Zen Buddhism and Fireflies

One of nature’s odder creatures is the firefly,
a soft bodied beetle that emits a warm yellow

glow from its lower abdomen, typically at
twilight, in order to attract mates or prey.

Though relatively rare in Europe and North
America, the firefly is a common sight in

Japan, where it is known as the hotaru. Hotarus
are at their most plentiful in June and July,

and can be seen in groups around rivers and
lakes. The glittering light of the hotaru

is deemed to be so enchanting, the Japanese
hold firefly festivals – or hotaru matsuri

  • to watch their dance.
    Something even odder has happened to the firefly

in Japan: it has become philosophical. Zen
Buddhist poets and philosophers (the two terms

are largely interchangeable in Japan) have
over the centuries noted the affinity between

the firefly and a central concept in Zen:
the brevity of life. Zen does not think of

our transience as tragic, rather it is by
accommodating ourselves gracefully to our

own evanescence that we can reach enlightenment
and harmony with nature’s necessities.

For Zen, the firefly is the perfect symbol
of transience positively interpreted: its

season is very brief, it lights up only in
high summer, and its light is intermittent

and flickering. Fireflies are both fragile

  • and astonishingly beautiful when seen in

large numbers in a pine forest or a meadow
at night. They are a metaphor for our own

poignant lives.
The move of locating important philosophical

themes in the natural world is one that Zen
makes again and again, for example, in relation

to bamboo (evocative of resilience), water
(a symbol of patient strength, capable of

wearing down stone) and cherry blossom (an
emblem of modest rapture). Zen repeatedly

hangs its ideology onto things that could
seem at first very minor, because it wants

to make use of what is most ordinarily in
our sight to keep us tethered to its grand

bathetic truths.
The great seventeenth century poet Matsuo

Basho, pushes aside our day to day vanity
and egoistic ambitions in the hope that we

might become, via his focus on a small short-lived
creature, appropriately attentive to our own

finitude.
Falling from

A blade of grass, to fly off –
A firefly.

For Zen Buddhism, the firefly is the ideal
carrier – on its slender wings – of reminders

of the need for dignified resignation in the
face of the mightiness and mystery of the

natural order. Koyabashi Issa, an 18th century
Buddhist priest as well as haiku master, wrote

230 poems on fireflies. In one of the most
celebrated of these, he captures a moment

where time is momentarily stilled, so that
its passage can more viscerally be felt:

The fireflies are sparkling
And even the mouth of a frog

Hangs wide open

It’s a tiny moment of satori or enlightenment;
the frog is as wonderstruck as the poet at

the piercing light of the brave doomed fireflies

  • much as we should fairly be amazed, frightened,

grateful and ultimately joyous to have been
allocated a few brief moments in which to

behold and try to make sense of our own existence
in an always largely unfathomable 13.8 billion

year old universe.

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