‘Banji wa yume’….Saigyo, Samurai Poet-Priest

My beautiful picture

This is a very little of Saigyo, the Heian-era priest and poet. Reading, studying Saigyo is like falling into the rim of the Universe: you have no idea where you will land nor what you will learn. But the trip will profoundly change you.

In “Mirror For the Moon”, a collection of translations by William LaFleur of Saigyo, one gets the idea that Saigyo transcended the usual route, the accepted and comfortable route of poet/priests of that era. This is continued on in “Awesome Nightfall” by Lafleur.

Saigyo’s poetry had an ‘edge’, a difference: his view of blossoms, moon, nature, was not just the usual symbol of evanescence and youthful beauty: his view of blossoms, nature, were more a path into the inner depth of this relationship between humanity and nature. He spent 50 years walking the mountains, road, forests, fields all over Japan and his poetry (waka) reflected his deep understanding of the physicality of nature: all seasons were felt and experienced not from the safety and comfort of a court, surrounded by other silk-clad courtier/poets, but out there in the trenches of nature. His poetry is fomented in the cold and penetrating fall and spring rains, the slippery paths upon mountain trails, the ‘grass pillows’ and a thin cloak, the deep chill of winter snows upon a mountain, the rising mists that befuddle orientation, and especially, the loneliness of traveling without companionship.

Saigyo became a poet/priest, but before that he was and came from a samurai family. He was, at the age of 22, a warrior. He was also a member of a personal guard for some high ranking Prince at court. These young men had to have a certain stature, and were eye candy. He struggled with his past in his long years of travel, wondering how this former life impacted on his religious vows. His poetry reflects this issue.

I have begun to re-acquaint myself with Saigyo and his poetry, having first come across his poems in 1990. There is something so profound, different, that calls down the centuries to the heart. His poetry awakens my awe and wonder of not only nature-in-the-flesh, but in the commonality of the human experience.

Lady Nyo

(These two poems below might be ones from Saigyo’s “Seeing the Pictures in a Hell-Screen”)

There’s no gap or break
in the ranks of those marching
under the hill:
an endless line of dying men,
coming on and on and on….

The river of death
is swollen with bodies
fallen into it;
in the end of the bridge
of horses cannot help.

Not a hint of shadow
On the moon’s face….but now
A silhouette passes–
Not the cloud I take it for,
But a flock of flying geese.

Thought I was free
Of passions, so this melancholy
Comes as surprise:
A woodcock shoots up from marsh
Where autumn’s twilight falls.

Someone who has learned
How to manage life in loneliness:
Would there were one more!
He could winter here on this mountain
With his hut right next to mine.

Winter has withered
Everything in this mountain place:
Dignity is in
Its desolation now, and beauty
In the cold clarity of its moon.

When the fallen snow
Buried the twigs bent by me
To mark a return trail,
Unplanned, in strange mountains
I was holed up all winter.

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 I huddle, alone,
In the mountain’s shadow, needing
Some companion somehow:
The cold, biting rains pass off
And give me the winter moon.

(I love this one especially: Saigyo makes the vow to be unattached to seasons, to expectations, but fails and embraces his very human limitations)

It was bound to be!
My vow to be unattached
To seasons and such….
I, who by a frozen bamboo pipe
Now watch and wait for spring.

(Love like cut reeds:)

Not so confused
As to lean only one way:
My love-life!
A sheaf of field reeds also bends
Before each wind which moves it.

(And Love like fallen leaves….)

Each morning the wind
Dies down and the rustling leaves
Go silent: Was this
The passion of all-night lovers
Now talked out and parting?

Next of my own
it would be good to have
another’s shadow
cast here in the pool of moonlight
leaked into my hut of bamboo grass.

And because it’s Spring…..a few more poems (tanka) from Saigyo. These for Bren and Gay.

“The Plum Tree at My Mountain Hut”

Take note.
the plum by my rustic hedge
halted in his tracks
a total stranger
who happened by.

How the owner
must hate it
when the wind blows,
though over here, pure joy
in the fragrance of the plum

“Azaleas on a Mountain Trail”

Moving from rock to rock,
I clutch at azaleas,
but not to pick them–
on these steep slopes
I count on them far a handhold

From “Mirror For the Moon”, and “Awesome Nightfall” A Selection of Poems by Saigyo (1118-1190) and “Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home”, translated by Burton Watson

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “‘Banji wa yume’….Saigyo, Samurai Poet-Priest”

  1. moondustwriter Says:

    Beautiful reflections Jane
    ah the joy of spring’s fragrance


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Sweetie!
    Yes, this morning with the peach blossoms waving around comes a few snow flurries. I have missed snow this year, (and last) and grieve that we here in the South will never see it again. but every winter their is hope at least for a little snow.

    Thank you, Moondustwriter for reading and your comment. Saigyo is for all seasons, neh?

    Lady Nyo


  3. brian miller Says:

    really wonderful introduction…his tale up front, and desire to find those connections as well…not assuming the usual symbolism but finding his one…really interesting poetry too…i think the second one speaks to me the most…love like cut reeds and fallen leaves…and everything in between….


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Brian!

    Isn’t Saigyo amazing?! He speaks directly to the heart and the common heart at that. No silk-robed priest or court poet was he! He embraced Nature from living amongst the harshest elements.

    Every time I go back to him, I want to…linger. He speaks so directly to us from over the distance of 1000 years.

    Glad you liked the introduction. I could have gone on and on, as River and Gay well know. LOL! He is a fascinating man of history. And a poet to study.

    Thank you, Brian, for reading and your comment. You might like the previous post, Chapter 23 of “The Kimono”. I was told it would make a strong man cry. LOL!

    Lady Nyo


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: