Nature and loneliness are the two recurring motifs in the beautiful verse of Japanese hermit-poet Saigyo.
I never expected to find another Japanese hermit poet quite like Ryokan — preoccupied with the moon in the night sky and the loneliness of a monk’s life — and then stumbled one day on Saigyo in a bookshop. A poem on the back jacket of Poems of a Mountain Home held my attention: ‘Only the moon/high in the sky/as an empty reminder/but if looking at it, we just remember/our two hearts may meet’. Saigyo could have been talking about a lover or a friend or even a fellow poet — scholars can’t be sure since so little is known about his life. I sought more Saigyo and found Mirror for the Moon and Awesome Nightfall by William La Fluer.
I opened its pages to read: ‘My kimono sleeves/blossom-scented by the air/under this orange tree/close by the caves, catch and hold/tears falling from the past’s recall.’ What is apparent in all three collections is this hermit-poet’s way of using poetry to negotiate his hermit life with the other life he is trying to leave behind. His poems often speak of ‘absent friends, lovers and family’. Saigyo sees his loneliness as keeping him company since there is no one or nothing else so constantly with him in the forest and on the mountain. Sometimes the cry of the evening cicada or the rays of the moon poking through his hut or a lone pine tree reminds him he is not the only one who is alone, and that he shares this aloneness with them.
The moon is his other companion and instructor. The moon is also the sole continuing presence he shares from his old life. ‘When the moon shines/ without the smallest blemish/I think of her/and then my heart disfigures it/blurs it with tears.’ In his present hermit life, the moon still fills his senses. ‘It will be good: my body may cry itself into a pond of tears/but in it my unchanged heart/will give lodging to the moon.’ Another moon poem: ‘Trickling through/tree foliage/ the moon up there/shows it knows/sadness: in its light here/lies the dew it wept tonight.’ Over time, Saigyo even thinks moving from his hermitage is to abandon the moon. ‘As always the moon/night after night after night/will stay on here/at this grass hut I put together/and now myself must leave.’ Saigyo’s reclusiveness made him alive to the aloneness of things — trees, birds, animals, streams and, of course, the moon — and equally a sense of how one can be alone with other things.
A Saigyo scholar spoke of it as his “finely sharpened sense of the world’s samsara.” Kubota, another Saigyo scholar, said reading this Buddhist hermit you encounter “a motif of a body-piercing loneliness in these poems.” The moon became illumination, luminosity for the mind; Saigyo was just as preoccupied by cherry blossoms and the scholar Konishi says Saigyo “perceived cherry blossoms and the moon as mandalas.” Like Ryokan, Saigyo’s poems sought to bring the ‘way of poetry’ with ‘the way of the Buddha’, and to talk, in these poems, of the struggles and joys of the Buddhist life. Burton Watson, the gifted translator of Poems of a Mountain Home, tells us in his introduction that there is some writing to show Saigyo felt poetry and its practice was a sacred duty for a Buddhist. But one can’t be certain, points out Watson, that this was Saigyo’s aesthetics since these writings are more legend than an accurate record.
However, it seems to me, when I learn of how much and often Saigyo came out of the forest to the courts to take part in poetry competitions and even teach poetry, it doesn’t seem too far fetched that Saigyo would feel strongly about the place of poetry in Buddhism. Saigyo, Watson informs us, was born Sato Norikiyo in 1118 in Kyoto to a wealthy warrior family. He became a skilled samurai himself and immersed himself in court life until 1140 when, at the age of 23, he quit his post at the palace to become a monk. His reasons for doing so — this is again speculation — range from an unhappy love affair to disillusionment with court intrigue to a desire to eschew the bad karma of a warrior’s life.
And as soon as he turned monk, he began writing poetry; his theme at once about the struggle to live a Buddhist life, and what it meant. The style of his poetry, his translator informs us, was waka or court poetry, which came even before the haiku and is slightly longer. Four centuries later its influence was felt deeply by Basho who underscores his debt to Saigyo all through his work. “The waka too is best opened with care, close attention, and appreciation for the skill of the person who put so much into so small a container.”
After moving around many places near in and around monasteries and temples, he frequented two mountains, Mount Yoshino and Mount Koya, often overwhelmed by the “astonishing beauty of the sakura (the cherry blossoms) often wanting to linger here, feasting his eyes on them — he was drawn to the physical beauty of the phenomenal world”. But he had to move on deeper into the forest and his mountain home to pursue solitude. He wrote: ‘Here I huddle alone/in a mountain’s shadow, needing/some companion somehow: the cold, biting rains pass off/and gives me the winter moon.’ And again: ‘The moon like you/is far away from me, but it’s our sole memento: if you look and recall our past/through it, we can be one mind’. The moon; always the moon in the night sky and Saigyo’s pen.