Phantom Dwelling

With a set up like this...

“....few worshipers visit the shrine, and it’s very solemn and still. Beside it is an abandoned hut with a rush door. Brambles and bamboo grass overgrow the eaves, the roof leaks, the plaster has fallen from the walls, and foxes and raccoons make their den there. It is called the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling.”

...I’m hooked. This is Matsuo Basho, writing in seventeenth century Japan of the hut he stumbles across close by a Buddhist statue in the hills above Lake Biwa, close to Kyoto - and not very far from the site of Chomei’s hojo (Primitive Hut).

He fixes it up, and four months later moves in for the rest of the year. But he is, at heart, a social creature and enjoys the company of the odd pilgrim and the local villagers. In the evening, he writes,

“I sit quietly waiting for the moon so I may have my shadow for company, or light a lamp and discuss right and wrong with my silhouette”.

He signs off the short piece, Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, 1690 with,

‘..we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?”

And, as a coda, inserts a haiku,

                             Among these summer trees

                             a pasania -

                             something to count on

A pasania is a Japanese evergreen tree. Basho, for much of his career an itinerant poet, struggled with the Buddhist notion of the transience of life - exemplified in the haiku by those fickle deciduous trees!

Born into a samurai family he rejected that world and became a wanderer, studying Zen, history, and classical Chinese poetry. He lived in comparative poverty supported only by his students. When he felt the need for solitude, he withdrew to his basho-an, a hut made of plantain leaves (basho) - hence his pseudonym.

Like Chomei, he recognizes the inevitable impermanence of both human life and the shelters we inhabit. Both make the latter explicit in their choice of huts - Chomei’s is a demountable affair that “would be no trouble at all to take it apart and put it back together again”, and Basho’s perhaps is even more transitory such that the Hut of the Phantom dwelling represents a certain permanence.

This characteristic of architectural transience in historical Japan has a real world parallel to its poetic expression. It was, at least in part, a function of the fires that regularly swept through dense urban neighborhoods. This was also the reason for the development of two separate architectural traditions: one for human shelter and one for stuff. The Japanese call the latter chodo, and this term essentially covered the acoutrements of their way of life. Chodo were stored in kura, or storehouses which were built considerably more robustly than the typical residence. Many were designed to be substantially fireproof and government edicts sometimes covered their location, such that they should be separate from other buildings to reduce the chance of fire.

We thus have a tradition where interior domestic space was thought of as nothingness - and infinitely transmutable according to season, festivity, guests and general circumstance when animated by the furniture, screens, scrolls and accessories selectively brought from the kura. In addition, the house was expected to burn (in event of a fire), while the kura was elaborately protected both by its means of construction and location.

Hmmmm. A couple of weeks ago I attended the SAFE Landscapes presentation spearheaded by the University of California Cooperative Extension along with a number of agencies including the Ojai Fire Safe Council and VCFD. Here the focus was on eternal human life and the transience of stuff. Having just watched the unpacking of the Limoge china service given to Lorrie’s grandmother on the occasion of her 1906 wedding I am inclined to question this premise.

Ready-Set-Go, the VCFD’s Personal wildfire action plan is predicated on leaving your chodo behind - save for those few items you can fit in the trunk of a Prius - to be potentially consumed by the flames, or perhaps, have it extensively water and smoke damaged.

Historically, the Japanese were ahead of the game on two counts: at any one time, their house was sparsely furnished with the bulk of their goods fire-safely stored in a kura; and because of all the to and fro’ their goods were all designed to be easily transportable by hand cart. Their stuff - including the furniture - was light and often made of hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) or sugi (Cupressus japonica). I seem to remember seeing nineteenth century Ukiyo-e prints of people escaping fires - each pushing a handcart full of their chodo. We need a pantechnicon and a crew of super-sized movers to shift our stuff.

Lorrie and I made the decision to live in the storehouse. Our house is our kura. We believe it is substantially fire-safe. But the alternative, historical Japanese model has an an intriguing relevance to living at the wildland/urban interface. Why not strip down the living space and furnish according to the season? Avoid Ikea at all costs - their particle board technology is inherently heavy and brittle. In contrast, our old wrecks of nineteenth century storage chests (tansu), which we have collected over the years, have survived because they are both easy to move and although flimsy are easily repaired.

A strategy for the wildland/urban interface might be to build a kura on site - of concrete block, metal roof and fire and spark baffled vents - and erect a much lighter, transient structure close by that serves as the living pavilion - lightly furnished (in both senses) and appropriate to the seasons. Ready-Set-Go would then involve moving the light furnishings and acoutrement from pavilion to storehouse and then leaving. In the event of fire the pavilion would be sacrificed, but perhaps the slab and utility hookups could be designed to survive a typical fast-moving chaparral blaze. With an average cycle of thirty years between fires this might prove to be a highly economical approach - most particularly in terms of the cost of firefighting. It would also ensure that the Limoge would survive for another century.

Yet, despite heroic efforts to pretend otherwise we all live, as Basho notes, in a phantom dwelling. The transience of our lives is not to be denied. Our cultures too, are only slightly less evanescent. Contemporary Japanese architecture is heavy on the poured concrete and light on the shoji screens (see Tadao Ando). Kura are now prized for their remodeling potential amongst the haute bourgeoisie of Tokyo.

I have no haiku to end with, but instead a reminiscence of Chumash culture at the dying of the light.

Georgia Lee, Jo-anne van Tilberg’s predecessor at UCLA’s Rock Art Institute (In Search of a Shaman’s Lair) in describing the Chumash rock art in a cave close by Mount Pinos, the spiritual heart of the Chumash universe, notes that in the 1824 Chumash rebellion against their Spanish oppressors, the cave was the last refuge of the beleaguered rebels. Here a few remaining Native American souls had to confront both the primal energy of the wilderness, the danger - particularly to these non-shaman - of the cave as portal to the spirit world and the Spanish soldiers eager to make an example of their insurrection. This lithic retreat became both a Phantom Dwelling and a dwelling of phantoms - the last stand of these La Purisima missionized Indians cowering in a cave that once was a wellspring of their culture.