Translating the Past

The gods of heaven and earth, fire and ice, sky rivers, seas, trees and grasses, leopards and serpents, mountains, sloping hills, thunder, towering clouds, downpours; the gods and goddesses who rule the human heart and mind; the goddesses and gods who preside over wisdom, the arts of war and skills of hand, the deities of memory and calculation, music, poetry, history, birth, death, passion and fury; these gods and goddesses, vast and minute, may seem to inhabit times long gone.

In stories told or written tales, it seems the gods lived before time began and acted purposefully only up until the edges of chronology.
The glory of their power began to fade as stories of their deeds and passions were told and written down on the horizon of our past, the dawn of our being.
In our histories, the gods live only in the past.

In this illusion, the gods and goddesses now hide themselves,
just as once they hid in sacred groves, clouds, rainbows, in waves and mountain crags.
But deities do not abide in the past.
They are not our antecedents.

The gods are living, as they always have lived,
They live and move in a boundary-less, luminous expanse
Opening just before us,
Alive, shimmering just out of view.
We sense they are not quite here.
The gods and goddesses all live, as they have always lived
In a future that is always very near.

As close, as is said, as en eyelash on your eyeball.

In winter as the snow falls, the court requests, Imperial Princess Suiko to ascend the throne. She is thirty-eight years old. She is elegant and dignified. She is admired for perfect decorum. She follows the Buddhist path, and like empresses before, she is a shamaness.

In three ceremonies, Princess Suiko leaves her life with its own past and present and takes her place in the time of the gods.

In the first ceremony, she receives the three sacred treasures. She takes into her hands three objects so old that are not the result of cause and effect and exist outside of time.
Each is itself a deity.

She receives the sacred mirror. This is the “eight hand mirror” that in the time of the gods reflected Amaterasu’s image and drew her out of the cave where she hid. It brings light to the world and holds the promise of light.

Amaterasu Omikami looks through this mirror from the High Plane of Heaven, the Dream Land where she dwells. She looks out into the world of waking life.
When the Empress looks into the mirror, she hears the goddess whisper:

“Looking in this mirror, my child.
You look at me.
Let this be your holy mirror,
With you where ever you reside.
I will never depart”

She receives the sword, which Susa-no-wo found hidden in the tail of the eight-headed dragon he had slain. This is sword is courage and unconquerable will. It gives life and cannot be opposed. It gives new life and renews harmony. Susa-no-wo gave this to Amaterasu to make peace with her.

She receives the sacred jewel, the necklace of curved beads which Izanagi gave to his daughter, Amaterasu. They are called magatama which means curved jewel or soul. In these jewels Izanagi gave all of his being to Amaterasu. These jewels are the soul of Izanagi who created the land and the soul of ruling. When Empress Suiko receives the soul of Izanagi, she accepts the right to rule.

In her cool white hands, she receives timeless power of wisdom, timeless power to transform, and timeless radiance of power itself. These are not symbols. The jewel mirror and sword give her the power of the future to give the present and the past a new form.

When she has received the sacred jewels, priests sing:

Golden, stately, radiant,
Slowly, she places on clouds her bright petal steps.
Lightly, she gilds the snow peaks.
Sparkling, she dances across the sea.
Shifting, she rests in the fragrant pine branch.

Golden, stately, radiant,
Splendor of all that is seen felt, heard and known,
Her passions light the high plains of the sky.

She flies in the dawn breeze.
And sails like the hunter’s arrow.
She quivers in the deer’s startled cry.
She curls in the white petals of new plum blossoms.
She whispers in the cold waters of the melted snow.
She opens in the green scent of sprouting grass.
She glides in the clatter of the weaver’s shuttle,
And sighs in a lover’s lament.
She descends on banks of shining clouds,
And flashes on the warrior’s sword.
She is the luster of a ruler’s crown.

She rests in stillness on the fragrant pine branch.
And her hair is perfumed with galaxies of stars.

Just as our fate lies always before us, the radiant intensities of life stand just ahead, their power, their wisdom, their assurance just out of reach. Subtly subtly, like enigmas they draw us to them.

We cannot exist firmly in the present; we are always coming into life in the flow of time. The future moves backwards to us and takes us in. We may believe depend on past causes, but only but only future beings can see us whole. They bring the future into the present. Goddesses and gods are the future’s influence on the present. They have their own reality and their movements reshape the past.

In the second ritual of enthronement, the empress enters the wooden shrine house, built in the most ancient form of a deity shrine. She stays alone there for a day and night. Awake and asleep, in speech and in dreams, she informs the ancestral spirits and the gods of land sea and earth that she is ascending the throne.

As she emerges, priests chant:

If, in an instant,
An ocean of sorrow parts,
She appears.

Amateratsu Omikami
Goddess of the Sun,
Splendor of all that is seen, felt, heard, known.

Golden, stately, radiant,
Slowly she places her bright petal steps:
Lightly she touches the snow peaks,
Sparkling, she dances across black tormented waves,
Subtly, she rests for a moment in the fragrant cypress glade.

You see her now
In the primordial mirror,
The great circle of the sky.
She gives to you a man of happiness.

Love and sorrow continuing,
Our hearts open to find peace.

The mind of no language
Listening for song
Sadness, grief even, darkening
Like the clouds that ripple with sunset crimson
And needing
And plummeting
Where mother, father, forefather, grandmother
Are no longer.
Rushing down through clear cold air,
Limbs whirl, body sickens, mind does not create a way
As taken taken taken
The world, trees, greenery and so forth,
Rocks, boulders, pine trees spin and rise.

And in that world where they, gods and goddesses, demons and demi-gods
have their realms and dwelling, there also live the spirits of the distant dead. The ancestors escape from the world of living and dying. They escape from the past. They fly into the future. Their vision and their courage, their beauty, their love bring them into the vast expanses of the deities. They live now just around the turn in the road. They look back on us. From the best of our future, they watch.

And so we see the timeless realms of the gods, we who live in time.
We see it as a moment, a gap, a blue expanse seen through racing clouds.

The third ceremony of enthronement is the Great Thanksgiving Festival. Rice from two sacred rice paddies is harvested. The most perfect grains are polished rice and then prepared in two ways: as boiled rice and as sake. Two thatched huts are built in the form a the earliest human dwellings. Each has two rooms. One represents the previous emperor’s abode and one is the new emperor’s.

For this Feast of Thanksgiving, the empress is ritually bathed and dressed in pure white silk priestly robes. She enters the hut of the emperor then the new one. In each, she offers to Amaterasu the sacred rice and sake. Then she offers fish, millet and other foods from sea and land. She shares these offerings with the deceased Emperors and the goddess. She is the host and companion of her predecessors and the deity. She moves between the gods, the past and the people of Japan in present times.

She emerges from these ancient abodes, and, accompanied by intruments, the priests sing:

She moves like a wave between earth and sky:
A golden dragon now rising from the sea:

Worlds of music fill the air.

The Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu Omikami
Once gave the world a man of happiness;
The living and the dead may yet find peace
In the brightness of the sky.

To lead her people, she departs from the time of the known. She does not accept the certainties of legends, of histories, of reports. The ordinary logic of common people will not serve to help.

Empress Suiko steps into the time that is ever new, ever uncertain, ever brilliant and alive. The ruler brings this vision into every moment. In so doing the past is transformed.

When she returns to the Imperial Court, her ministers and courtiers sing:

Veils of silver clouds drift slowly
Down the valleys on the mountain sides,
As with the rushing of a distant waterfall,
Pine trees ripple in descending waves,
Bending and shimmering
Under an advancing spirit’s step.

Oh Ruler of the Sky,
Oh Rulers of the Three Times,
Oh Thousand Stars and Thousand Deities
Who are the guides of human fate,
Oh rivers of those who show the way and those who follow
Clear and pure as sunlight,
Oh Deities of Land and Seasons:
Oh momentary love.

Oh Ruler of the Sky,
Oh Rulers of the Three Times,
Oh Thousand Stars and Thousand Deities
Who are the guides of human fate,
Oh rivers of those who show the way and those who follow
Clear and pure as moonlight,
Oh Lords of Land and Seasons:
Oh, so deeply to be loved
Shining in all we sense and know,
We bow down to you.

When the month of ceremonies is complete, the Empress withdraws. She walks in silence on a mountainside. She feels extreme pain. She sings:

I have been in many shapes
And yet in passage
To assume a constant form.

A narrow sword,
A drop in the air,
A forked tree,
A bright star,
A letter among words
That began the world.

I have been lamp that burned through winter,
A bridge that crossed over twelve rivers.

An eagle flying,
A boat in the sea,
A drop in a rainstorm
A sword in hand,
A shield in battle,
A string in a harp,
Nine years in enchantment
In water, in foam.

I have absorbed fire
And fought in murderous battle,
A beast with a hundred heads.
The battle was fought at the back of its skull,
A hundred clawed black toad
The battle was fought at the root of its tongue,
A writhing, poisonous speckled snake.
It is the soul’s punishment the body’s torment.

I am power in the smoke of battle,
The blood from a thousand wounds.
Long and white are my fingers,
I am the law, the rule, the end of fragmentation.

She gazes at the small gold image of the child Buddha on her shrine. He points up at the sky. There is a path that opens in the life of human beings.
It passes through life and death. She knows this.

In her first act of government, Empress Suiko makes Imperial Prince Shotoku Taishi, the Regent Ruler of Japan. She makes Lord Soga his Prime Minister. As the finest silk makes visible the subtlest winds, they are the veils through which the world will see her.


Douglas Penick

About Douglas Penick

Douglas Penick wrote the National Film Board of Canada’s series, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Leonard Cohen, narrator) and the libretti for two operas: King Gesar (Sony CD) and Ashoka’s Dream (Santa Fe Opera) with composer, Peter Lieberson. He received a grant from The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry to write a new rendition of the Gesar of Ling epic (available as THE WRRIOR SONG OF KING GSAR, CROSSINGS ON A BRIDGE OF LIGHT, and The BRILLIANCE OF NAKED MIND). Shorter works have appeared in Parabola, Bombay Gin, Descant, Contrary, Agni, BODY, Cahiers de L'Herne, Hyperallergic, Tricycle, Chicago Quarterly, New England Review, Strange Fiction V, etc.) His novel about the 3rd Ming Emperor, JOURNEY OF THE NORTH STAR is available from Publerati. A novel about spiritual adventurers and their disappointments, DREAMERS AND THEIR SHADOWS, is available from Mountain Treasury Press. THE WANDERER, a collection of published previously pieces, and FROM THE EMPIRE OF FRAGMENTS, a collection about cultural dispossession (Hammer and Anvil Books) have come out this year.
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