comes, death cannot be seriously considered; and childhood thinks in this regard more correctly, perhaps, than self-conscious maturity. Of course, if these
little ones were to find, some bright
morning, that a playfellow had gone
away forever,—gone away to be reborn elsewhere,—there would be a very
real though vague sense of loss, and
wiping of childish eyes with many-colored sleeves; but presently the loss would
be forgotten, and the playing resumed.
The idea of ceasing to be could not possibly enter a child-mind: the butterflies
and birds, the flowers, the foliage, even
the sweet summer itself, only play at
dying; they seem to go, but they all
come back again after the snow is gone.
The real sorrow and fear of death arise
in us only through slow accumulation of
experience with doubt and pain; and
these little boys and girls, being Japanese
and Buddhists, will never, in any event,
feel about death just as you or I do.
They will find reason to fear it for somebody else's sake, but not for their own,
because they will learn that they have
died millions of times already, and have
forgotten the trouble of it, much as one
forgets the pain of successive toothaches.
In the strangely penetrant light of their
creed, teaching the ghostliness of all substance, granite or gossamer,—just as
those lately found X-rays make visible
the ghostliness of flesh,—this their present world, with its bigger mountains
and rivers and rice-fields, will not appear to them much more real than the
mud landscapes which they made in
childhood. And much more real it probably is not.
At which thought I am conscious of a
sudden soft shock, a familiar shock, and
know myself seized by the idea of Substance as Non-Reality.
This sense of the voidness of things
comes only when the temperature of the
air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a
body. Cold compels painful notions of
solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of
personality; cold quickens egotism; cold
numbs thought, and shrivels up the little
wings of dreams.
To-day is one of those warm, hushed
days when it is possible to think of things
as they are,—when ocean, peak, and
plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All
is mirage,—my physical self, and the
sunlit road, and the slow rippling of
the grain under a sleepy wind, and
the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the
rice-fields, and the blue crumpling of the
naked hills behind everything. I have
the double sensation of being myself a
ghost and of being haunted,—haunted
by the prodigious luminous Spectre of
There are men and women working
in those fields. Colored moving shadows
they are; and the earth under them —
out of which they rose, and back to which
they will go—is equally shadow. Only
the Forces behind the shadow, that make
and unmake, are real,—therefore viewless.
Somewhat as Night devours all lesser
shadow will this phantasmal earth swallow us at last, and itself thereafter vanish away. But the little shadows and
the Shadow-Eater must as certainly reappear,—must rematerialize somewhere
and somehow. This ground beneath me
is old as the Milky Way. Call it what
you please,—clay, soil, dust: its names
are but symbols of human sensations
having nothing in common with it. Really it is nameless and unnamable, being
a mass of energies, tendencies, infinite
possibilities; for it was made by the
beating of that shoreless Sea of Birth
and Death whose surges billow unseen
out of eternal Night to burst in foam of
stars. Lifeless it is not: it feeds upon
life, and visible life grows out of it.
Dust it is of Karma, waiting to enter
into novel combinations,—dust of elder
Being in that state between birth and
birth which the Buddhist calls Chu-U.
It is made of forces, and of nothing else;
and those forces are not of this planet
only, but of vanished spheres innumerable.
Is there aught visible, tangible, measurable, that has never been mixed with
sentiency? atom that has never vibrated
to pleasure or to pain? air that has never
been cry or speech? drop that has never
been a tear? Assuredly this dust has
felt. It has been everything we know;
also much that we cannot know. It has
been nebula and star, planet and moon,
times unspeakable. Deity also it has
been,—the Sun-God of worlds that circled and worshiped in other eons. "Remember, Man, thou art but dust! "—a
saying profound only as materialism,
which stops short at surfaces. For what
is dust? "Remember, Dust, thou hast
been Sun, and Sun thou shalt become
again!... Thou hast been Light, Life,
Love, and into all these, by ceaseless
cosmic magic, thou shalt many times be
For this Cosmic Apparition is more
than evolution alternating with dissolution: it is infinite metempsychosis; it is
perpetual palingenesis. Those old predictions of a bodily resurrection were
not falsehoods; they were rather foreshadowings of a truth vaster than all
myths and deeper than all religions.
Suns yield up their ghosts of flame;
but out of their graves new suns rush
into being. Corpses of worlds pass all
to some solar funeral pyre; but out of
their own ashes they are born again.
This earth must die ; her seas shall be
Saharas. But those seas once existed in
the sun; and their dead tides, revived
by fire, will wash the coasts of another
and a younger world. Transmigration
— transmutation: these are not fables!
What is impossible? Not the dreams
of alchemists and poets; dross may indeed be changed to gold, the jewel to
the living eye, the flower into flesh.
What is impossible? If seas can pass
from world to sun, from sun to world
again, what of the dust of dead selves, —
dust of memory and thought? Resurrection there is, but a resurrection more
stupendous than any dreamed of by
Western creeds. Dead emotions will
revive as surely as dead suns and moons.
Only, so far as we can just now discern,
there will be no return of identical individualities. The reapparition will always
be a recombination of the preexisting, a
readjustment of affinities, a reintegration
of being informed with the experience
of anterior being. The Cosmos is a
Merely by reason of illusion and folly
do we shrink from the notion of self-instability. For what is our individuality? Most certainly it is not individuality at all: it is multiplicity incalculable.
What is the human body? A form
built up out of billions of living entities,
an impermanent agglomeration of individuals called cells. And the human
soul? A composite of quintillions of
souls. We are, each and all, infinite
compounds of fragments of anterior lives.
And the universal process that continually dissolves and continually constructs
personality has always been going on,
and is even at this moment going on, in
every one of us. What being ever had
a totally new feeling, an absolutely new
idea? All our emotions and thoughts
and wishes, however changing and growing through the varying seasons of life,
are only compositions and recompositions of the sensations and ideas and desires of other folk, mostly of dead people,
— millions of billions of dead people.
Cells and souls are themselves recombinations, present aggregations of past
knittings of forces,—forces about which
nothing is known save that they belong
to the Shadow-Makers of universes.
Whether you (by you I mean any
other agglomeration of souls) really
wish for immortality as an agglomeration, I cannot tell. But I confess that
''my mind to me a kingdom is" —not!
Rather it is a fantastical republic, daily
troubled by more revolutions than ever
occurred in South America; and the
nominal government, supposed to be
rational, declares that an eternity of
such anarchy is not desirable. I have
souls wanting to soar in air, and souls
wanting to swim in water (sea-water, I
think), and souls wanting to live in
woods or on mountain tops. I have
souls longing for the tumult of great
cities, and souls longing to dwell in tropical solitude; souls, also, in various
stages of naked savagery; souls demanding nomad freedom without tribute ; souls
conservative, delicate, loyal to empire
and to feudal tradition, and souls that
are Nihilists, deserving Siberia; sleepless souls, hating inaction, and hermit
souls, dwelling in such meditative isolation that only at intervals of years can
I feel them moving about; souls that
have faith in fetishes; polytheistic souls
souls proclaiming Islam; and souls medieval, loving cloister shadow and incense and glimmer of tapers and the
awful altitude of Gothic glooms. Cooperation among all these is not to be
thought of: always there is trouble, —
revolt, confusion, civil war. The majority detest this state of things; multitudes would gladly emigrate. And the
wiser minority feel that they need never
hope for better conditions until after the
total demolition of the existing social
I an individual,—an individual soul!
Nay, I am a population,—a population unthinkable for multitude, even by
groups of a thousand millions! Generations of generations I am, eons of eons!
Countless times the concourse now making me has been scattered, and mixed
with other scattering. Of what concern,
then, the next disintegration? Perhaps,
after trillions of ages of burning in different dynasties of suns, the very best
of me may come together again.
If one could only imagine some explanation of the Why! The questions of
the Whence and the Whither are much
less troublesome, since the Present assures
us, even though vaguely, of Future and
Past. But the Why!
The cooing voice of a little girl dissolves my reverie. She is trying to
teach a child brother how to make the
Chinese character for Man,—I mean
Man with a big M. First she draws in
the dust a stroke sloping downwards
from right to left,
then she draws another curving downwards from left to right,
joining the two so as to form the perfect ji, or character, hito, meaning a
person of either sex, or mankind.
Then she tries to impress the idea of
this shape on the baby memory by help
of a practical illustration,—probably
learned at school. She breaks a slip of
wood in two pieces, and manages to
balance the pieces against each other
at about the same angle as that made
by the two strokes of the character.
"Now see," she says: "each stands
only by help of the other. One by itself cannot stand. Therefore the ji is
like mankind. Without help one person
cannot live in this world; but by getting
help and giving help everybody can live.
If nobody helped anybody, all people
This explanation is not philologically
exact; the two strokes evolutionally
standing for a pair of legs,—all that
survives in the modern ideograph of
the whole man figured in the primitive
picture-writing. But the pretty moral
fancy is much more important than the
scientific fact. It is also one charming
example of that old-fashioned method
of teaching which invested every form
and every incident with ethical signification. Besides, as a mere item of moral
information, it contains the essence of
all earthly religion, and the best part
of all earthly philosophy. A world
priestess she is, this dear little maid,
with her dove's voice and her innocent
gospel of one letter! Verily in that
gospel lies the only possible present answer to ultimate problems. Were its
whole meaning universally felt, were
its whole suggestion of the spiritual and
material law of love and help universally obeyed, forthwith, according to
the Idealists, this seemingly solid visible world would vanish away like smoke!
For it has been written that in whatsoever time all human minds accord in
thought and will with the mind of the
Teacher, there shall not remain even one
particle of dust that does not enter into
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1896; Dust; Volume 292, No. 5; Pages 642-646.