The Original Poet-Monk: Saigyo Hoshi

Long before people like Basho or Yosa Buson, in Japan there lived a man named Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師, 1118 – 1190), who lived a privileged life in the Heian period Court, but then threw it aside to become a prolific poet while living an ascetic life as a Buddhist monk.

しほりせでShiori sedeLeaving no trace
なを山ふかくNao yama fukakuOnce again into the mountains’ depths
わけいらんWake iranI’ll make my way;
うきこときかぬUki koto kikanuNot to hear the world’s pains–
所ありやとTokoro ari to yaI wonder, is there such a place?
Translation and poem here.

Saigyo began his life as Satō Norikyo (佐藤義清), serving Emperor Toba as part of the elite palace guard called the hokumen no bushi (北面の武士, lit. “Northern-facing samurai”). Further, he earned a reputation for both horseback archery (流鏑馬, yabusamé) and Heian-style kickball (蹴鞠, kemari), and had a wife and kids among the Heian aristocracy.

However, Norikiyo lived during a time when the upper levels of the Imperial Court were embroiled in nasty power struggles, and everyone serving under them was being dragged into it. Seeing that court was a kind of golden sham, Norikiyo abruptly threw away his life in the court, left his family, and took up the life as a wandering ascetic. Eventually he made his way to Mount Koya, home of the esoteric Shingon sect, and underwent training, with the ordination name Saigyō.

Saigyō Hōshi as depicted in the Hyakunin Isshu card game

Not long after Saigyo had left the Imperial Court, his worst fears came true as members of the Imperial family engaged in a short-lived war amongst factions known as the Hōgen Rebellion in 1156. Emperor Sutoku was on the losing side of this rebellion and was later exiled, and died soon after. The samurai factions who supported the winning side ascended in power, spelling the rapid demise of the Heian Period. Saigyo, while at Mount Koya, grieved for the fallen Emperor Sutoku:

JapaneseRomanizationRough Translation1
よしや君Yoshiya kimiIs this not a good thing, my lord?
昔の玉のMukashi no tama noOnce you were seated
床とてもYuka totemuupon a jeweled dais,
かからんのちはKakaran no chi wayet now you there’s no
何にかはせんNani ni kahasenlimit to what you can be [e.g. a Buddha].
This is a rough translation based on Japanese sources. There is no English translation as far as I could find. Apologies for any mistakes above.

Of the ongoing battles between factions, Saigyō lamented:

JapaneseRomanizationRough Translation1
死出の山Shide no yamaPeople are crossing
越ゆるたえまはKoeru taema waOver the Mountain of Death
あらじかしArajikashiWithout end
なくなるひとのNaku naru hito noBut I fear that this
かずつづきつつKazu tsuzukitsutsuWill only continue…
This is a rough translation based on Japanese sources. There is no English translation as far as I could find. Apologies for any mistakes above.

Saigyō went on several pilgrimages across Japan throughout his life, reconnecting with old friends at the Court, making new friends, and leaving quite a bit of poetry. He had a very affable manner, and made many dear friends over time:

君いなばKimi inabaIf you should go,
月まつとてもTsuki matsu tote moI’ll say I’m waiting for the moon,
ながめやらんNagameyaranTurning my gaze
あづまのかたのAzuma no kata noToward the eastern,
ゆふぐれの空Yūgure no soraEvening sky.
Translation and poem here.

His wanderings were an inspiration to haiku-master Basho centuries later. He was a passionate poet, convinced that poetry was the one enduring thing in life:

すゑのよもSue no yo moAt the world’s end
このなさけのみKono nasake nomiThis gentle art alone
かはらずとKawarazu toWill stand imperishable –
見し夢なくはMishi yume naku waHad I not had this dream…
よそにきかましYoso ni kikamashiI would have you hear of it.
Translation, backstory of this poem, and poem itself here.

Later, when the Minamoto (Genji) Clan finally prevailed and ruled Japan in the new Kamakura Shogunate, Saigyo got to know the new Shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, but rather than ingratiating himself with the new government, he gradually settled down in the modern day city of Osaka, and built a hut for himself near the grounds of Hirokawa-dera Temple. With respect to aging, he wrote:

ふけにけるFukenikeruWhile my aged
わが身のかげをWa ga mi no kage oBody
おもふまにOmou ma niIs on my mind
はるかに月のHaruka ni tsuki noFar away, the moon
かたぶきにけるKatabukinikeruIs setting.
Translation and poem here.

Finally, at some point in his life, he hope that he would pass away similar to the Buddha: under a flowering tree on the full moon of the second month.

願はくはNegawaku waLet me die in spring
花の下にてHana no moto niteunder the blossoming trees,
春死なむHaru shinanlet it be around
その如月のSono kisaragi nothat full moon of
望月のころMochizuki no koroKisaragi month.2
Translation by Burton Watson in Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. p.40

It is said that Saigyo eventually accomplished his wish, and died peacefully in the year 1190 at the age of 73, beneath a blossoming sakura cherry tree during the sixteenth day of second month of the lunar calendar. Saigyo lives on of course both in his poetry, but also his association with the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, as well as the related card game.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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