Lamentations: Poem Number 86

October 18, 2013

Waning Moon

Another Autumn moon poem, but with an interesting twist:

なげけとて Nageke tote
月やは物を Tsuki ya wa mono wo
思はする Omowasuru
かこちがほなる Kakochi gao naru
わがなみだかな Waga nami dakana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

“Lament!” does it say?
Is it the moon that makes me
dwell on things? —No, and yet,
look at the tears flowing down
my reproachful face!

This poem was composed by the Dharma Master Saigyō (1118-1190) a famous Buddhist monk and poet from the era. Saigyo’s story is interesting in of itself. In his youth, his name was Sato no Norikiyo and he was a promising young man in the Heian Court, and caught the attention of Emperor Toba, Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) and also Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man at the time and who later became a villain in the famous Tales of the Heike and a recent drama on Japanese TV.

However, Norikiyo grew disillusioned with the nasty politics and infighting in the Court, and abruptly decided to throw it all away. He left behind his career, his wife and children1 and became a wandering mendicant. He took on the Buddhist name Saigyo (西行) and stayed at the famous mountain-monastery of Koyasan for monastic training. Later, he returned to the capitol to find everything had changed. The Hogen Rebellion had destroyed much of the capitol, Emperor Sutoku was exiled (having lost), and Kiyomori ruled as a warlord. A few years later, Kiyomori and the entire Heike clan were utterly destroyed in the famous Genpei War which also spelled the Heian Court and the Heian Period. What might have happened had Norikiyo had stayed and followed his career, rather than leave the capitol?

In any case, with the new samurai government at Kamakura (the Kamakura Period), things settled down in Japan and Saigyo traveled around, devoting his life to writing poetry to lament the loss of his former patrons, beautiful nature in Japan, and about life in general. He finally settled down in the outskirts of Osaka, and passed away at the age of 73. It was said that when he passed away, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and that he died on the same day that Shakyamuni Buddha died (February 15th according to solar calendar).

He was also friends with Shunzei (poem 83), according to Professor Mostow.

Anyhow, this poem is, according to Professor Mostow, possibly inspired by a poem by famous Chinese poet Bo Juyi and is supposed the express the feelings of a resentful lover. Is the moon making him/her tearful? Maybe, maybe not, but gazing up at the moon brings them such sadness anyway.

Saigyo’s talent with poetry and his interesting life story have certainly helped him earn a place in the Hyakunin Isshu, but also inspired many later poets such as Basho and others. Basho the Haiku master, in his travels, went to visit places frequented by Saigyo among others.

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