Here is a poem by Saigyo (1118-1190), one of Japan's greatest poets, also reckoned a saint. He was an independent Buddhist practitioner who spent much time travelling or in retreat, often at Mount Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism and later near to the Ise Shrine. He believed in honji-suijaku, the idea that the Shinto Gods were manifestations of celestial Buddhas, the supreme Goddess Amaterasu being a form of Vairochana Buddha, and so on. He came from a samurai family and initially trained as a warrior but became disenchanted with court life with all its hypocrisy and double dealing. One thread running through his life was his inner struggle with the karma of his earlier life before he became a monk. Another was his observation of the steady degeneration of Japanese society into civil war during his lifetime. His exquisite poetry reveals sensitivity to people in all ranks of society, a fair amount of irony in his social comment, modest self-reflection, and a strong sense of the identity of Buddhism and nature.

Snow has fallen on
field paths and mountain paths
burying them all,
and I can't tell here from there:
my journey in the midst of sky.

Here Saigyo is telling us literally about one of his many stays alone in the mountains, passing the winter in retreat in a hut. At the same time he is telling us about his inner struggle to know what is right and where to go, what to do with his life. The poem manages to suggest two completely different extremes all at once - a person directionless and lost and a person living the ideal life of complete nonattachment, as free as a cloud in the sky. We can imagine that Saigyo passed much of his life poised on this cusp.

Many people tend to think that when a person is enlightened, they have no more uncertainties, no more worries or loneliness, that they are happy all the time and have the answer to everything. When one is a Buddhist teacher one can be surprised to find that others are projecting such an image upon one. Saigyo, however, illustrates a rather different way of illumination - a path that is at once rigorous yet totally human.

Reference: LaFleur W.R. 2003 Awesome Nightfall: The life, times and poetry of Saigyo. Sommerville MA: Wisdom Books

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beautiful... what a gift.... to express so much wisdom in such a strong and simple image, this beautiful poem, so clear and so much dept.


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