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.


Hopetoun falls

Another poem on the transience of life:

滝の音は Taki no oto wa
絶えて久しく Taete hisashiku
なりぬれど Narinuredo
名こそ流れて Na koso nagarete
なほ聞えけれ Nao kikoe kere

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Although the sound of
the waterfull has ceased,
and that long ago,
its name, indeed, has carried on
and is still heard!

The author, Fujiwara no Kintō (966-1041), was one of the top poets of the Heian Period. In fact, the Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry above was compiled by him. Kinto compiled many anthologies that still represent Japanese Waka poetry of that era. In short, Kinto was the ultimate authority on Japanese poetry of his time. He is also the grandson of Tadahira (poem 26) and father of Sadayori (poem 64).

According to Mostow, the poem itself was composed after a number of people visited a famous Buddhist temple called Daikakuji, which is in the western part of the capitol of Kyoto. Interestingly, Mostow also points out that this poem is found nowhere else despite the fact that Kinto was a famous poet and had an extensive collection for Fujiwara no Teika to draw from. On suggestion is that Daikakuji is in the same area as Mount Ogura, which is where Teika’s villa resided. The full name of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology is actually the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu by the way.

In any case, this poem is pretty interesting because of the sense of change over time. The waterfall that existed long ago still exists, but in name only. In the same way, life as we know it know will become a dim memory or a misplaced name for future generations. Although Japanese culture has been influenced by Buddhism and its notion of transience since early history, I think this is a point that anyone, anywhere can appreciate.

Also, Kinto’s ability to express this sense of change and impermanence to life seems to me to demonstrate his poetic talent all too well. 🙂

Rejection: Poem Number 21

December 10, 2012

Japanese Calendar 2

No one likes getting rejected. Even back in classical Japan:

今来むと Ima kon to
いひしばかりに Iishi bakari ni
長月の Nagatsuki no
有明の月を Ariake no tsuki wo
待ち出でつるかな Machi idetsuru ka na

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

It was only because you said
you would come right away
that I have waited
these long months, till even
the wan morning moon has come out.

This poem was composed not by a woman as one would expect, but by a Buddhist priest named Sosei Hōshi (素性法師, “Dharma Master Sosei”, dates unknown) who was the son of Henjō who wrote poem 12. Sosei was a prolific and popular poet and according to Mostow heavily represented in the more official anthology, the Kokin Wakashū. He is also one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry.

As we’ve seen with other poems from this earlier era, it was common to write about poetry themes, and to write from a role outside one’s own. So, for a monastic to be writing from the perspective of a lonely woman wasn’t unusual.

Mostow explains the contradiction in this poem between the “one long night” and “months” as being an issue of interpretation. Though most people assumed it was a long Autumn night, Fujiwara no Teika, the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, felt it was more like a long passage of time.

P.S. Photo above is a Japanese calendar we have a home. More on that in a related post in my other blog.

Compassion: Poem Number 95

December 8, 2012

Jizo Bodhisattva at Ueno Park

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.

P.S. Photo is of a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva, a popular bodhisattva in Japanese culture, taken at Ueno Park in Tokyo. I think I took this 2010.

Avenue of trees against autumn sunset, Bosley Fields Farm - geograph.org.uk - 559377

My favorite poem related to fall in the Hyakunin Isshu is this one:

寂しさに Sabishisa ni
宿を立出て Yado wo tachi idete
ながむれば Nagamureba
いづこもおなじ Izuko mo onaji
秋の夕暮 Aki no yugure

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When, from loneliness
I stand up and leave my hut
and look distractedly about:
everywhere it is the same
evening in Autumn.

The author of this poem is a monk named Ryosen Hōshi (良暹法師, “Dharma Master Ryosen) who supposedly composed it while doing austerities in a remote hut outside the capitol.

The notion of “Autumn Sunset” appears a lot in Japanese poetry, but apparently its meaning differs depending on the time and place. Ryosen Hoshi gives a more melancholy, almost Buddhist, tone implying that the world around him is declining into winter and possibly, metaphorically declining in a general Buddhist sense. However, Sei Shonagon (poem 62) also wrote about Autumn Sunset in her Pillow Book, but used it to describe crows and wild-geese flying

An Autumn Sunset means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it still is significant one way or another. For me, I tend to like Ryosen’s imagery the best, and it’s the one I imagine whenever I read this poem.

Traffic seen from top of Arc de Triomphe

This poem is a nice reminder that “traffic” and “commuting” are two things that haven’t really changed much in 1,000 years:

これやこの Kore ya kono
行くも帰るも Yuku mo kaeru mo
別れては Wakarete wa
知るも知らぬも Shiru mo shiranu mo
逢坂の関 Ōsaka no seki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

This it is! That
going, too, and coming too,
continually separating,
those known and those unknown,
meet at the Barrier of Ōsaka

This poem was composed by one Semimaru (蝉丸) who is reputedly a blind man who built a hut near Osaka Barrier and was famous for playing the biwa, but the authenticity of this story if questionable, and as Mostow points out, it’s not even certain he existed at all. The story about his life has also changed throughout the generations, so in some cases he’s the servant of the son of an Emperor, and in others he’s the son of an Emperor, abandoned by his blindness.

The place in question, Osaka Barrier, is a popular subject of poetry from this era. Poems 62 and 25 also mention the same place because it was a popular meeting spot for people coming and going from the capitol (modern-day Kyoto) eastward. Note that this Osaka has no resemblance to the modern city of Osaka, which was called Naniwa during that era. In fact the name of Osaka Barrier is also a pun. The chinese characters are 逢坂, which means “meeting hill”, but is also the place-name.

A traditional Japanese checkpoint or "sekisho"

A traditional Japanese checkpoint or “sekisho” 関所 courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anyway, these kinds of check-points, or sekisho (関所) existed in Japan across major roads going in and out of the capitol, but were also popular meeting places for friends and lovers too, as well as having inns nearby for weary travellers. Osaka Barrier in particular was the first check-point leaving eastward from the capitol, so many people probably parted company here, or met old friends at this particular gate more than others. It’s fun to imagine what Osaka Barrier was like in those days. As Mostow points out, this poem probably was originally just a poem about Osaka Barrier, but by the medieval era, it took on an increasingly Buddhist tone in symbolizing the coming and going of all phenomena. Even modern Japanese books on the Hyakunin Isshu tend to reflect this sentiment. Pretty interesting metaphor I think.

One other interesting thing about this poem is its rhythm. If you read this one out loud, the rhythm is very easy to follow, and this is probably one of the easier poems to memorize if you’re looking for a place to start (poem number 3 is another good choice in my opinion). 🙂

Mountain Huts Ogasayama 2010-10-17

An early poem by an obscure and mysterious figure:

わが庵は Waga io wa
都のたつみ Miyako no tatsumi
しかぞすむ Shika zo sumu
世をうぢ山と Yo wo ujiyama to
人はいふなり hito wa iu nari

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

My hut is to
the capital’s southeast
and thus I live. But
people call it “Uji, hill
of one weary of the world,” I hear.

The poem was composed by a Buddhist monk named Kisen Hōshi (喜撰法師 lit. “Dharma master Kisen”) who lived in the mid-9th century. This is the only poem known to be his, though others may exist. He is considered one of the original Six Immortals of Poetry and is mentioned in the preface of the official anthology, the kokin wakashū.

The location is a place called ujiyama (宇治山), which was associated with sorry or grief, though since then it has been renamed in honor of its resident and is now called kisenzan (喜撰山). Someone did a really nice write-up on their visit to Kisen-zan with photos and a view of what is purported to be Kisen’s original hut. Also, the famous Buddhist temple of Byōdōin also can be found there. It was located south of the capital at the time, Kyoto.

The poem is a tricky one lends itself to two possible interpretations according to Professor Mostow. One interpretation has been that Kisen came there out of grief and weariness of the world, and made it his home. Mostow provides evidence that instead, Kisen lived there contentedly, and only heard from others that it was called brief mountain.

As there is a Buddhist tradition since the time of the Buddha to withdraw from the entanglement of the world, and find peace of mind. This tradition has led to the Buddhist monastic community that exists today in various parts of the world. Kisen is one of many who sought solace in places like Ujiyama. Question is, did he find only sorrow, or did he find contentedness?

Maybe only Kisen will ever know that.