Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Awesome Nightfall - Preface

The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyō


“Free and easy wandering” designates an appealing way of life according to Chuang tzu, but it is, in fact, a path that few have entered either freely or easily. Saigyō’s life was too difficult to be so designated, even though it included several extended journeys. After he died, his contemporaries praised him for having shown that the life of a Buddhist monk can be fully compatible with a dedication to writing poetry. Proving this, however, involved a lifelong, often painful, struggle. The real Saigyō was not quite as reclusive as later portraits made him out to be. He lived in horrific times and could not easily tear his attention away from what was going on. And he obviously struggled with internal demons—related to sex, to worries about the karmic imprint of his warrior past, to anxiety about loss of social visibility through taking the tonsure, and to certain items he successfully kept concealed from all later generations.

Pithy phrases that fused the “way of poetry” with “the Way of Buddha” were common in twelfth-century Japan and had a certain caché. But Saigyō realized that to test their validity required putting the whole of a life into the experiment—and with an outcome far from certain. And he knew it had to be a life intentionally disconnected from the lives of contemporaries, friends, even lovers—that is, persons who, even though themselves poets, were not engaged in precisely this experiment.

Thirty years ago, when I was just beginning to study this poet, there was a perceptible dry spell within Japanese scholarship on Saigyō. The idealized image of this poet had cracked, but there was little yet to take its place. The principal students of Japanese literature in North America were coldshouldering him. My mentor at the University of Chicago, the late Joseph M. Kitagawa, however, maintained that study of this twelfth-century monk could be as fine an aperture into medieval Japanese Buddhism as one might find. And then Masao Abe, a philosopher of Zen, graciously introduced me to the late Professor Kitayama Masamichi, a student of Western literature who also had a profound grasp of medieval Japanese poetry. Reading and analyzing poem after poem together with Kiyatama, he genially badgered me. He was critical of what he had read in translation. “People both in Japan and in the West want a sweetened Saigyō,” he claimed and then went on to point out that Saigyō had a difficult life, lived through tempestuous times, and fought hard to find the exact nexus between Buddhism and poetry. More importantly, he insisted, even today’s Japanese readers, modern in their tastes, easily forget that Saigyō lived in a medieval episteme in which the claims of Buddhism were not to be taken lightly. If, in fact, the way of poetry were ultimately not compatible with his vows as a monk, Saigyō assumed that he had thrown more than this one, present life into jeopardy. He took the risks as real.

In 1978 I published Mirror for the Moon: A Selection of Poems by Saigyō (1118–1190), and, although well received, it strikes me now as a somewhat “sweeter” Saigyō than the one I have come to know and will try to represent here in Awesome Nightfall. A large factor in this difference is that the present book relates the poems to a fairly extensive account of the poet’s life. This is in part because Japanese scholarship on Saigyō has in recent decades not only provided much more detail about that life, but has, almost without exception, insisted that it is impossible to understand the specificity and beauty of Saigyō’s verse unless his commitment to the Buddhist path, often explicit but always implicit, is taken seriously. Now fortunately translated into English, the third volume of a history of Japanese literature by Jin’ichi Konishi, probably the twentieth century’s master scholar of that literature, makes this point about Saigyō abundantly clear. Readers of the present book may wish to compare my translations with the usually much more crisp and lean renderings of Saigyō by Burton Watson in his Poems of a Mountain Home.

Hoping to give the general reader unencumbered access to this portion of the Saigyō trove, I have put references and discussions of interest to specialists into pages at the book’s end, citing the page number and calling out the relevant passage. Because it incorporates poems by Saigyō found in the Kikigaki-shū and other sources and, moreover, does so in a conveniently numbered fashion, the Nihon koten zensho edition of the Sanka-shū edited by Itō Yoshio has been the edition I have followed. The number provided after the romanized version of each poem is in accord with that sequence. When a second number appears in brackets that is because the same poem or a variant form of it was selected for inclusion in an imperial collection, the Shinkokin-shū. The Saigyō zen-shū edited by Kubota Jun is a twelve-hundredpage treasury of variant Saigyō texts, prose items that he possibly authored, and works such as Noh plays built on his poetry that show how later ages honored him. Kubota’s work is a model we too should strive to someday imitate in this domain. Exactly why I have given this book the title I have will, I hope, become clear to the reader who goes with it all the way.

Poems here that originally appeared in Mirror for the Moon were greatly benefited by discussions of them with Gary Snyder. Thanks to an invitation from Koyama Hiroshi, I was able to spend a very profitable half year in 1990 at the Kokubungaku Shiryōkan in Tokyo, updating my own studies of Saigyō through contact with the preeminent scholars of this topic. Their work benefited me immensely. My debt to Matsuno Yōichi and Komine Kazuaki is especially large. Fruitful discussions of religion and literature in Japan with Richard Gardner have been a constant over the years. Students and colleagues both at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania have added much to the making of this book. I am grateful to David Kittelstrom for his enthusiasm for this project and his exemplary editing. Kayama Matazo and the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo graciously permitted use of his superb painting for the cover. And to Mariko and Kiyomi, who at times may have thought I too must have left the householder’s life (or at least its duties) in order to work on Saigyō, I express my deepest thanks of all.


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

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