Wednesday, June 29, 2011







Truly, this is where
Travelers who go or come
Over parting ways —

Friends or strangers — all must meet:

The gate of "Meeting Hill."


Semimaru saw not:
I can barely hear.
In my room

I steam rice, make tea,
dress myself
to meet people.

I make them tell me
their names twice,
then help them as I can.

Though I play no lute,
I hope they will feel
as though they hear one

lilting among trees.


Active in the 900s CE, Semimaru was said to have been in line to become Emperor, but was disqualified by blindness. He moved out of Kyoto to a hillside near a crossroads, built a hermitage, wrote poetry, and studied and taught the biwa, an instrument translated here as "lute." He took a compassionate interest in the stream of humanity passing by, as a emblem of the impermanence of all things.

Risa, at the time she wrote her responses, was undergoing a midlife crisis and lived temporarily in a room with shared kitchen and bath, known as a "quad," near the campus where she worked. Living without feeling especially poor on an allowance of $425 a month, she possessed one shelf of books, a bicycle, some clothes, a few dishes, a laptop, a rice cooker, and a dulcimer. She often played the dulcimer while her rice and dandelions were steaming, and thought about the lives of her many student workers and fellow students (she worked full time and attended graduate school on lunch hours). A university is a place of transition, very like a crossroads. The bit about "telling their names twice" refers to her deafness, which sometimes affected transactions with co-workers and patrons in the library where she worked. She felt there were some parallels between her exile and Semimaru's -- and while she has never been in line to become an empress, she did recover her mission, during this time, to become her true self.

Hokusai, in an incomplete drawing for a woodcut, shows Semimaru leaning on a staff at the entrance to his hut, listening to the movement of the passers-by. From his posture and expression, Semimaru seems to have achieved some measure of enlightened resignation. While this was not, perhaps, the life he had expected, he made it his own.