Sanka: Saigyo's Mountain Home

The Japanese poet Saigyo (1118-1190) is a significant figure in the literary transition in medieval Japan to the poetic style of the tanka or waka and the shift in voice and imagery to new subject matter. He was also a Buddhist monk whose view of life and nature inspired his verse. And, not unexpectedly, Saigyo lived most of his life as a traveling mendicant and a hermit.

Burton Watson, his best translator into English, has summarized Saigyo precisely:

Saigyo - for a Japanese reader, the name evokes images of thatched-roofed retreats in isolated mountain settings, of a solitary traveler over distant roads, a Buddhist poet-priest who in his works celebrated both the beauty and the evanescence of the phenomenal world, and was not ashamed to confess his unending passion for blossoming cherries and the moon in the night sky.

Saigyo's most important collection of poems is the Sankashu or "Mountain Home Collection." The mountain home, which he sometimes calls "mountain village," is nothing but his hermit hut, and by extension, himself and the vision of life from the hermit's station. With no available chronology to date the poems it is not always possible to distinguish what Saigyo wrote at twenty-one -- when he quit the opportunities of secular life to enter a monastery -- and his late seventies, except occasional contextual clues about where he happens to be in his travels.

Saigyo traveled incessantly, partly supporting himself on his writing, but depending on friends, patrons, and alms to some degree. Often in his travels he built huts or simply occupied abandoned ones for his stay of months or years. His haunts were remote mountainous areas of Japan, sometimes near the sea, visiting temples and shrines on his journeys, staying with friends or acquaintances garnered from family, religious or literary ties. He returned to a monastery temple to reside shortly before his death. Saigyo's biography anticipates the travels and versifying of Basho and the kindness, sentimentality, and simplicity of Ryokan.

Saigyo is best in the quiet observation of nature from his "mountain home." In a spring poem he entitles "The Bush Warbler Idling," he compares himself to that reclusive bird.

Seeping through the haze,
the voice
of the bush warbler --
few people passing,
mountain village in spring.

Here is Saigyo's mountain hut and surroundings identifiable with the poet himself: the spring haze dissipates with a sudden insight like a bird call, but the bird is Saigyo, alone , like the bird, in his secluded hut.

Similarly, we can hear the gentle rains of spring and glimpse the poet's frame of mind attending to the sounds he evokes:

Curtained by spring showers
pouring down
from the eaves,
a place where someone lives,
idle, idle, unknown to others.

However, visual images and fragrances dominate Saigyo's depiction of spring. He epitomizes the aesthetic culture of Japan in his love of cherry blossoms, which he extols in many poems. He speaks of his "passion" for cherry blossoms, his expeditions on Mount Yoshino to view them, and how his heart is there on the mountain at spring even when he is many miles away. He would gladly give up the night at spring for blossom-viewing all day, he wrote in one poem, while giving up daytime for night in autumn to enjoy moon-watching.

If only I could
divide myself,
not miss a single tree
see the blossoms at their best
on all ten thousand mountains!

Of course, to see everything (on ten thousand mountains) is to enjoy omnipresence, like the Buddha. At the same time, Saigyo sees the blossoms as an aspect, however beautiful, of nature and its inevitabilities.

Gazing at them,
I've grown so very close
to these blossoms;
tp part with them when they fall
seems bitter indeed!

Saigyo also writes of azaleas, violets, and the kerria rose: all features of spring in his solitary travels.

Although Saigyo is descriptive in his poetry, there is a strong personal element that reveals his sensitive and melancholic nature. His settings and sentiments contributed to the mood of sabi or solitude unique to Japanese aesthetics, but it was also the product of personal experience. His abrupt abandonment of the secular world at age twenty-one has often been ascribed to disappointment in love:

What else
could have made me
loathe the world?
The one who was cruel to me
today I think of as kind.

He is melancholic, and identifies his lonely hermit hut likewise, but tempered by the spirituality of his beliefs.

If I can find
no place fit to live,
let me live "no place" --
in this hut of sticks
flimsy as the world itself.

While at Mount Koya, Saigyo composed a series of poems, each beginning with the phrase "yama fukami" -- "so remote the mountain." Some of the images depict particular moments in his hermit hut: the autumn leaves of the sumac branches are the only callers to break his tedium ... a monkey chatters while sitting on a moss carpet ... birdsong is infrequent in his high elevation ... horse chestnuts plop from the trees when he fetches water from the mountain stream ... deer walk right up to him, fearless of a human.

Summer is as reflective as autumn, each season offering its own perspective on sound. Compare first the summer poem, followed by autumn.

Staring blankly
at the drops
from rafter ends,
hardly getting through the days --
fifth month rainy season.

How lonely, the light of the moon
filtering into my hut,
the only sound, the clackers
that shoo away birds
in the mountain paddies.

The hermit poet does not offer specific details about his huts. Instead we view nature and the universe through his eyes and heart, as if peering through his hut window or sitting on a rock in front of his door.

Autumn evokes vivid images. The conventions of crickets, chrysanthemums, pampas grass, marsh birds, and changing foliage are all used masterfully.. But most striking is Saigyo's expression of emotions for the beginning and end of that season. The following poemns use the wind.

Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they awaken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

A mountain village
at autumn's end --
that is when you learn
what mournfulness means
in the blast of the wintry wind.

Autumn, of course, represents the maturation of living things, and presages their decline and demise. Yet it is the most beautiful season. The conept of sabi is well reprented here.

Saigyo openly expresses the sense of loneliness that the hermit's life sometimes entails. It is not a subjective melancholy nor a condition to avoid or deny. Rather, Saigyo's sense of solitude is based on his observation of the cycles of nature, his personal experience (alluded to above), and the climate of political and social chaos in Japan in his day (he was contemporaneous with Kamo no Chomei, who chronicled the natural  and human disasters of the time). As a poet in a long tradition of reflective style, Saigyo masterfully crafts a mingling of elements to reflect his vocation as a hermit.

Solitude must be cultivated, Saigyo seems to tell us, but the moment it is appreciated occurs as a serendipitous coincidence of nature and self.

How timely
the delight of
this snowfall,
obliterating the mountain trail
just when I wanted to be alone!

Here is a delicate trembling of spirit open to the deep reality before him, a reality others would easily miss. His poetry reflects the sense of sudden and unexpected insight. It  reflects his Buddhism, as he revels in a universe of meaning in each moment. Here is one of the more famous moments often cited by observers of Saigyo as typical:

Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness --
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipes fly up.

Elsewhere, Saigyo tells how a stag's cry "brings tears welling up."

For this hermit, the hut is his teacher and his universe, a universe of solitude.

The loneliness
of my ramshackle
grass hut,
where no one but the wind
comes to call.


Who lives there,
learning such loneliness? --
mountain village
where rains drench down
from an evening sky.

Despite his travels, his patrons, and his poet-friends, Saigyo was a solitary, whose solitude had taught him all that was essential in life -- and all that was necessary for the coming of winter.

Is it time now
for peaceful death?
Accept the thought
and at once
the mind replies, "Oh yes!"