Speaking: The Hermit Poet Known by Emperors and Shoguns
by Carmen Sterba
It is likely that the life of a hermit, secluded from the world in a lonely hut, attracted the young Saigyo more than any religious teaching, and induced him to leave the world. From this time on, the writings of recluses (inja) form an important genre . . . (p. 677)
The reason for Saigyos decision to become a monk is unclear though various
scholars suggest that it was because of his dislike of the corrupt lifestyle
of the Imperial Court, his distaste for civil war, and/or a disappointment in
love. As a monk, his choice was to live alone and as unattached to temple life
as was possible. He lived on more than one mountain near Kyoto and later lived
for 7 years near the main shrine in Ise, which is the center for Japans
indigenous religion of Shinto. In Awesome Night: The Life, Times, and Poetry
of Saigyo, William La Fleur explains what this syncretism between Buddhism
and Shinto meant: the official [Buddhist] doctrine of the day insisted
upon a fundamental unity on the deepest level between beings revered in the
temples and the kami [gods] worshiped in the shrines. (p. 67)
Since he was not officiating in a temple, he was responsible for raising money for temples and that took him on many solitary travels. His willingness to combine Buddhism with Shintoism is not usual in Japan even in modern times. It is common for Japanese to interchangeably visit both temples and shrines and have both Buddhist altars and Shinto altars in the same house.
Interestingly, Saigyos life as a hermit monk and a tanka poet was not as acceptable as what one might think. He struggled with the fact that he did not give up poetry in his life as a hermit and was criticized for doing so, yet he felt strongly that writing poetry was integral to who he was. Thus, as Saigyo sought progress in his spiritual journey, he also found greater depths in his poetics. He regarded poetry similar to a Buddhist mantra or prayer. This unity of religious practice and poetry aided his personal journey. This can be seen in his tanka.
La Fleur states that Saigyo was moved to write about paradoxes, about gaps between reality and appearance, and about attitudes and actions that ordinary society cannot comprehend because of its own attachment to illusions. (p. 8)
Saigyos poetry is as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. And even in these two selections, which are interspersed with deep philosophical musings, lightness prevails (all the tanka are translations by Burton Watson from Poems of a Mountain Home):
If I no longer think
what reason would I have
to think of dreams as dreams?
In this mountain village
where Ive given up all hope
how drab life would be
without my loneliness
Saigyos continued to be attached to certain people, such the Emperor he had formerly served. The waves was written while he took a trip to Matsuyama where Emperor Sutoku, came to a tragic end. We saw you off is one of his poems written in memory his friend, Lady-in-Waiting, Fujiwara Asako:
their aspect unchanged,
but of you, my lord,
no trace remains
We saw you off,
and returning through the fields
I thought the morning dew
had wet my sleeve
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
in a marsh where snipes fly up
My mind I send
with the moon
that goes beyond the mountain,
but what of this body
left behind in darkness
Even a person free of passion is the most popular tanka of Saigyos.
It dispels the image of a monk who has lost all interest in this world and shows his keen sensitivity to the movements in nature. My mind I send may be one of the tanka that Saigyo wrote after meditating on the moon. LaFleur states that this kind of meditation is referred to as gachirinkan and prized by the Shingon school, the mind/heart (kokoro) of the practitioner was visualized as progressively filling with light. (Awesome Night, p 8)
Saigyo was so famous that in 1186, when he traveled to Kamakura, which had become the military capitol of Japan after the Minamoto overcame the Fujiwara clan, he was immediately recognized at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and given an audience with the future Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). Saigyo was asked to give an impromptu lecture on tanka and the arts of archery and military horsemanship for the Yoritomo. There is a legend, that when Saigyo received a gift from Yoritomo, he immediately gave it to the first child he saw as he left to continue his travels. Not so many years later, Yoritomos son, Minamoto Sanetomo (1192-1219) became a well-known tanka poet and the third Shogun. At the age of 27, Sanetomo was assassinated at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine.
It was the memory of Saigyo in the 12th century, that inspired Basho, in the 17th century, to take a trip up North to visit places where Saigyo stopped on his travels to compose tanka. Basho was certainly inspired by Saigyos themes and sensitivity towards nature. Basho chose to link his reputation as a poet to Saigyo even though he was not a hermit monk. Haruo Shirane writes the following in Traces of Dreams:
The Narrow Road to the Interior, which traces Bashos journey of 1689, can be interpreted as an offering or tribute to the spirit of Saigyo (1118-90) on the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. As the ultimate host of Bashos journey, Saigyo becomes the object of various poems of gratitude, tribute, or remembrance, particularly at the utamakura, the poetic places in which the poets spirit resides. (p. 182)
Saigyo was born into the court life of Kyoto and he was already an accomplished tanka poet when he decided to withdraw from life. This cultivated poet-monk, who was welcomed by Emperors and Shoguns, continues to be one of the most revered and inspirational of all poets in Japanese Literature.
Keene, Donald. Seeds of the Heart: To the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1993.
LaFleur, William. Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Watson, Burton. Poems of a Mountain Home, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1991.
The author lived in Japan for 31 years. Her first degree is in Far East Asian Studies and her second is in literature. She is an award-winning English-language haiku poet and a former officer of the Haiku Society of America. This article was first published in The Tanka Society of America Journal, Ribbons, Vol. 4 No. 1, in 2008.