Lean on Me: Poem Number 75

September 15, 2013

Artemisia princeps1

This is another autumn-themed poem, but with an interesting story behind it:

契りをきし Chigiri okishi
させもが露を Sasemo ga tsuyu wo
命にて Inochi ni te
あはれことしの Aware kotoshi no
秋もいぬめり Aki mo inumeri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Depending with my life
on promises that fell thick
as dew on sasemo plants—
alas! the autumn of this year too
seems to be passing.

The author of the poem, Fujiwara no Mototoshi (1060-1142), was a leading poem of the famous Insei Period of Japanese history, along with his contemporary Toshiyori (poem 74).

According to Professor Mostow, this poem was written as a complaint to the former Chancellor and Buddhist novice (upasaka) named Tadamichi, the same man who composed poem 76. The reason for Mototoshi’s complaint is that his son, better known as Bishop Kōkaku of Kofukuji Temple wanted to be the official lecturer of the Vimalakirti Sutra, but was overlooked year after year. But what does this mean? Buddhism in Japan at this time was a highly bureaucratic system that tended to favor the noble families, and official lectures on certain Buddhist texts were held at key times of the year. The Lectures on the Virmalakirti Sutra, or yuima-e (維摩会) was one such important occasion. Being the lecturer was a competitive and prestigious honor. It wasn’t enough to have the right skills, having connections were important too. Unfortunately, Mototoshi’s son wasn’t so lucky, and his father wrote this poem on his behalf after the Chancellor failed to appoint him again.

The term sasemo is another way of saying sashimo, which in modern Japanese is the yomogi plant. In English, this is better known as the Japanese mugwort, pictured above. We saw the use of mugwort as well back in poem 51, though for a very different reason.

Sasemo plants inspired an earlier, more Buddhist poem, which Mototoshi alludes to:

なお頼め Nao tanome Still rely on me!
しめぢが原の Shimeji ga hara no for I will help those of
させも草 Sasemo-gusa this world for as long
わが世の中に Wa ga yo no naka ni as there are sasemo-plants
あらむ限りは aramu kagiri wa in the fields of Shimeji

This was attributed to Kannon, the Buddhist figure of compassion who promised to rescue all beings in the world. This poem was in the Shinkokin wakashū, number 1917.

Thanks to Professor Mostow for the double-translation this week. If you haven’t already, definitely show him some love and check out his excellent translations. 🙂

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