By Shae Davidson
In the autumn of 1140, a young courtier abandoned the life he’d known and set out to explore the forests and wayside trails of Japan as a Buddhist monk.
Over the next five decades the mendicant, Saigyō, found beauty and solace in nature as the world changed around him. Written nine centuries ago, Saigyō’s insights and struggles offer guidance for a modern world shaped by isolation and uncertainty.
Award-winning translator Meredith McKinney traces his journey in Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude. Her carefully-curated collection of Saigyō’s poetry uses his work to present impressions of his life and experiences from his decision to leave court to his prediction of his own death gazing at the full moon through flowering blossoms.
McKinney has studied his life and writings for years, including a doctoral dissertation on The Tale of Saigyō, and her long familiarity with the wandering poet-monk shines through her introduction and notes.
Saigyō felt a deep tension about his decision to turn his back on the capital. It’s unclear exactly why he decided to become a monk at twenty-two, and it took him some time to finally free himself from his life at court:
Still here in the capital
to the world I’ve already
unbound myself from (10)
Saigyō continued to struggle with the decision, eventually leaving the capital in October 1140. His separation from his old life, however, was not as straightforward as he had hoped. Political upheaval rocked the court in 1156, and news of the suffering of his friends reached him in his travels. Saigyō pushed forward, “seeking the place where sad news cannot find me” (27).
This chaos only heightened the sense of loneliness and self doubt that Saigyō felt as he began his life as a monk. In his loneliness and in an effort to find inspiration and interconnection in the world he found far beyond court, he turned to elements of nature as companions. The moon in particular became a focus for Saigyō.
Its ever-changing appearance and noble presence above the woods and mountains helped him reflect on detachment and the transitory nature of reality, and even inspired reflections on truths that transcend human experience:
a place to live
unknown to others (33)
Nature–the raw nature of wilderness–also contained dangers. Saigyō embraced the contradictions he found in nature, eloquently describing the fear inspired by a storm while recognizing the sense of safety and even coziness that he felt as he watched water stream from the roof of his hut, creating a screen that sheltered him from the elements; the snow that froze the water in his small hut also helped erase his tracks, reminding him to move on from the past.
Thirty-one-syllable tanka was the dominant form of poetry in Japan during Saigyō’s lifetime, and was used to explore connections between lovers and friends. Saigyō's writing reflects this sense of intimacy as he became more comfortable in his life away from court. He felt a strong connection to a pine tree near his hut, for example, wondering whether it would grieve for him after his death.
The companionship, interconnection, and inspiration Saigyō found in the forests and mountains echo themes from the historic Buddha’s time in the forest of Bodh Gaya.
Rather than a backdrop for their experiences, the landscape—every branch and leaf, every mountain and brook—became an essential companion in the task of enlightenment:
As I go farther in
deeper among mountains
all I see
touches the heart (96)
McKinney argues that this lived experience gave Saigyō’s poetry its power and beauty. As a courtier Saigyō would have written poems about nature at parties and celebrations, cleverly relying on romanticized tropes while writing in the artificial world of the palace.
Living in the countryside–passing through small villages, struggling through mountain snowstorms, watching the rhythms of the seasons–gave him a more immediate, more intimate understanding of the beauty of nature and his role in it.
Recent events shaped McKinney’s approach to the poems. In an interview, she explains that she turned to Saigyō’s work while fleeing the Australian wildfires and facing the first weeks of the COVID pandemic. These experiences helped her find new ways to express the loss, loneliness, and interconnection that shaped Saigyō’s life.
McKinney’s presentation of Saigyō’s work is a book that invites reflection and rereading.
It’s possible to read the book in a single short sitting, but the poignant images of loneliness and beauty in Saigyō’s poems and the sense of growth and acceptance that emerges from McKinney’s arrangement leave the reader haunted by the scenes Saigyō depicted almost a thousand years ago.
Historian Shae Davidson has worked in industrial and social history museums throughout Appalachia and has taught in West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Shae’s past publications have included articles in Turning Wheel and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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