This morning, as often on Fridays, we visited Oasis and gave a morning service there. I gave a Dharma talk based on the work of the great Japanese poet Saigyo. The name saigyo means "westward journey" and refers to the journey to the Pure Land, and, therefore, also to death.
Saigyo had a big influence upon Japanese poetry. He had a great ability to choose just the right word to evoke a wealth of allusion, meaning and sentiment so that a simple description of a natural phenomenon could give one a doorway into the soul. He also broke many of the 'rules' of Japanese poetry which specified the beautiful things one should write about - moonlight, cheery blossom and so on. Saigyo often managed to bring out the beauty of quite ordinary things or even those generally considered dull or ugly. Thus he hints at the presence of the Dharma in all experience.
One of his most notable poems, however, is the reverse. It mentions moonlight and cherry blossoms and is about death. It begins "I hope I die in springtime under the blossoming trees" and goes on to specify the full moon of the second lunar month of the year, which is the anniversary of the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. It caused some sensation when in 1190 he actually did die on that date.
His poems are generally characterised by a quality known as 'yugen' - a kind of bitter-sweetness that encapsulates the contingency of worldly life while hinting at illumination beyond. One poem that I particularly like refers to ice that has been hard all winter in a crevice in the rocks just starting to melt and now, secretly, below the moss, seeking out a channel. On the face of it it is a wonderful little description of a purely natural phoneomenon - ice melting in early spring. At the same time one senses the allusion to spiritual awakening, the warmth of the Dharma melting one's frozen heart and the new exploration of life that is provoked by this hidden change of state.
Saigyo's writing is very human. One senses and shares his personal struggles, loneliness, nostalgia and moments of joy.
Sad, the haze in the meadow
where I pick young herbs
when I think
how it shrouds me
from the faraway past.
p.24 Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York 1991