Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Awesome Nightfall - Selections

The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyō

The Life and Times of Saigyō

Truly fine poetry sits uncomfortably under any label. Yet, as long as qualifiers do not overwhelm what is universal in the poetry to which they have been attached, they can have value. To forbid any reference to Dante or Milton as “Christian poets” would be to deny something of central importance in the sensibilities and writing of both men. And in a similar fashion we may refer to Saigyō as Japan’s foremost “Buddhist” poet—and do so without shortchanging what is universal in his verse.

What is best in his poetry, however, avoids the pious platitude. Much of the time Saigyō, originally a samurai, grappled with the implications of having become a monk. And, because he lived in “interesting” times, he struggled to understand and articulate the connection between his religious tradition and the social chaos he witnessed firsthand. Rightly known to many Japanese today as an unusually perceptive celebrant of nature’s beauty, Saigyō’s sensitivity toward human conflict was equally deep. War was much on his mind. And he wrote about it more than any other poet of his era.

Bashō, Japan’s best-known poet, explicitly named Saigyō, who lived four centuries earlier, as the poet of the past to whom he was most indebted. And that debt is implicit in his writings, both prose and poetry. Yet there are real differences. There is something detectably modern in Bashō, whereas Saigyō’s view of reality is clearly medieval. Perhaps because he was not as proximate a witness of man’s inhumanity to man, Bashō would not have written about Buddhist hells in the way that Saigyō did. And, whereas Saigyō shows an existential anxiety about ways in which his multiple passions were locked in a struggle with his vows as a monk, Bashō traveled dressed in borrowed clerical robes, wore them lightly, and jested about being the equivalent of a bat, not clearly one thing or another.

I agree with those Japanese scholars of this subject who insist that any adequate grasp of Saigyō and his work requires attention to his life and his personal interaction with events of his time. And it appears that Saigyō himself wanted his poetry to be seen in this way. That is why, to a degree not seen in any other poet of his time, he prefaced many of his verses with prose introductions that located his writing in time, space, and occasion. This is not to deny that he, like others, could assume a fictive posture at times. It is merely to underscore something noted by Brower and Miner more than forty years ago—namely, that Saigyō allowed less “aesthetic distance” between himself and the persona of his verse than did his contemporaries.

In the year 1140, in an unnamed temple in or near Heian, the older name for today’s Kyoto, Saigyō became a tonsured monk. He was twenty-three years old. And it was a move that surprised, even startled, his contemporaries. From that point on, consorting with other monks proved an important, although far from exclusive, part of his life. Razoring the head to a bald pate, at least in this man’s case, literally embodied a decision to cease being a warrior and to enter into the path of the Buddhist life. It shaped almost everything he did and wrote for the remaining half century of his lifespan. A struggle within himself to relate events—large social ones as well as the more private ones of his own life—to the question of what it might mean to be a Buddhist was central to him. That struggle, consequently, is part of many of the more than two thousand poems of his we have.

The majority of these verses cannot be dated with any accuracy. But, as just noted, he affixed informative prose headnotes to many. Equally interesting, however, were those episodes in his own life about which he registers personal pain but leaves in tantalizing obscurity. And since these events clearly figured into his own struggle to understand what it might mean for him to follow the vocation of a Buddhist monk, in this book I employ and follow those Japanese scholars who have used a variety of resources to try to figure out what facts may have lain behind those portions of Saigyō’s life he seems to have wanted to leave concealed.

The nature of his death, discussed at its appropriate place in the chronology here, left such an impression on his contemporaries that soon afterward hagiographic accounts of his life and death appeared. These were pious romanticizations that filled in the informational lacunae with invented materials assimilating his life story to that of Shakyamuni Buddha. This meant that throughout the medieval period and until the twentieth century, the general image of this poet-monk was that of a supremely enlightened person. Needless to say, modern scholarship has shown that reality was far more complex—and also much more interesting. What we now tend to find importantly “Buddhist” in his life and verse has more to do with his finely sharpened sense of the world’s samsara than with any clear sense of him as having lived long in some state of continuous nirvana.

One felicitous byproduct of the collapse of the romanticized version has been a renewed appreciation of his poetry. The poems, with very rare exceptions, are all in the form referred to by Japanese as waka, the most basic form of their tradition and slightly longer than what came into being later, namely, the haiku. The waka usually had thirty-one syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 sequence, although Saigyō, more often than other poets, stretched this “rule” by throwing in an extra syllable from time to time. Of course, the lavish employment of homonyms in traditional Japanese poetry meant that whole phrases and sometimes whole poems could have more than one reading or signification. Engo, or words with meanings associated with words found elsewhere in a given waka, allow for more significations and fullness than may first appear. It may be said that in this verse form—as in other aspects of their cultural life—the people of Japan have shown an extraordinary skill in careful packaging. 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.


To provide details of what is known about Saigyō’s origins and early life involves noticing that early on—that is, until he became a monk and took on names with Buddhist significations, eventuating in “Saigyō”—his stillsecular name identified him as being from the Satō branch of the vast Fujiwara clan. His personalized tag was Norikiyo. Of great significance for understanding both the biography and the verse of Saigyō is the fact that the Satō was a military house, one claiming descent from Fujiwara Hidesato. Hidesato was a warrior who in 940 had been instrumental in suppressing a revolt against imperial authority in northeastern Japan, had himself probably killed the leader of that uprising, and was subsequently celebrated for his courage and skills. Memory of him remained strong. Two hundred years or nine generations later, Norikiyo clearly grew up in a family that made much of its own long service to the imperial house. His paternal great-grandfather had probably been the one who moved the family more-or-less permanently to the capital of Heian, although the family’s roots and many of its continuing connections were in the northeastern area of Japan’s principal island.

In a poem written near the end of his life, Saigyō appears to bring forward memory of his—that is, Norikiyo’s—childhood and an early fascination with aspects of the warrior’s life.

shino tamete
suzume yumi haru
o no warawa
hitai eboshi no
hoshige naru kana    1812

Toy bamboo bow
in hand, a mere child takes
aim at a sparrow
and already longs to wear
a warrior’s headgear.

Kubota Jun, the leading Saigyō scholar today, sees the poet here recognizing how, early in his life, he wanted not only to follow the family tradition by becoming a samurai, but wished to gain a high level of skill in the use of the bow and arrow. His specific dream, later realized, had been to take part in the contests known as yabusame, in which archers mounted on horses shoot arrows at a sequence of targets while galloping at breakneck speeds. Public exhibitions of such skills were held in Saigyō’s time within the precincts of Shinto shrines. The level of equestrian skill required was very high, and, importantly, he wrote precisely about his horsemanship in what is probably his earliest extant poem.

fushimi suginu
oka-no-ya ni nao
hino made yukite
koma kokoromin       1529

Taking off from Fushimi,
galloping nonstop over
Oka-no-ya’s hills,
I spur him on to Hino to test
what this young horse can do!

Norikiyo’s physical prowess extended also to the court sport of the times, kemari. This game, probably an import from China, had been popular among the Japanese nobility since the seventh century and involved trying to kick a deerskin ball so that it would remain aloft as long as possible. Fujiwara Yorisuke, who wrote up a record of this sport, noted at the time that Norikiyo “was highly regarded for his exceptional ability in kemari.”


Although Saigyō’s family was later referred to as a “family of wealth,” its social position in the capital was not equal to that of the court nobility. Rather, once they had moved to the capital, the Satō people, hereditary warriors, functioned as guards for royal persons and had official commissions as such. Norikiyo’s father, Yasukiyo, was temporarily relieved of his commission, perhaps because of some minor infraction of the rules or decorum. His name drops out of all records by the time Norikiyo is only three years old, and it seems quite likely that he died at a relatively young age.

This did not effect Norikiyo’s career for long. Although a request for advancement made at age fifteen was not accepted, by eighteen he had become a captain of the imperial guard. Most important for his career was the close link he forged with members of the Tokudaiji family, a different sub-branch of the Fujiwara, but, unlike the Satō, one much closer to the imperial family. Some key members of the Tokudaiji served among the highest ministers of state. Norikiyo during his teen years became a retainer of Tokudaiji Saneyoshi (1095–1157). Very important for multiple reasons—and many that impacted upon Saigyō’s career and poetry—was the fact that Saneyoshi’s younger sister Shōshi (1101–45), celebrated for her extraordinary beauty, became the principal empress consort to Emperor Toba (1103–56, r. 1107–23) and the mother of two later emperors, Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa.

Saneyoshi’s close connections to the throne meant that his retainer, the young Norikiyo, also gained access—such access as could be given to a warrior whose status did not equal that of Saneyoshi and his family. Norikiyo at some point became a member of an elite corps of court-based samurai, the North-Facing Warriors, a band of men officially charged with the defense of persons who, having been emperors in their youth, had “retired” while still young and then remained in “retirement” palaces for many decades. Through his connections Norikiyo got to serve in the retirement palace not only of Toba but also, later, in that of his successor, Sutoku (1119–64).

We get a unique glimpse of Norikiyo’s life during this period through a poem in which he records his elation at being invited by a contemporary to write a poem on an official occasion. Norikiyo, as became his practice later when he became Saigyō, provided an informative prose introduction.

While Fujiwara Munesuke was Middle Counselor, he presented a large number of chrysanthemums as a gift to Retired Emperor Toba. When planted, they filled the area of the eastern garden of Toba’s southern palace. Kinshige, a captain of the imperial guard, invited a number of people to write verses celebrating these chrysanthemums, and I was pleased to be included among those asked:

kimi ga sumu
yado no tsubo o ba
kiku zo kazaru
hijiri no miya to
iubekaruran  510

Chrysanthemums fill
the garden where the days are passed
by Your Majesty—
so “Grotto of the Holy Sage,”
the palace name, fits very well.

There is nothing spectacular about the poem. It is formal and written on an occasion when formality was expected. He records his pleasure at being invited to provide a poem in spite of not being the social equal of the others. And since it is someone named “Kinshige” who is smoothing the way for Norikiyo to submit a poem among this elite group, it is worth nothing that Kinshige was a nephew of Saneyoshi and also someone in the Tokudaiji household. We can surmise that within the Tokudaiji household Norikiyo had been honing his own poetic skills, and that these had been gaining respect and praise—so much so that he was pushed forward to write something for the fete to honor Emperor’s Toba’s “retirement.”


There is an important reason why I have placed scare quotes around the term “retirement.” It refers not so much to an emperor’s relinquishment of power but, paradoxically, to his gaining enhanced power. The mechanism for achieving this was an institution, largely of the twelfth century, called insei, or “governing while retired.” Its creation made this period of time unusual in Japan’s history. For more than two centuries prior to the insei invention, the emperors of Japan had had next to no power. This was because all decisions of significance were then being made by the senior males of the northern branch of the Fujiwara family. During the heyday of Fujiwara dominance emperors were most often enthroned at a tender age—some as young as six, many in their early teens—and abdicated often within a decade or so. These relatively young and still vulnerable persons, having Fujiwara mothers and married usually to Fujiwara women while young, were under intense and irresistable pressure to rubber-stamp decisions already made by the senior Fujiwara males. This leverage exerted on them very often included the demand that they abdicate early and live out the rest of their lives in comfortable but politically impotent retirement.

This changed during the eleventh century when Emperor Go-Sanjō (r. 1068–73) and especially his son, Emperor Shirakawa (r. 1073–87), took advantage of their relatively looser entrapment in the Fujiwara mode to turn their own retirement years into ones of real power. Shirakawa, whose postabdication life went on for forty-two years, was a strong-willed man with a wide gambit of operations. He provided the prototype that others strove to emulate during the twelfth century. The locus of operations of these two and all later insei figures was a kind of private cloister, although such places were anything but quiet or remote. Even when such “retiring” emperors took the tonsure and became in some sense royal Buddhist monks, their involvement in directing the political and social order of the so-called “secular” world was extensive. Their cloisters were, even if not the palace per se, the loci of actual power. Administrative offices were staffed and maintained there, and they were often sites of large social and artistic events. The previously cited poem of Norikiyo follows the public lie, namely that Emperor Toba in retirement was living in a building named as if it were the obscure hideaway of a Taoist recluse. The gap between the name and reality, however, was considerable. Toba’s “grotto” was furnished for living on a lavish scale. And if the word “palace” designates the real locus of royal power, then these cloisters were the period’s true palaces. Conversely the “palace,” where lived a very young and soon-to-be retired emperor, was, at least as a place of power, no palace at all.

In the translations below we will see our poet, both in his Norikiyo phase and then later as Saigyō, 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. This may have arisen in part from his recognition that at society’s very top—that is, in the imperial sphere—things were a hall of mirrors. Men within it could grab increased power for themselves only by acts that, on their surface, purported to be the relinquishment of power. And by serving as a guard in the “palace” of Toba and then later in that of Sutoku, Norikiyo got to see firsthand not only the activities but the contradictions in how things were articulated, structured, and run at the social and political apex of his society. It was a component of what impelled him to investigate and practice Buddhism.


Recent studies have uncovered details concerning what Norikiyo likely witnessed and experienced. They flesh out what it would have meant for him to detect contradictions in the courtly society of his era. Specifically, data have been compiled showing that the band of North-Facing Warriors, the elite band of warriors he joined, was composed of young men whose physical beauty was a requirement for their selection. This corps, brought into being by Shirakawa and employed continuously by the insei emperors, was responsible for providing these royal persons not only with safety but also with pleasure. Scholars have uncovered references both to “special tasks” required of these warriors and to descriptions of some individuals among them as having been the “paramours” of their royal patrons.

“Within the hidden side of the culture of the court during the insei period males having sex with other males was very much in vogue,” wrote the late Mezaki Tokue, a historian who, more than any other, coordinated the poetry of Saigyō with data from diaries and historical records of that period. These records name individuals who were erotically involved with the retired emperors, Toba and Go-Shirakawa (1127–92) most especially. Gomi Fumihiko, perhaps the most important historian of this period, traces connections between individuals involved in these homoerotic activities, jealousies and conflicts that arose among them, and the society-shaking eruptions of violence in the capital in 1156 and 1159. He insists that these relationships had a strong but hitherto unrecognized impact upon the political and social history of the era.

Toba was the first of two retired emperors served by Norikiyo, and it is the name of Toba that shows up most frequently among the insei figures involved with male paramours. Among those mentioned was one of the younger men of the Tokudaiji family, Kin’yoshi, who was the same age as Norikiyo and a close associate of his. Since the sources of the time reveal these details with the implication that those involved had been making efforts to keep them hidden, we see that homosexual sex was considered irregular and out of step with the heterosexual norm of that era. This meant also that what was going on in the palaces of the insei emperors, however much “in vogue” privately, was not publicly condoned.

Japan in this period was hardly puritan. Multiple affairs, as celebrated through the philandering hero of the eleventh-century Tale of Genji and as described as the de facto situation of her own life by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book, were condoned among those who could afford them. “Nightcrawling” by men to the apartments of women was de rigueur. Mezaki writes:

Erotic love between males and females had from earlier times provided the most popular source for the writing of waka poetry. Among the courtiers eros and its pursuit were not brought under moral censure. On the contrary, [constantly changing liaisons] were thought to illustrate the [quasi Buddhist] notion of mono no aware. Even among monks engaged in the arts, to celebrate such love in verse was thought to pose no problem whatsoever to spiritual aspirations. And the expression of this freely in verse is something we find in a very large number of Saigyō’s poems.

By contrast, the love of one male for another male involved consorting in secret and away from the public eye. Such sex had no cultural value and was socially sterile.

Mezaki asks, should we not surmise that at least one of the things prompting Norikiyo to consider becoming a monk was a sense of finding the expectations placed on him as a member of the North-Facing Warrior group distasteful, even a source of personal suffering?

The following poem, written likely just before Norikiyo became a monk, oscillates interestingly between the future and the past. It displays, however obliquely, an insight by Norikiyo into what was happening, and his interest appears to have been in communicating something of his own situation within Toba’s insei palace.

iza saraba
sakari omou mo
hodo mo araji
hakoya ga mine no
hana ni mutsureshi  1594

When facing crises,
what will be gone completely are
thoughts of their perfect beauty—
that of blossoms known intimately
in the sage emperor’s palace.

The term hakoya, derived from the Chuang tzu, was a term for a hermit sage’s refuge in mountains. In Norikiyo’s day it had rather recently come to refer to the palace of the retired emperor. Kubota notes that the hasty reader may think the phrase “will be gone completely” characterizes “blossoms,” thus indicating their well-known ephemerality, expressed in much hackneyed verse. The grammar insists, however, that what “will be gone completely” at some future date will be the thought or memories of those blossoms. That is, Norikiyo appears, while in the midst of the court, to project himself into a future in which he no longer holds the memory of the spectacular flowers of the insei palace (and, by extension, all the other blandishments of life there). And the “crisis” mentioned in the first line, although also referred to as an aspect of the future, may be Norikiyo’s hint that he was facing such in his own relations at the imperial court.

The prose headnote to a much-admired poem of this period made an explicit connection to his thought about leaving palace life. This question, he writes, haunted him even while engaged in what should have been a totally pleasurable activity.

During the time when I was coming to a decision about leaving secular life, I was on the Eastern Hills with a number of people, and we were writing verses expressing our sentiments about the gathering mists there. I wrote:

sora ni naru
kokoro wa haru no
kasumi nite
yo ni araji tomo
omoitatsu kana          786

A man whose mind is
one with the sky-void steps
into a spring mist
and thinks to himself he might
in fact step out of the world.

He plays here with the double entendre of one word, sora—which refers to the sky but connotes as well the Buddhist emptiness—and another, yo— which here denotes the sense of being so enclosed by mists that the physical world disappears before one’s eyes but with the secondary sense of a leaving of the world of secular life. It is a rich, skillfully executed poem. And it describes Norikiyo’s state of mind.


During the tenth lunar month of 1140, the twenty-three-year-old Norikiyo left the palace and became a monk. The dharma-name given him then was En’i (Level of Perfection), and some documents thereafter refer to him by this name. Although it appeared at a later point in his monastic life, the name Saigyō, meaning “Going West,” came to be the popularly accepted appellation for this person, and it remains so today.

He addressed a leave-taking poem to Retired Emperor Toba, himself thirty-seven years old at the time. It is a poem relishing irony. It was probably his last poem written while still Norikiyo.

Written when I was petitioning the insei Emperor Toba to grant me his permission to leave secular life:

oshimu tote
kono yo kawa
mi o sutete koso
mi o mo tasukeme     2083

So loath to lose
what maybe should be loathed:
one’s place in the world;
we maybe rescue best the self
by simply throwing it away.

Both careful thought and linguistic skill show themselves here. Norikiyo, I suggest, cleverly mirrors the manner in which the insei emperors themselves had gained by giving something away. As noted above, they grabbed real power by giving up what most people in society, under illusion on this score, probably considered society’s preeminent position. They made personal capital out of their insider knowledge that reality is not what society, or “the world,” thinks it to be.

Norikiyo knew that his secular master, Toba, understood how things worked at that level. But he twisted the notion of the ironic outcome in a different but at the same time more traditional direction. His employment of it was not new in that Buddhists had always held that jettisoning the world, its pleasures, and its blandishments enables one to have access to the far preferable spiritual benefits that accrue to practice along the Buddhist path.

I think it appropriate to see a subtly phrased admonition in the poem—even though it was meant to function first as a formal request for permission. There is a clear implication that “the world” he no longer prizes includes the ambience of Toba’s palace. Does he, as some critics have suggested, imply that the palace itself is a decadent world? His poem implies, even if it does not directly state, that relinquishing the throne as a mere tactical move to gain more political power subverted what Buddhists meant by retiring from the world.

Even though I suggested above that a desire to get out of what might have been a highly charged, personally painful, or even disgraceful predicament of tabooed sex in Toba’s palace could have stimulated Norikiyo’s decision to leave, it is important to recognize that until recently scholars in Japan focused upon a different reason. This explanation too has the ring of plausibility. It hones in on the possibility that Norikiyo had become romantically involved with a court lady whose social position was far higher than his own and that, once this liaison had been discovered, he had no option but to leave the palace. Doing so through shukke—literally, leaving life as a (secular) householder—was for him the most convenient option.

If such a court lady had, in fact, been part of the picture, many students of this topic consider Taikenmon-in (1101–45) to have quite likely been the person with whom Norikiyo had gotten involved. The evidence for this theory is circumstantial and has primarily three components. The first is that Taikenmon-in, referred to above as Shōshi, was the younger sister of Tokudaiji Saneyoshi. That is, she was part of the family whose male members were very close to Norikiyo, their retainer. Thus, it is assumed, the two of them would have had occasions to meet within that context in spite of the fact that he was much younger than she. Norikiyo, as noted, was born in 1118. That same year Taikenmon-in, seventeen years old and already a famous beauty, was selected by retired emperor Shirakawa to be the empress consort for his grandson, Toba, who was sixteen at that time and on the throne.

Second, her reputation for beauty was matched by one for granting sexual favors quite liberally, even well after she had become empress. Below we will note how this aspect of her life may have precipitated an armed conflict. Here we can simply note that her readiness for multiple affairs has led some to conclude that Norikiyo may have been one of her many lovers—but to his own dismay when their status differential became known. The third piece of evidence for their affair lies in the fact that Saigyō, long after becoming a monk, carried on extensive correspondence and poetry exchanges with her ladies-in-waiting, some of whom themselves were of high court rank.

Clearly these attempts to put together a puzzle are missing far too many of the most important pieces. The documentary evidence for the existence of a homoerotic culture in Toba’s palace is fairly strong. But, even if this had been a factor in Norikiyo’s decision, we have no way of knowing whether he found it unpalatable in principle or whether he was jilted or offended in the context of sexual activities in which he was engaged. And, since it seems clear that many of the men having sex with other men in the palace were also erotically involved with women, personal distress over some aspect of the homosexual activity does not itself rule out the possibility that Norikiyo had also fallen into an impossible situation with a lady of the court. We simply do not know.

And, it appears, we were not meant to know. Norikiyo, just as Saigyō later, wrote very informative, even detailed, prose headnotes to poems when he thought the reader deserved to know certain things. At other times, sometimes when our curiosity is most keen, he provided nothing in detail. The evidence at the edges tantalizes. That someone, of undisclosed gender, had been a part of his decision is strongly suggested in the following:

nanigoto ni
tsukete ka yo o ba
ukarishi hito zo
kyō wa ureshiki         1440

What turned me to wanting
to break with the world-bound life?
Maybe the one whose love
turned to loathing and who now
joins me in a different joy.

It is likely that, unless he were merely trying to hide facts out of shame, Saigyō ensconced the reasons for his decision within mystery so that his contemporaries, as well as later generations of readers, would come to see it as he wanted it to be seen: as a decision to lead a qualitatively different kind of life, one with spiritual practice at its core. Disappointments in love, jiltings, and the like can never, at least to this way of thinking, be more than catalysts. When profounder and more powerful patterns of karmic causality are assumed to be what is really at work, more proximate events, such as erotic entanglements, exploitation, and social ignominy, are viewed as superficial facilitators, not the cause of a decision. Being a Buddhist and in a medieval rather than a modern context, Saigyō himself would have approached the question of causality in this way.

Whether or not he was married at this time is another unknown. The Sompi-bunmyaku, an often-reliable record of genealogies compiled during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, lists Saigyō as having a son named Ryūshō. It is quite possible, however, that another monk by this name who was a contemporary of Saigyō’s was mistakenly listed as his son. The fictive and hagiographic Tale of Saigyō, written probably during the thirteenth century, makes him out to have had a daughter whom he literally had to cast aside in order to become a monk. The problem with this work, however, is that, in its eagerness to form connections between Saigyō and Shakyamuni, it invents events—in this case perhaps a child who serves as obstacle to the act of leaving the householding life. Therefore, the evidence is a bit too shaky to portray Norikiyo as having had a wife and children.

Another “loud silence” claims our attention. Nowhere does this man who became a monk in 1140 tell us at which temple he was tonsured or where he took his vows. Someone in some temple accepted his request to become a monk and gave him a dharma-name, but we know nothing of the context of his vows, or of the rationale for the religious names he received. This is because neither he, nor any contemporaneous document, tell us anything.

If we can see this as an intentional silence, it may indicate that he included himself among those monks of his age who had no desire to live within temples or monastic compounds or to follow their daily routines. Saigyō defines himself as being among a number of monks in his time who chose to live on the periphery of temples and monasteries. They lived in small hermitages that typically could house no more than one person. Such monks would, we now know, periodically receive some food and other provisions from the temple nearby and would, to reciprocate, go at times on tours to collect money, hopefully in large rather than small amounts, from laypersons wanting to get merit thereby. To earn the right to be a monk, but not to have to live within a temple or monastery, involved a certain trade-off. Saigyō, at least late in his life, had almost certainly been on such a tour for donations, and it is likely that his unusually extensive travels throughout Japan were related to one or another project for which donations were needed.

During the first couple of years after being tonsured, Saigyō lived either on the periphery of the capital or within walking distance of it. We have poems from this period expressing worry that living on the Eastern Hills was not giving him the necessary distance from “the world.” Then he went further—for instance, to Kurama, on mountains within two or three day’s journey by foot from Heian. Since he left the court during the fall, it was probably during his first winter alone that he records the misery he had been feeling within the capital. He felt the impact of his decision physically.

Having made my escape from a worldy way of life, I was in the interior of Kurama at a bamboo conduit, the water of which was frozen and not flowing. Hearing from someone that this would be the state of affairs until the arrival of spring, I wrote this poem:

kōru kakei no
mizu yue ni
haru no mataruru     623

It was bound to be:
my vow to be unattached
to seasons and such—
I, who by a frozen bamboo pipe
now wait for water, long for spring.

While we cannot ignore the possibility that he had resided within temples at one time or another, neither he or nor anyone else suggests as much. If, indeed, his family was as wealthy as one source suggests, his basic needs may have been provided for by relatives with whom he linked up during his frequent travels.

What we know of Saigyō through his poetry and the prose he wrote to accompany it forcefully indicates that he considered the core of his vocation as a Buddhist to lie in the relatively solitary life of the monk, separated not only from the secular world, but also from the world of the large temple or monastery. He was probably among those monks of the twelfth century who profoundly disliked the competition, cutthroat at times, for rank and privilege among monks within individual temples, and also between temples. Entire monasteries were at times in something close to a state of war with one another.

Physical fighting between bands of monks was anything but uncommon. Many of the larger temples kept at their disposal ruffians who, dressed in robes, could be directed to intimidate either secular officials or rival temples and shrines. But not a few of these purveyors of violence and mayhem were themselves ordained monks—in spite of the fact that carrying anything like a weapon was strictly forbidden in the monastic regulations. Conflicts between the two major monasteries of the Tendai School took an especially overt form during Norikiyo’s lifetime: In 1121, three years after his birth, and then again in 1140—that is, the exact same year of his shukke—warriormonks from Enryaku-ji burned Miidera Temple (Onjō-ji), its bitter rival.

Saigyō occasionally expresses his desire to leave behind the accumulated bad karma of his family’s long warrior tradition. This theme becomes ever more pronounced as his life moves along. And since something of this motif probably entered into his decision to become a monk in the first place, it would naturally have seemed meaningless for him to try to find peace while living within a temple rank with internal competition and out to topple its rivals by physical force. One of his poems appears to express precisely such an awareness:

kakurete sumanu
hito ni nareba
nao yo ni aru ni
nitaru narikeri           1507

To think you’ve thrown
the world away and then still
live unhidden is
to be like any other worldling
still dwelling in the world of men.

The correlate to this is the wealth of poems that express either the pleasure Saigyō finds in leading the reclusive life or the suffering he encounters once he really tries to do so. Japanese scholars today have disproven earlier suggestions that this was merely a literary pose, a fictional persona. Although he was not the complete recluse or constant pilgrim that some of the later hagiographies made him out to be, it seems quite clear that Saigyō spent a good deal of time in hermitages that were relatively separate from society and made journeys that, even if not constant, show him to have possibly been the most wide-ranging pilgrim of his time.

First, however, he had to extricate himself from the capital. During his time on the Eastern Hills he was still in an area where, as evinced earlier, members of the courtier class could easily go for poem-writing excursions. The temples there had monks much involved—socially, politically, and literarily—with the courtiers in the palaces and mansions not very far away. If Saigyō were still, even occasionally, meeting some of the same persons with whom he had been involved on an erotic level before having taken Buddhist vows, he no doubt sensed a contradiction, one that either then or later could have been a personal experience informing the “To think you’ve thrown the world away” poem.

Fujiwara Yorinaga (1120–56), whose diary,Taiki, is one of the most highly regarded sources for information on the period, recorded that on the fifteenth day of the third lunar month of 1142, the monk Saigyō came to visit for the purpose of sutra-copying. The text mentions that two retired emperors (Toba and Sutoku) were connected with this activity, and, since the date for this falls within a month of Empress Taikenmon-in’s tonsuring and entry into the status of Buddhist nun, it is assumed that Saigyō, well known to all these people, was being brought on board for what he could do for them in his new capacity. Formerly their guard and sometime companion, he was now their priest. Taikenmon-in, who may have had a lingering illness, died within three years at age forty-five. Her relatively early death spared her the necessity of witnessing the open strife and tragedies that would befall many of these royal persons within little more than a decade.


The following poem, most (but not all) scholars agree, appears to have been composed within a couple years of Saigyō’s shukke. It shows up after his decision to make a more clean and unambiguous break with the society and culture of the capital.

Having separated from the world, I was at Deer-bell Mountain (Suzuka-yama) on the way to Ise:

ukiyo o yoso ni
ika ni nariyuku
waga mi naruran      796 [1611]

Shaking the bell
on this mountain, am I loosened from
the world now?
Can I shake my self enough
to know what lies ahead for me?

There is an intensity in this query about the need to go strongly up against all that holds one to older, well-grooved patterns of life. Kubota finds it significant that, although this particular mountain was notorious for outlaws who would rob and terrorize travelers, Saigyō’s poem focuses entirely upon the struggle with his internal demons. What threatened him, at least from his own account, was his hankering for the left-behind world, since it could easily rob him of his vocation. In many ways it would turn out to be a lifelong struggle.

Ise is not geographically very far from Mount Kōya, where Kūkai (774–835) had begun the construction of what eventually, at least by Saigyō’s day, would become a large monastic complex. He, like not a few others, seems to have taken up residence in a hermitage somewhere in the precincts of Kōya. Saigyō greatly admired Kūkai, early Japan’s brilliant master of multiple skills and foremost transmitter of esoteric Buddhism.

From the perspective of the capital, Kōya was very remote, and Saigyō employed this theme of remoteness as the opening line in a series of ten poems. He notes that he wro_te them at Kōya and sent them to Jakunen, a monk living at that time in Ohara. Jakunen sent ten of his own poems in response. Saigyō records that what he sees in this place differs greatly from what would be seen back in the city. Two of this set are:

yama fukami
koke no mushiro no
ue ni ite
nani kokoro naku
naku mashira kana   1289

Deep in the mountains—
sitting upright on moss used
as a mat for himself,
with not a care in the world—
is a gibbering, chattering ape.

yama fukami
kejikaki tori no
oto wa sede
mono osoroshiki
fukurō no koe            1291

Deep in the mountains—
no song of birds close to what
we knew at home,
just the spine-tingling hoots
of owls in the night.

In verses such as these, the poet accents the physical and social distance placed between himself and urban society.

A more rigorous practice of Buddhist regimens for both body and mind shows up in the multiple poems he wrote about being on Mount Omine, a site in that period for undergoing severe, often painful, disciplines. Kubota notes that these disciplines were to emulate the sufferings of beings in the three lower realms of the six-tiered Buddhist cosmology. Hauling heavy burdens up and down such mountains gave one the experience of life as an animal. Receiving only meager provisions of food provided insight into the fate of hungry ghosts. Being tongue-lashed with accounts of one’s every fault and physically_beaten with canes provided a taste of life in hell. Saigyō hints at the rigors of Omine’s routes in the following:

At a place called Ants’ Crossing:

sasa fukami
kiri kosu kuki o
asa tachite
nabiki wazurau
ari-no-towatari          1203

climb from caves in thick
bamboo grass beyond
the mists: body now bending along
stark rock forms at Ants’ Crossing.

Most of the poems about this place, however, celebrate the results, and these are uniformly positive. Some of Saigyō’s splendid poems about the moon and the increasing clarity of his own mind seem to flow directly from the austerities undertaken at this point in his life.

On seeing the moon at the place called Shinsen on Mount Omine:

fukaki yama ni
sumikeru tsuki o
omoide mo naki
waga mi naramashi  1191

Passage into dark
mountains over which the moon
presides so brilliantly…
Not seeing it, I’d have missed
this passage into my own past.

tsuki sumeba
tani ni zo kumo wa
mine fukiharau
kaze ni shikarete       1193

So brilliant a moon
up there that the clouds
have sunk down
into the valley, urged along
by winds sweeping the peaks.

A far more extensive kind of pilgrimage came next. At some point before he turned thirty Saigyō journeyed to Mutsu Province in the far northeast, no small undertaking at that time. It is estimated that if a person left the capital in the spring, he or she would reach that destination some time in autumn. This route, at least by the time Bashō retraced the footsteps of Saigyō, gradually became famous—in part because it was arduous. In winter it was cold. Saigyō probably wintered in the area and records having seen edifices of Hiraizumi, a small but elegant architectural transplant of capital culture established in 1095 in the middle of the hinterlands of the far north. Saigyō believed he had been preceded along this route a century earlier by the monk Nōin (998–1050?), although some sources are skeptical on this point.

On the way northward Saigyō came to one of three barriers built along the road in the eighth century to prevent the aboriginal people of the north from moving south. These places had over time been given an aesthetic patina by poets stopping at them. Having been constructed by the central authorities, they represented just a bit of the culture of the capital—but in such faraway and desolate places that their mere mention called up images of acute loneliness due to de facto separation from the capital and its pleasures. One at which Saigyō lingered was the barrier at Shirakawa.

I was on pilgrimage to Mutsu Province in the northeast for spiritual discipline and stopped at what had been the checkpoint at Shirakawa. Now with a dilapidated roof, the building let the moon’s beam shine right inside—curiously and beautifully so. I recalled the phrase “breezes of autumn” in a poem by the monk Nōin written at this same location. It is a place replete with tokens of the past and many memories. I added my own part by writing the following poem and fastening it to a pillar on this structure.

shirakawa no
sekiya o tsuki no
moru kage wa
hito no kokoro o
tomuru narikeri        1213

The guardhouse
at famed Shirakawa gate,
now ruined, lets the moon
filter in; its shaft is like
having another staying here.

Much current interest in this poem centers around whether or not Saigyō was aware of rumors in the capital just then that Nōin may have never gone on the pilgrimage north and had composed this poem with a fictive persona while he himself was abiding in the capital.

Concerning another person of the past with a shaky reputation, Saigyō wrote the following poem with an extensive headnote:

While in the province of Mutsu I came across an unusual-looking grave mound. I asked whose it was and was told that it belonged to a middle captain of the palace guard. When I persisted in inquiring exactly who this person might have been, I was informed that it was Fujiwara Sanekata. I was deeply saddened. Even before learning the details, I had sensed the pathos in this scene of frost-shriveled pampas grass—so fragile it was almost invisible. Later, in trying to express my feelings, adequate words were almost unavailable:

kuchi mo senu
sono na bakari o
kareno no susuki
katami mi zo miru     872 [793]

One part of him
escaped decay—his name,
still around here like
this field’s withered grass:
my view of the relic he left.

It is as if he has to drag the desired information out of his informant. Fujiwara Sanekata, who possibly had been a husband of Sei Shōnagon, the author of The Pillow Book, was said to have one day entered into a verbal altercation with someone else at court. Things became somewhat violent, and then Sanekata was sent off to this remote post in the far north as punishment. There he died within a few years.

Why was Saigyō so interested in this man and so moved by seeing his grave? Some sense of identification probably lay in the fact that both had been warriors who served as palace guards. But, since we know of no specific shame or punishment attached to Saigyō’s name, it is probably best simply to see him here witnessing how quickly not only bodily remains but even the makings of a gravesite can disappear from the face of the earth, reflecting upon how he himself could fade away without a trace. Taking Buddhist vows did not translate easily into a mind at ease with the prospect of sinking into invisibility. Elements in a melancholy scene pile up: the poet standing motionless in front of a timeand weather-devastated grave; the fragile, almost ghostly, heads of swaying pampas grass; and what likely was an early nightfall in this more northern setting.


It is almost as if the gravity of this poem’s consideration of life’s transiency was coming as a personal prelude to the events that soon thereafter shook the world to which Saigyō had once been very close. The year 1156, one of tragedy for the court, becomes the next surely datable one in his life. On the second day of the seventh lunar month, the retired Emperor Toba died at age fiftyfour. This, of course, was the man in whose service Saigyō, now thirty-nine, had been a warrior guard, and it was from Toba that he had received permission to become a monk. Saigyō appears to have been living at Mount Kōya then, and, upon hearing the news, he immediately went to the capital to attend the funeral rites. He also wrote a poem.

On the occasion when the remains of Retired Emperor Toba were being escorted to their place of entombment:

michi kawaru
miyuki kanashiki
koyoi kana
kagiri no tabi to
miru ni tsuketomo    854

Different from places
Your Majesty visited before!
Tonight’s sad, final
journey in this world takes you
far beyond the world itself.

This death was the catalyst for a lot of change.

For twenty-seven years Toba had, in his position as senior retired emperor, been the actual wielder of power in Japan. When he vacated the throne in 1123, it was occupied by Sutoku (1119–64), who held it for nine years between the ages of four and thirteen. Sutoku then retired as well but, still a mere teenager, was relagated to the status of junior retired emperor and was hardly in a position to challenge or contravene any of the decisions being made by Toba. Between his own retirement in 1142 and Toba’s death in 1156, Sutoku had been waiting in the wings for a taste of the power that had till then eluded him.

The relationship between Toba and Sutoku had never been good. Despite the fact that in official records the former had fathered the latter, there was a lot of doubt about Sutoku’s real paternity. This matter was a semi-public scandal, and it affected some of the persons who had been very close to Norikiyo before he became a monk. Toba’s principal consort, it needs to be remembered, was the famed Taikenmon-in, a daughter of the Tokudaiji family. A pervasive rumor in court had it that not Toba but Toba’s grandfather, the retired emperor Shirakawa, had made Taikenmon-in pregnant. This gained easy credibility because everyone knew that Shirakawa, who got what he wanted while he was “retired,” had adopted this young beauty as his own daughter and had effectively forced Toba to marry her, possibly to keep her close at hand for his own use. Not surprisingly, the triangulated relationship of Shirakawa, Taikenmon-in, and Toba was very strained. Given the likeliness of truth in the allegation about Shirakawa and Taikenmon-in, it is not difficult to see why Toba was less than intimate with his so-called “son” and, more importantly, unwilling to share power with him in any way.

Toba, in fact, connived to bypass Sutoku altogether. Before his death in 1156 he had arranged for the headship of the imperial family to pass down not through any child of Taikenmon-in but, rather, through the children of another consort, a woman named Bifukumon-in. He designated her son and then her grandson to constitute the genetic line of the throne and—what was even more important in this irregular era—the position of retired monarch. The animosity between Toba and Sutoku was made intense by the older man’s highhanded actions.

Sutoku saw that he had one and only one chance to undo Toba’s plan and that would come with the latter’s death. He had already formed some valuable alliances and had been plotting what to do. Toba, ill for two months before succumbing, sensed that something was afoot and ordered warriors to guard the palace carefully. Eight days after Toba’s death Sutoku and his associates gathered their troops in one location, and the next day actual battle broke out. It lasted less than a day. A palace that had been headquarters for Sutoku’s effort was burned down, and things ended with clear victory for the forces opposed to him. Two days later he was found hiding out in Ninna-ji Temple and was soon thereafter placed into imperial exile in Sanuki Province on the island of Shikoku. He died there eight years later.

What had taken place in the capital during those unusual days came to be known as the Hōgen Disturbance because the year of its occurrence, 1156, was the first year in a series of years designated as “Hōgen.” Its significance went far beyond the few buildings burned, warriors killed, and emperor dispatched into exile. This was because physical violence had, for the first time in centuries, broken out in rivalries for actual power in the Japanese state. Later generations were to see the Hōgen Disturbance as the prelude to a much larger war that would envelop the land within three decades and, beyond that, a period in Japanese history when samurai rather than the emperor and court ruled the land.

Was it his long-standing connection to the the family of Taikenmon-in and through her to Sutoku that led Saigyō to rush to the city to try to link up with the monarch who had lost out and was now about to be dispatched into exile? Although Sutoku had already been taken away from it, Saigyō went to Ninna-ji and wrote a poem expressing his dismay at events.

A great calamity shook society, and things in the life of Retired Emperor Sutoku underwent inconceivable change, so that he took the tonsure and moved into the north quarters of Ninna-ji Temple. I went there and met the eminent priest Kengen. The moon was bright, and I composed the following poem:

kakaru yo ni
kage mo kawarazu
sumu tsuki o
miru waga mi sae
urameshiki kana       1316

Times when unbroken
gloom is over all our world…
above which still
presides the ever-brilliant moon:
sight of it casts me down more.

Did a worry that society might be falling into chaos and barbarism prompt Saigyō to register the note of distress that follows?

After Retired Emperor Sutoku had gone to Sanuki and not much was heard in society any longer about poetry, I wrote the following and sent it to the monk Jakunen:

koto no ha no
nasake taetaru
orifushi ni
ariau mi koso
kanashikarikere        1317

Grievous fate: to find
you’ve come to live at that
juncture in time
when gatherings of refined poets
are a custom just become…extinct.

Perhaps Saigyō’s concern here was compounded by the fact that he only recently had been receiving increased attention for his own verse. The following had been included in the Shikawaka-shū (Verbal Flowers Collection of Waka) that had been ordered by Sutoku. Fujiwara Akisuke, the editor, finished it in 1151. Saigyō’s poem, which follows, pursues one of his favorite themes, the paradoxes and problems associated with “throwing away the world,” and appeared without his name attached. Although anonymity would have been in keeping with the theme, we can nonetheless be quite sure that Saigyō would have been gratified to see his own work now being included within imperial anthologies.

mi o sutsuru
hito wa makoto ni
sutsuru ka wa
sutenu hito koso
sutsuru narikeri        2169 [372 in Shikawaka-shū]

So, then, it’s the one
who has thrown his self away
who is thought the loser?
But he who cannot lose self
is the one who is really lost.

Concerning this poem Kobayashi Hideo, perhaps Japan’s premier literary critic in the twentieth century, wrote:

A poem such as this is a conceptual one, looking like it borrowed the dialectal grammatical structures of Buddhist texts…. Saigyō, making the paradox in a poem such as this into a reliable source for poetry, was opening totally new territory, a place no one had entered before.

The “conceptual” dimension recognized by Kobayashi does not, however, mean that the content was alien to Saigyō’s emotional experience. In fact, this and somewhat similar poems of the time bring to the surface the kind of deep struggle this monk-poet was having in attempting to grasp what it might mean for him to both reject ordinary society and, at the same time, remain attached to the prospects for social recognition of his obvious poetic skills. Additional affirmation of the latter had come in 1155, the year before “a great calamity shook society,” when the poem he had written about “the guardhouse at famed Shirakawa gate,” translated above, was selected for inclusion in a private waka collection, the Goyōwaka-shū (Later Leaves of Waka Collection). This time the poem was clearly attributed to him.


During this period Saigyō, based at Mount Kōya but traveling freely as well, saw a need to comment not only on the larger trajectory of his times but also to offer advice to specific individuals. The dispatch of his own poems to persons he knew, even if by long distance, let him play the role of priest as well as friend. For instance, deaths in the Tokudaiji family to which he had early been so close, prompted him to write the following in 1161, advising Kin’yoshi to take the tonsure and become a monk. Saigyō himself was fortyfour at the time.

During the period of mourning for his father, Tokudaiji Kin’yoshi’s mother died as well. Having heard of this, I sent the following in condolence to him from Mount Kōya:

kasane kiru
fuji no koromo o
tayori nite
kokoro no iro o
someyo to zo omou   856

One on another
wisteria robes of mourning
ever deeper
suggest you might now dye
your life in the dharma’s depth.

I received the following response from Tokudaiji Kin’yoshi

kasanuru iro wa
asaki kokoro no
shimanu hakanasa    857

The color of my
garments may have deepened,
but my mind
is still shallow, pale,
unfit for such a step.

If Saigyō interpreted a lull in the courtiers’ poetic activities as a personal misfortune, there were other things consequent to the Hōgen Disturbance that he surely would have viewed as the onset of some kind of cultural and societal nightfall. For instance, almost immediately after their attempted coup, at least seventeen of Sutoku’s supporters were killed in cold blood. This effectively put an end to what for three and a half centuries had been a ban on any capital punishment in the capital. And, as if to underscore the irony, policies such as the restoration of this punishment were pushed hardest by a man, Fujiwara Michinori (1106–60), who held office as Counselor of State even though he had been tonsured as a monk with the Buddhist name Shinzei. Kubota notes:

To the courtiers in the capital, due to things like the outbreak of violence and the use of capital punishment on a large scale as advocated by Shinzei, it certainly seemed that a totally new epoch had been entered into. They noted as much in what they wrote in what were to become the historical records of the time.

Then, as if the point needed further emphasis, another bloody incident took place in the capital and surrounding areas in 1159, the Heiji Disturbance. It involved some of the warriors who were to figure largely in the pitched, protracted war between the Taira and Minamoto families during the 1180s. Although some institutional historians have recently suggested that the latter half of the twelfth century is too early a time to see epochal changes in Japanese society and have played down the impact of the Hōgen and Heiji Disturbances, within works written by persons living through those events, a perception of deep societal changes currently underway is clearly revealed.

Saigyō, perhaps more than any other, registered that perception in the poetry and prose he wrote between 1156 and his death in 1190. It is the verse of a man who, in spite of being a monk, remains keenly aware of what is happening within ordinary society and for the most part sees that society embarking on a downward slide. This too was probably linked to his conviction that things are not what they seem and that ironies abound. Being somewhat detached, both physically and socially, from the very center of things was not a bad way to see them more clearly. This appears to be why he wrote a poem such as the following:

haruka naru
iwa no hazama ni
hitori ite
hitometsutsu made
mono omowabaya     2079 [1099]

space, so far from everything
that here I’m all alone:
a place where none can view me
but I can review all things.

The impulse to put distance between himself and the capital resulted in another journey, this time westward and on to the island of Shikoku. At age fifty-one he departed with a sense that he might never return. It had been exactly twenty-eight years since his tonsure. Before leaving the capital he wrote:

Just as had always been so, I continued to go to the Kamo Shrine even after becoming a monk. Now at an advancing age, I was about to pilgrimage to Shikoku, thinking that I may never return. So I made a night visit to this shrine on the tenth day of the tenth month of 1168. I wanted to present a votive request. But since I was wearing the clothes of a Buddhist monk and could not go inside the shrine, I requested someone to present it on my behalf. Through the trees the light of the moon was filtering softly, so that the atmosphere of the place was even more sacred than usual, and I was deeply moved. I wrote this:

shide ni namida no
kakaru kana
mata itsuka wa to
omou aware ni          1181

Awe is what fills me
as my tears fall onto the sacred
branch I here present:
my feelings are of someone
wondering if he’ll ever return.

This journey was to result in very important poetry. Part of its purpose was to pay homage to two persons who, although now dead, had been important to Saigyō. The first was Retired Emperor Sutoku, who, after his exile to Sanuki Province on Shikoku in 1156, had died in 1164, four years prior to Saigyō’s journey. Arriving at this place the former emperor had purportedly lived, Saigyō wrote:

Having come to Sanuki, I was at a place called the Cove of Matsuyama. I looked around for the exact location where the Retired Emperor had resided, but no trace of his earlier presence could be found.

matsuyama no
nami ni nagarete
koshi fune no
yagate munashiku
narinikeru kana        1444

The ship he was on
crossed the waves to Matsuyama
and then suddenly
disappeared—as he too slipped
down below our horizon.

The best-known of his verses written during this journey was recycled later into the Hōgen Monogatari, a war tale likely composed during the next century, and in Matsuyama Tengu, a Noh drama. It was:

I was performing a service at [Sutoku’s] gravesite at Shiramine.

yoshiya kimi
mukashi no tama no
yuka totemo
kakaran nochi wa
nanika wa sen           1446

Let it be, my lord.
Surely this is nothing
like the jewel-floored
palaces of your past, but can
anything alter what’s occurred?

Addressed to the deceased monarch, one can detect in this poem a desire to console and pacify his spirit. It seems there was already a growing concern that the resentful and restless spirit of Sutoku, who not only had been shamed by exile but also had died in a distant location without the requisite Buddhist funerary rites, might have been causing a spate of calamities in the capital. Cameron Hurst notes: “As in the case of all unsettled political situations in traditional Japan, the chronicles record an unusual number of natural calamities and portents for the period: fires, comets, pestilence, and the like. The physical violence that had come to characterize life in the capital continued unabated.”

Concern about this became increasingly acute over the years, so much so that in 1171 an effort was made to appease Sutoku’s aggrieved spirit through public remembrance of him, even on the part of his former foes. The Saigyō poem just quoted figures significantly into this. Accompanied by this monk’s provision of proper rituals of condolence and consolation at the gravesite, the poem in effect counsels the raging royal spirit to become pacific and at rest. If it is correct that the date for this action is 1168, then it appears that Saigyō was doing this because there were already reports of Sutoku’s anger causing troubles in the capital. Alternatively, his composition of this poem, especially after it became known to others, may, in fact, have been the origin of society’s growing concern that something had to be done to honor and appease the exiled ruler. In either case, this verse has considerable historical importance.

The poems he wrote about Sutoku’s exile and sorry fate are strongly worded. They hint at the unjust treatment befallen him, yet at the same time speculate whether one of whom he had felt so fond might nevertheless have committed serious moral misdeeds. Was his fate a karmic consequence of past behavior?

Though his poems offer no direct proof, Saigyō was decidedly not in thrall to notions of a charmed life enjoyed by members of the imperial court. Were these later verses the fruit of further reflection upon his days as Norikiyo? Even in poems exchanged with courtiers back in the capital or with former courtiers who themselves had now taken the tonsure, his tone, while not that of a jeremiad, is straightforward. “People-who-lived-above-clouds” was one of the usual euphemisms for members of the imperial court. But negative karma, Saigyō suggests, was accumulating. And there would be prices to pay.

Within a set of six poems, perhaps from this period, on the topic of the six tiers of existence within Buddhist cosmology, Saigyō wrote of the imperial courtiers as belonging within the category of “heavenly beings”—that is, above ordinary humans, bellicose titans, animals, hungry ghosts, and creatures in hell. Yet, contrary to most courtier poets’ endless celebration of their own sensitivities as justifying the “good life” they led, Saigyō adheres to traditional Buddhist teaching on this matter. His poem warns that life for them in their heavenly palaces is ephemeral, and descent through the states of existence happens easily and quickly.

Concerning Heavenly Beings

kumo no ue no
tanoshimi tote mo
kahi zo naki
sate shimo yagate
sumishi hateneba     984

The above-the-clouds
life is surely joy itself
but tempered
by knowing life even there
cannot go on forever.

But our account needs to return to what transpired during his journey to Shikoku. The second person whose memory he wished to honor there was Kūkai, the early Japanese transmitter of esoteric or tantric Buddhism and the founder of Japan’s Shingon School. The fact that Kūkai seems to have been the only early “founder” figure to whom Saigyō paid such deep respect suggests that, although fairly eclectic in his approach to Buddhist teachings and practices, he felt a special affinity for Kūkai, the monastery on Mount Kōya that he founded, and the Shingon School in general. In any case, there is a sharp contrast between the poet’s sadness in remembering Sutoku and his encounter with places sacred to the memory of Kūkai. The latter are strikingly positive, even ecstatic. Take, for instance, the following, in which Saigyō refers to Kūkai with the honorific title “Kōbō Daishi” (Great Teacher Kōbō).

I was in the province of Sanuki and in the mountains where Kōbō Daishi had once lived. While there, I stayed in a hut I had woven together out of grasses. The moon was especially bright and, looking in the direction of the [Inland] Sea, my vision was unclouded.

kumori naki
yama nite umi no
tsuki mireba
shima zo kōri no
taema narikeru         1447

Cloudfree mountains
encircle the sea, which holds
the reflected moon:
this transforms islands into
emptiness holes in a sea of ice.

The fact that Saigyō was positioned high enough to look down on an array of smaller islands, themselves in a sea formed within two much larger islands, is the positional starting point for this extraordinary poem. But Saigyō does not so much record the natural beauty as turn what he sees into a transmogrified vision. The state of his mind appears to be ecstatic—perhaps because the nexus with Kūkai has begun to suggest to him that what lies before his eyes is not unlike a mandala brought into being by natural forms. The unparalleled brightness of the moon creates an unusual limpidity in the poet’s mind, resulting in a mode of visual and mental play. Suddenly the waters of the sea seem transformed into a massive plane of ice, and the islands therein seem no longer convex but now concave. Their darkened presence within the space of the glistening span of the sea makes them appear as holes within a vast sheet of ice. And taema, the last line’s word for “interstice” or “hole,” is sufficiently resonant with the Buddhist notion of sunyata or “emptiness” that this word insinuates into the poem a motif of higher-level unity of things that had looked separate on lower levels. The poem is, in the best sense of that word, “metaphysical.” But that it has a cerebral dimension does not mean it was not rooted in profound and ecstatic experience. The natural setting undergoes a kind of beatification here.


How to cite this document:
© William R. LaFleur, Awesome Nightfall (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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