Buson’s Hokku: Butterfly, Temple Bell and the Taira Clan



釣鐘にとまりて眠る胡蝶かな          蕪村

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kotefu kana

Stopping to sleep on the temple bell……a butterfly!


The movement and imagery of this hokku is easy enough to understand, a butterfly flits into the quiet courtyard space of a temple and then lands on the big cast iron hanging bell that is there and falls asleep. Since the movement of the butterfly is expressed so quietly, we immediately relate it to the silence of the courtyard, which in turn amplifies the experience of having it be so silent that a butterfly could actually sleep in this kind of public place. We also are able to fill out this experience by realizing that the butterfly on the bell is only a temporary state of being and that it will be flying off, as all butterflies do, from the bell and out of the temple grounds sometime in the future.


Once we realize the temporal nature of the butterfly, we begin to see the hokku as starting to work as a deeper and symbolic message. Since the season word (kigo) is butterfly (kotefu), and this a butterfly that sleeps, it leads the into immediately recognizing an allusion to the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu’s famous dream of himself being a butterfly. The World Kigo Database has the translation from “The Chuang Tzu”, Chapter 2:

“Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly.
All day long, he floated on the breeze
Without a thought of who he was or where he was going.

When he awoke, Chuang Tzu became confused,

“Am I a Man”, he thought,
“who dreamed that I was a butterfly?
Or am I butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?
Perhaps my whole waking life is
but a moment in a butterfly’s dream!.
This is a story of transformation”


When we read this allusion into the hokku, we now understand that it is an allegory for the human condition where every thing is transient and that life is illusionary. The butterfly, like us, is bound to be woke up from sleep. Are we that butterfly, or is that butterfly us?


Besides the Chuang Tzu’s butterfly, there is also another famous passage from Japanese literature that deals with the fleeting nature of human existence and worldly fame and this one has a temple bell as the image for it. That is the opening to the Heike Monogatari where the lines state:

“The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation”


Although Gion is a famous part of Kyoto, and most Japanese people believe that this is the setting for these lines, the temple bell being described here is really in India at the famous temple of Jetavana where Buddha is said to have given many of his teachings. The legend has it that the temple bells there were rang for those close to death to remind them of the impermanence of their lives and comfort them with the knowledge of knowing they will move into a new life.


It is generally accepted that the bells at a Jetavana Temple were either glass or silver and not the cast iron kind that are found in Japan. However, as noted above, the Japanese have always tended to think of the bells described in the “Heike Monogatari”  as being a hanging cast iron bell which most temples throughout Japan have.  So persuasive has this image of a hanging bell been for them that in 2004 the Japanese donated money to have a Japanese style bell built on grounds of the Jetavana temple ruins in India. Here is a photo of it and, except for the building structure,  it is a replica of a Japanese temple bell:



There is a pretty high chance that Buson also mistakenly thought that the ringing bell at the start of the ‘Heike Monogatari” was the kind he found at the temples in his own country. Once we accept this, we can move on into a further reading of this hokku.


The “Heike Monogatari” is a tale that deals with the fall of the Taira clan that came to power in the late 700s and was then later utterly defeated in the Genpei War which ended in 1185. The tale deals with the acts of the leader of the Taira clan, Kiyomori, who is quite ruthless in carrying out his dream of controlling the court and the politics of Japan, and goes through the wars that followed. Kiyomori summarily kills a lot of people in power and has no qualms about burning temples or persecuting monks. The opening lines of the tale are a Buddhist theme which is prevalent through out the story, that life (and political power) are fleeting and that evil acts in life will have an adverse consequence later in life.


The butterfly is the thing which ties the Taira family into this hokku. Every leading clan in Japan had a family crest (kamon) to identify themselves and their relationships, much the same as coats of arms were once used in Europe. The Taira clan lead by Kiyomori actually used a butterfly as their crest, this impressive swallowtail butterfly design:




Now, we able to read the hokku as an allegory for the Taira clan. Kiyomori with his dream of controlling Japan has come to sleep on the Buddhist bell which will soon ring the truth about how the prosperous and famous will fall into decline. And when the bell rings the butterfly will awake from its slumber and fly away with its dreams driven away like dust in the wind. Which is what happened to the Taira clan when it finally was defeated, it’s leading members killed and it’s lower ranking remnants escaping to the mountainous areas far from center of the power in Kyoto. We can now look at the hokku in a new light and change the translation:


On the temple bell…..the butterfly that stops to sleep!


If we turn the focus around by attaching the action to the butterfly, rather than cutting it into two as the first translation does, we can imply a more ominous tone of foreboding about what the fate of this butterfly might eventually be because it hints at how in the  near future the bell probably will be rung.


The picture that I used at the top of this blog post is of the bell at Renshoji Temple in Fujieda City which has a deep connection to a one of the most famous parts of the “Heike Monogatari,” the scene where Naozane Kumagai kills Kiyomori’s 16 year old nephew Atsumori Taira. Kumagai eventually repented this killing and became a monk of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. He went around preaching and building temples to atone for his life as a samurai and he built this temple in 1185 about 10 years after he reluctantly, and famously, beheaded Atsumori on the beach at Suma.


I happen to work in the building right in front of this temple and I have heard its bell rung from time to time. The next time I do hear it ring, there is going to be a lot more resonance in its tone because this hokku by Buson brings everything full circle for me. Not am I going to think of the Taira clan, I am going to think of Naozane Kumagai as well.



2 thoughts on “Buson’s Hokku: Butterfly, Temple Bell and the Taira Clan”

  1. Thanks for the interesting discussion! One small thing: wouldn’t it be better to Romanize 胡蝶 ‘butterfly’ the way Buson actually pronounced it, that is, as ‘kochou’? Edo-period haijin often used kana that were based on ancient pronunciations of syllables that were pronounced differently in the Edo period. For example, Basho wrote his name はせをand pronounced it Bashou.


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