Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Saigyo: Looking to the West

I decided to take a break from the Kokinshuu and display some poems from one of my favorite Japanese poets: Saigyo. Saigyo was a very famous and influential poet of the late Heian period in Japan. He lived from 1118-1190 A.D. At this time in history Japan was in a period of transition. The aristocratic order in Kyoto was crumbling and samurai factions were fighting for control of the nation. The airiness and grace of the old aristocracy was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Heian Japan was a period of extraordinary progress in Japanese literature and poetry. The Tale of Genji and Kokinshuu come from this period, as well the less well known Pillow Book from Sei Shonagon. The story of the rise of the samurai is described in the Tale of the Heike. The Tale of the Heike is less sophisticated as the Genji but is still interesting and it captures the complexities of the time.

Can be found at:

Saigyo himself was born among the landed elite in Kyoto, and had the opportunity to be a high ranking member in the coming military order. However, at the old age of 23 he decided to renounce the world and join the Buddhist order as a monk. He spent decades wandering across Japan by himself. During this time he developed a passion for poetry and he composed a great number of poems that can be found in the Senzaishuu and the Shinkokinshuu.
I really like Saigyo because of his intelligence, both emotional and intellectual. He definitely appreciated the natural world and sought to be alone during his wanderings around Japan. Even with his desire to renounce the world, he was consistently in a state of melancholy. It could have been because Japan was falling into the Age of Mappo, which is a spiritual concept denoting the decline of Buddhism. Mappo is supposed to come around every so many generations, but as society decays it should be rejuvenated by a new Buddha. There were a lot of theories why Japanese society was collapsing and I have mixed feelings about it. I'm sorry to the orthodox Buddhists, but I don't take seriously that a decline in the religious order causes a decline in all of society. I do however see their point that the world history does seem to follow a cyclical pattern.
Saigyo was product of these tumultuous times and his poetry reflects the melancholy of the crumbling aristocratic world, with their cultural and poetic indulgent lifestyles. I also sense that he was a pragmatic man, who was quick to judge himself and analyze his own emotions. He was a true intellectual and fascinating person.

Can be found at:
I should also explain that Saigyo's name written in Japanese is 西行  which means "Western Journey". He was however not referring to what we think of as the "West" (Europe, USA, etc.) I believe he is referring to the Amida Buddha who dwelt in the Western Paradise. Amida Buddha was pretty popular in Japan, China, and Korea back in those days.
The three poems I've chosen are just a sample. I will find more that I like soon and make a new post. The translations are mine and I kept (pretty much) the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable rule that he followed.



Even a person
Of crass taste, upon seeing
Snipes rise over a marsh
In the autumnal twilight
Would be moved to tears.


I like this poem because it shows Saigyo's emotional side but it also displays the trouble he had "renouncing" the world. Although he was a monk and supposedly spending all his time reading Buddhist texts, he was still moved by natural phenomena.



Leaving everything,
I go deep in the mountains.
Blazing my own trail,
Is there a place in the world
Where I can’t hear suffering?


This again has to do with his struggle with becoming a Buddhist monk. This poem says to me that although he  has begun his journey away from society towards truth, he is still constantly reminded of the suffering of himself and the people around him. He let his humanity shape his spiritual journey. I respect this poem because I don't have much respect for the transcendent.



The smoke of Mt. Fuji
Bends to the will of the wind,
Vanishes in the sky.
Alas, these thoughts of mine too,
I don’t know where they will go.


I think this poem speaks for itself. I can relate to the arbitrariness of his thoughts guiding him.

Can be found at the Wikipedia article for Saigyo

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