Das Boot

So, there is a famous 8th-century poem about impermanence by Sami Mansei 沙弥満誓. It first appears in the Man'yōshū:

世間乎 何物尓将譬 旦開 榜去師船之 跡無如
Yo no naka wo/ nani ni tatohemu/ asabiraki/ kogi-inisi hune no/ ato naki gotosi
To what shall I compare the world? A boat is rowed away at dawn, and leaves no trace: it is like this

This is really rather cryptic — as far as I can tell, it is the tracelessness and not the boat itself to which the world is being compared — and so it turns up in later collections in many variants, most with the mysticism turned down:

Yo no naka wo/ nani ni tatohemu/ asaborake/ kogiyuku fune no/ ato no shiranami
To what shall I compare the world? The white waves left behind a boat that rows away in dawn's dim light

Much better! So it's as impermanent as sea foam. I believe on the official scale that's more impermanent than dew, but less than the tolling of a distant bell. Also note that according to Ōno Susumu, asaborake has a strong connotation of winter/autumn (as opposed to akebono, which is associated with spring and summer), so we are probably cold as well.

Here's the question, though: if we're floundering around in the spray, who's rowing the boat?

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Paul D.:

The thing annoying me about the original version right now is the eight syllables in the second-last line.


I am no memeologist, but I believe you meant to say, "But who was the foam?"

L.N. Hammer:

Man, those sound changes dropping from Kokinshu- back to Man'yoshu-era Japanese still throw me for loops.

Where does a cicada shell fit on the impermanence scale?



Or the blog post for that matter.


Paul D: It's cool, just read it as "koginishi". Problem solved!

Carl: You are absolutely right. "THEN WHO WAS FOAM?" should have been the title of this post.

L.N. Hammer: The sound changes are still real, but my transcription shouldn't be taken as a guide to them! (For instance all those /h/s were pronounced either "ɸ" or "p")

A cicada shell is less impermanent than due but more impermanent than a clam shell.

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