In this world
If there were no ox-cart
How should we escape
From the burning mansion of our thoughts--anon
She was a lady that didn't get out much. In fact, Izumi Shikibu spent quite a lot of time sitting on her wooden veranda, sometimes listening to the autumn insects and gazing out at the brilliance of the moon; and other times wondering when the long rains would stop and she could see him again. Her time sitting on the verenda gazing out at the world was not unlike the Two Venetian Ladies in Carpaccio's oil painting--sitting on their wooden altane, wiling away the hours looking out toward the lagoon.
Not a lot happened in the world of aristocratic ladies of the Heian period --unless, of course, they were in the midst of a love affair. Then, a lady's lover would visit her after dark on consecutive nights, or sometimes she might go out riding together with him in his ox-drawn cart.
Many, many years ago, I bought a black lacquer comb (簪). It had caught my eye at a department store the first week I arrived in Japan. I knew it was a comb for a woman's hair, but I had no idea that what decorated the comb was a picture of an ox-drawn horse, parked among the pine trees in front of a lady's veranda.
And, when I finally did figure it out years later, I liked the comb even more.
By that time, I knew that ox-drawn carts were not just a means for ladies to go about town in Heian times, but the image of an oxcart also calls to mind the Parable of the Burning House from the Lotus Sutra. I don't know why but the Parable has long been one of my favorites-- the image of the kind father whose house is on fire luring his sons, who refused to listen, to come outside with promises of new toy carts to play with ("expedient means"). And there outside, there are indeed carts (real ones) to wisk them away to safety.
The oxcart of the poem at the top, just as in the parable, stands for Buddhism; while the burning house (思ひの家→ 「思ひ」 の 「ひ」 を 「火」 にかけて，火の家つまり火宅（かたく）をいう）is the mundane world, or samsara.
The Burning mansion of thoughts reminds me of another quote by Kafka: "This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces… And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me." (The Diaries of Franz Kafka).
This immediately reminded me of a certain Kashmiri carpet-wallah (who happens to be married to Mei) who had only just reminded me of the fundamental and absolute importance of faith. I love the quote by Kafka and was so happy Mei thought to tell me about it. As Kierkegaard insisted, our interiority is paramount, but we must take a stand and actualize our defining commitments. And, this "exteriority of interiority"is probably only possuble via faith. Mei later explained that what her carpet wallah meant by faith is "not thinking "everything will be fine," but more a complete surrender to what's beyond us, what's unknown, mystic and infinite (basically what's out of our control). To let go."
"To let go".... now that is a challenge, indeed.
Below, Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra.