Compassion: Poem Number 95

Photo by Prince Kumar on

Since today is the Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day, the Enlightenment of the Buddha, I felt this poem would be very suitable:

おほけなく Ōkenaku
うき世の民に Ukiyo no tami ni
おほふかな Ōu kana
わがたつそまに Waga tatsu soma ni
墨染の袖 Sumizome no sode

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Inadequate, but
they must shelter the folk
of this wretched world—
my ink-black sleeves, having begun to live
“in this timber forest that I enter”.

The author of the poem is by a priest of the Tendai sect of Buddhism named Saki no Daisōjō Jien (先の大僧正 慈円, Former Archbishop Jien, 1155-1225) who was the son of Tadamichi (poem 76) and nephew of fellow poet Yoshitsune (poem 91) as well as Fujiwara no Teika himself.

The last line of the poem is noteworthy because it is a direct quote from the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Saichō who lived centuries before. So, for many, this has been interpreted as Jien’s vow as a monk to carry on this tradition of compassion for all beings in a world that is transient and marked by suffering. Here, the “ink-black” or sumizome (墨染め) literally means “ink-black” (sumi is Japanese ink), but also is the traditional color that Buddhist priests in East-Asia wear. Compare with the more ochre robes in Southeast Asia or red robes in Tibet.

This notion of compassion for all beings is exemplified by the Buddhist notion of a bodhisattva who is a being who is highly advanced on the Buddhist path and has turned outward to help and teach all beings before becoming a Buddha (i.e. enlightened) themselves. Tendai Buddhism, in particular, reveres the Bodhisattva ideal and practices, and not surprisingly the poem reflects this.

Interestingly though, Professor Mostow suspects the poem may actually be an allusion to Emperor Daigo, who was said to have taken off his robe one winter night to suffer the same cold as the people did.

In any case, the notion of good will and compassion for others is something I hope anyone finds inspiring.


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