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.
Fireflies at Ochanomizu. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915)
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 appears always to flicker. 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.
A blade of grass, to fly off –
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.