Unlimited Spider Lilies ~ Haiku of Japan

A sure sign of autumn.

歩き続ける彼岸花咲き続ける 
aruki-tsuzukeru higanbana saki-tsuzukeru

as I walk
the spider lilies
keep blooming
—Santōka

(trans. David LaSpina[1])



The spider lilies are all starting to bloom, and that means autumn is truly here! These flowers always bloom near the fall equinox. They bloom for about a week and signify not only the autumn, but also the end to the oppressive summer heat. On the negative side, they also signify typhoon season. They are usually red, sometimes white or yellow, and are quite lovely. They need a lot of water so they usually grow up along rivers or streams. This may have been one factor in some of the folklore that surrounds them.

Old Santōka may have been writing literally here. When the spider lilies bloom, they all bloom at once, and seemingly entire riversides will become red overnight. You keep walking, but the spider lilies never seem to end!

He may also have been referring to the legend that when two people depart from what will be the final time they ever meet, a spider lily blooms in that place. Santōka was always wandering across the country in his travels and probably never expected to meet any of the people or places he came across ever again.

In Japanese they are called higanbana, or flowers of Higan. Higan is a Buddhist holiday celebrated at the equinox. Higan means "the other shore" or in other words the other side of the River Sanzu. Think of the River Sanzu as the River Styx, as it has the same function in Japanese mythology. That is, the river is said to lead to the afterlife. This might be creepy but the Buddhists don't view it that way. To them Higan is a metaphor for enlightenment. It represents casting off illusion, suffering, all the ills of life (samsara) and crossing over to enlightenment and freedom from desire.

To go back to the flower, it is said the other shore of the River Sanzu is covered with spider lilies.

Santōka was a Zen Buddhist monk, so undoubtedly seeing the flower would have brought all these things to mind.




Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku.

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    1. That is, me! If you like this translation, feel free to use it. Just credit me. Also link here if you can.

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