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Book Review: Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude

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There are many unique features of Japanese Buddhism: the union of the tea ceremony with temple aesthetics, the fire rituals (Skt: homa) that survive in the Shingon tradition, the comfort that Jizo Bosatsu (the Japanese manifestation of Ksitigarbha) provides to women who have had abortions or suffered the loss of a child, or the preservation of Tang dynasty architecture in the Buddhist landmarks of Kyoto. The list goes on. But one of the most important literary exports of Japanese Buddhism is its poet-monks—generations of figures who blur the boundaries between the literary and the religious, the human with the transcendent. Saigyo (1118–90) is one exemplar of this tradition, and his beloved poems have an eloquent poignancy carrying deeply important truths about the world and the cosmos. Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude is the newest translation of works by Saigyo by Meredith McKinney, an award-winning translator of Japanese literature.

The unique literary heritage of Japan’s poet-monks makes this new translation of Saigyo’s poems one of Shambhala Publications’ most enjoyable releases this year. As with any historical literary figure on whom we are fortunate to have documentation, Saigyo is introduced as both a character on his own terms and as an author with a unique message that is at once fresh yet timeless.

In this new iteration of Saigyo’s tankas (poetry structured in 31 syllables in 5/7 syllable units), McKinney says that she has made “no attempt to replicate the Japanese syllabic rhythm, relying instead on sound and stress patterns to lift the language toward poetry” (xvii). She has also adopted a methodology of allowing the original language to speak for itself through the translation. In her words:

Tanka also make frequent use of linguistic and syntactical ambiguity, where a word or phrase can be interpreted in several ways or serves to connect and ‘hinge’ the two parts of the poem, adding depth and complexity. Although this technique can seldom be directly reproduced in translation, I have tried to use subtle syntactical ambiguity and repetition where possible to achieve a similar effect. (xvi–xvii)

She therefore tries to allow the poems to speak for themselves as much as possible. The translator is inevitably a subjective reader as well, and Saigyo’s ambiguity invites personal interpretation and immersion. McKinney’s translation attempts to be as “bare” as possible with this ambiguity, seeking to stick to the “connection” and “hinge” that the author intended, and doing nothing more.     

In this book, the poems are grouped by theme. Each section opens with some contextual background from the translator. These themes are technically a poetic creation by McKinney. They fall under headings such as “Reclusion,” “Finding,” and “Awaiting Death,” and give some contours to the life of Saigyo, while illuminating the thinking behind his poetry. McKinney notes:

One thing we can say with certainty is that central to his belief, and to his poetic preoccupations, was the great Buddhist teaching of impermanence and the resultant folly of attachment to the things of this world. (xii)

The thematic explanation is followed by the translations of several poems relevant to said theme. Here is one example, which the translator classifies as a poem about “Seeking”:

Wandering lost
here in this mountain village
in the mind’s dark delusions
now a sudden whiteness
in the wind’s sound

yamazato no
kokoro no yume ni
madoi-oreba
fuki-shiramakasu
kaze no oto ka na (64)

It is not uncommon for Saigyo to combine aural and visual imagery (“a sudden whiteness in the wind’s sound”), the act of which ties together a religious theme or existential motif. In her explanation of “Seeking,” McKinney writes:

Saigyō is renowned for his travels, which twice took him as far as the wilds of northern Japan at a time when such journeys were difficult and dangerous. Being ‘on the road (michi)’ was both a metaphor for dedication to the Way (michi) of Buddhism and an embodiment of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence and the need to relinquish all attachment. Arduous travel was thus in itself a form of Buddhist practice. (57)

In another poem, which is classed as one about “Looking,” McKinney attempts to capture the tumultuous grandeur of a crashing waterfall hurtling down a tall mountain.

Hearing
the surging waters
of this mountain torrent
I sense
the force of life’s onward rush

yamagawa no
minagiru mizu no
oto kikeba
semuru inochi zo
omoi-shiraruru (115)

This poem vividly captures not just a naturalistic interpretation of samsara or human joy and sorrow as an unstoppable torrent, but also of the natural world to which the author was so attuned. The union of Buddhist principles and nature is the core rubric of “Looking,” according to McKinney:

The courtly poetic tradition to which his poetry belonged took its imagery from the natural world and was deeply sensitive to the seasons and their many associated motifs (cherry blossoms in spring, flights of wild geese in autumn, etc.), but Saigyō brought to this poetry something distinctive—a clarity and depth that sprang from his lived experience. His acute eye was tempered by a warm intimacy and identification with the world he moved through, both animate and inanimate. (95)

One feels this same warmth, intimacy, and familiarity in McKinney’s translations. As with all his writing, his poetry about his own end is at once poignant and sad, but with characteristic fondness for one’s natural surroundings and the phenomenon of the cosmos, which are his ever-reliable companions.

When I lie at last
pillowed beneath the wormwood
I hope to have
the intimate song
of the little cricket by me

sono ori no
yomogi ga moto no
makura ni mo
kaku koso mushi no
ne ni wa mutsureme (123)    

Whimsical but profound, pious yet passionate, transcendent while yearning; Saigyo is only one of many monk-poets who have captured the imaginations and affections of contemporary readers. They are simultaneously inspiring yet arresting, simple at first glance but prompting deeper reflection shortly afterward. Gazing at the Moon invites engagement at two levels: every religious text is intertextual, and Saigyo’s poems are in turn based on these intertextual teachings found in the Mahāyāna sutras. This grants many of his poems a multilayered richness on top of the multiple layers of meaning that come from Saigyo’s own interior world.

Saigyo’s poems in this new volume are exquisite, and are, like any great literature, better described as a journey that can be experienced from its beginning to its end, from birth to death, from delusory life to enlightened existence. But if an enlightened being experiences past, present, and future as an eternally accessible present, we can perhaps do the same with his poetry, jumping to whichever tanka catches our mood in the moment, or moves us to reflect on an issue of existential import.

References

Saigyo. 2020. Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude. Trans. by Meredith McKinney. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.

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Meredith McKinney

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