Inspiration from Early Japanese Poetry

By Bas Rijken van Olst 

Frequently nature or love are sources of inspiration for meditation on the beauty of life and being. Early Japanese poems with their mild wisdom have this power to inspire. The poets, however, have usually presented their insights in a more or less hidden way, and their poems can be read on two different levels: often they refer to everyday life, but they also contain a deeper meaning.

Japanese art has been profoundly influenced by Buddhist spirituality, which stresses the evanescence and illusory nature of material life. Buddhism first came to Japan in 538 A.D. and within a century it acquired prominence there as a religion. Many emperors were friendly towards it, some even becoming devout Buddhists themselves. Empress Suiko (592-628), for instance, proclaimed state patronage of Buddhism.

When Emperor Daigo ruled over Japan, from 897 to 930, he ordered an official collection of Japanese poems to be compiled. It must have been a tremendous work to choose the poems for this royal anthology, known as the Kokinshu. The final selection by the four compilers included 1,111 poems. This is the main source of the fragments given below. Ki no Tsurayuki, chief compiler of this royal anthology, also wrote a fictional poetic diary called Tosa Nikki in which he lets us know quite explicitly how central art is to life. The woman supposed to be writing the diary says: "I do not set down these words, nor did I compose the poem, out of mere love of writing. Surely both in China and Japan art is that which is created when we are unable to suppress our feelings" [Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell, The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, p. 7].

In the portion of Kokinshu that deals with love poems, it is evident that in the mind of the poet love, dream, and reality intermingle and are part of one large reality. In an exchange between the Ise Shrine Priestess and Narihira, the poetess writes (13:645):

My mind is dazzled --
Did you come to visit me?
Did I go to you?
Was our night a dream? Reality?
Was I sleeping? Or was I awake?

And Narihira answers:

Through the blackest shadow
Of the darkness of the heart I wander
In bewilderment --
You who know the world of love, decide:
Is my love reality or dream? -- [ibid., p. 29]

In Kokinshu the various stages of love affairs are represented from the first moment a man and woman meet until they part. Both life and love are ephemeral and they seem to be ever changing, like the sequence of the seasons. The four seasons take a prominent part in the Kokinshu collection, which is divided into twenty parts, six dealing with the seasons and five with love. The spring poems indicate the birth of new life and refer to the beauty of plum or cherry blossoms. Autumn poems have death and decay as their subject. In one section concerned with partings, we find reflections on the impermanence of outer form, in both nature and human relations. We can be consoled in our grief only if we stand back and discern the larger perspective of the whole cycle of all the seasons.

Spring is the season of hope, when the whole of nature renews itself. Seeing the fields burnt before the new crop was planted, Ise, consort of Emperor Uda, wrote:

If I consider
My body like the fields
Withered by winter,
Can I hope, though I am burnt,
That spring will come again? [Donald Keene, editor, Anthology of Japanese Literature, p. 79.]

Plum blossoms are an outer proof of life's inner beauty in this spring poem by Ki no Tomonori (Kokinshu, 1:38):

I am at a loss
To say to whom if not to you
I might show plum blossoms;
For such beauty and such fragrance
Only the best judge is a judge at all. [The Princeton Companion, p. 28.]

The next fragment, anonymous, is from an eighth century collection of poems called Man'Yoshu:

That you like me not
It may well be --
Yet will you not come
Even to see the orange tree
Abloom in my dooryard? [Anthology of Japanese Literature, p. 53.]

A sense of evanescence permeates the poetry of Japan, as in this old poem (also anonymous):

When they bloom they fall
When they do not bloom we yearn
For mountain cherry flowers . . . [The Princeton Companion p. 30.]

The importance of spring blossoms for the Japanese becomes apparent if we consider that Emperor Shomu (724-49) ordered the construction of the Temple of the Dharma Blossom (Hokkeji), the main temple of all provincial nunneries, the name of which contains this symbol of an ever renewing life, both spiritual and material.

In the Preface to the Kokinshu, Ki no Tsurayuki describes clearly his appreciation of Japanese poetry:

The poetry of Japan takes the human heart as seed and flourishes in the countless leaves of words. Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds, it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog that lives in the waters -- is there any living thing not given to song? It is poetry which, without exertion, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of gods and spirits invisible to the eye, softens the relations between men and women, calms the hearts of fierce warriors [ibid., p. 6].

Poetry is created following the cyclic patterns of nature or of the cosmos. From its source, the human heart, it flourishes like spring blossoms. In speaking about the human heart, we can conceive it as the poet's organ of emotions and feelings of warmth -- from it the words and poems radiate. We can also see the heart as the core or essence of man or humanity. We have unfolded from the seed which is our inner core; likewise, the words and sentences of Japan's poets have unfolded as the expressions of "the meditations of their hearts."

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)

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