What sounds remind you of summer? I think of children’s voices at swimming pools, music from an ice cream truck and crackling campfires. At our temple, I imagine Obon odori dance songs and a noisy bazaar crowd. Elsewhere in the world, nature makes its own sounds.
In Japan, people think of cicadas, also called “semi” in Japanese. They are big moth-like creatures that appear in August, which is usually the hottest month. They are not particularly cute, in fact, you may think they’re scary looking. Cicadas make a high-pitch buzzing noise mixed with a fast cricket-like clicking. They’re so loud that when dozens or even hundreds are perched in trees, they’d drown out a conversation.
Yet people think of these insects with great affection, depicting them in paintings, songs and poems. Buddhist teachers also like to speak of cicadas because they exemplify a great truth taught by the Buddha—impermanence.
Adult cicadas lay eggs, which hatch into a kind of larvae that burrows underground, where it will stay as long as 17 years. Only when the weather gets hot and the ground warms will the cicada rise from the ground and crawl up trees, where after a short time, it sprouts wings and is able to fly.
The now adult cicada begins to “sing” by vibrating its body, sometimes flying through the air and often resting in trees. Their sound can be overwhelming. You can hear them near farm fields, in forests and in cities. They seem to be everywhere.
However once above ground, cicadas only live for about four to five weeks. During that entire time, they seem to be singing at the top of their “voices.”
If we knew we only had a month to live, would we be able to sing so joyfully? Probably not. We’d frantically seek a medical cure, fret with worry, sink into depression, hide in fear, desperately pray, try to do something to change our situation or suddenly wonder about heaven or the Pure Land, thinking things will be better there. Meanwhile, time preciously slips away.
By contrast, cicadas seem unbothered by such worries and anxieties. Instead, they use whatever time they have to fully live, enjoy the summer and sing joyfully.
You may think, “Well, cicadas have such a short life, of course they must live as much as possible during that time. But humans live much longer. We have time to worry about those other things.”
Time is relative of course. At Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where we have our summer camping trip, there’s an old redwood tree that’s more than 1,200 years old. These giant redwood trees may be looking down at us, thinking, “Why aren’t these humans fully living and enjoying their lives? Their lifespan is so short. Why are they wasting time, fighting, worrying and chasing after unimportant things?”
With this kind of awareness, the poet Basho wrote this haiku 350 years ago:
Of an early death,
Showing no signs,
The cicada’s voice.
The cicadas’ singing also tells people that time is quickly passing, summer is coming to an end, the weather will soon cool and fall will be upon us. The cicadas seem to be saying, we’re all living in a world of impermanence.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said: “If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don't suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away. If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.”
Listen to the sounds of summer. Come to our Obon dance and hear the music. Enjoy our summer bazaar. Enjoy the summer weather. Stop fretting, stop chasing after frivolous things, driven by selfish desires. Nothing lasts forever. Now is the time to figure out what’s precious and important. Live fully now.