Saigyo (1118-1190) was a wandering poet monk in Japan. He is one of the most famous Japanese poets. He wrote more than fifteen hundred poems, many of which became famous. His poetry reflects his life as a rather solitary wanderer, often spending the winter in the mountains in a thatched hut far from civilisation.
The name Saigyo means “westward journey”. The implication is “travelling toward Sukhavati, the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha” since Sukhavati (J. Jodo) is said to be “in the west”. Saigyo was not closely affiliated to any particular school of Buddhism, though he was quite fond of Shingon.
His poetry had a strong influence upon poetic style in Japan. His free expression of emotion, his willingness to deal with mundane as well as approved subjects, his terse style that packs a lot of meaning into very few words, and his mastery of the “yugen” mood of bitter-sweetness, all provided a model that liberated poetic expression.
He writes of love, longing, and loneliness, he paints word pictures of mountain and snow scenes, and he describes fragments of his life. He lived in times when the political order was breaking down. The power of the emperors waned and there was civil war. Eventually a military government was established at Kamakura, beginning a new period of Japanese history.
He came from an upper class military family and at a young age was part of the emperor’s elite guard troop, but at the age of twenty-two he gave it up and became a Buddhist monk, turning away from the secular world which was in increasing chaos and decline. The Japanese of that time believed that Mappo, the final stage in the decline of the Dharma, had started, according to their calculation, in the year 1052. In the period of Mappo, the only hope of salvation was to turn to Amida Buddha.
by a rocky shore,
winds blowing wildly,
in a boat unmoor -
such is our condition
Saigyo adopted a life in which his spiritual practice included pilgrimage, visiting many shrines, both Buddhist and Shinto, as well as writing poetry, interspersed with periods of mountain asceticism. Here is a poem that he wrote on one of his travels when visiting the shrine of Tsukiyomi, the Shinto goddess of the moon.
Shining from the sky
over the tall peak
of Eagle Mountain,
the groves of Tsukiyomi
filtering, softening its rays.
There is a lot encoded in this little poem. The sky is associated with shunyata, the Buddhist principle of emptiness, that also has an association with heaven. Eagle Mountain is the location in India where Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is widely taken, in Japan, to be the quintessential Buddhist Sutra - the Bible of Japanese Buddhism. So beyond the simple celebration of the beauty of a moonlit night at the Moon goddess’ shrine, there is here the philosophy of honji suijaku according to which the gods and goddesses of Shinto were emanations of the celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Buddhism. This was a philosophy that reconciled and somewhat merged the two religions. Buddhism generally does not regard local religions as heresies to be eliminated, but rather as steps on the way to the Dharma, or, as Saigyo is indicating here, ways of making the sublime and ultimate teachings of Buddhism more accessible to ordinary folk.
A poem of Saigyo’s that became famous is
Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month.
Now, the full moon of Kisaragi was, according to Japanese belief, the date of Nehan, the anniversary of the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, so this poem is saying, let me die close to the same day as the Buddha. Spring is a time of new life when everything is awakening. In Buddhism, there is a certain association between death and spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakening is a kind of dying to the crazy world, just as Saigyo himself had given it all up. The poem became doubly famous when, many years later, Saigyo did indeed die on the day after Nehan.
The translations of Saikyo poems in this piece are from Burton Watson's book Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home published by Columbia University Press, New York 1991.