Poetry / August 2009 (Issue 8)


Four Translated Poems

by Patrick Donnelly and Stephen D. Miller

SENT TO ÔE SUKEKUNI WHEN THE MOON WAS BRIGHT ON THE FIFTEENTH OF THE SECOND MONTH

the moon of evening
          hid
          behind the mountain edge

but the bright
          resonance—
          O, it leaves behind!

— Anonymous

Goshûishû 1183

          yama no ha ni
irinishi yowa no
          tsuki naredo
nagori wa mata ni
sayakekarikeri

By Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's passage into final Nirvana took place on a full-moon night on his eightieth birthday. Many Buddhists commemorate the event on the day of the full moon in February, or the fifteenth of February.




ON SEEING A SCREEN PAINTING OF A PRIEST SAILING INTO THE WEST FROM THE WESTERN GATE OF TENNÔ-JI

your voice singing

              amida butsu
                        
as your oar?

to row away

         across the sea
                   of sorrow?

                   — Minamoto no Toshiyori no Ason

Kin’yôshû 647/691

         amida bu to
tonauru koe o
         kaji ni te ya
kurushiki umi o
kogihanaruran

Commentaries refer to a ceremony or contemplative practice, possibly accompanied by chanting, in which people would gather (probably at the spring and autumn equinoxes) to contemplate the sun as it sank in the direction of Amida's Western Paradise. "Amida butsu" is a shortened version of the mantra namu amida butsu, used by Amida's devotees. This poem is by the compiler of the Kin'yôshû, the fifth imperial anthology.




WRITTEN WHEN THE AUTHOR SAW OIL OOZING OUT OF THE EARTH at Tanikumi in Mino, while making pilgrimage to the thirty-three sacred places of Kannon

because the Buddha
                               appeared as a shining
                                                                on the earth

this lamp too
                    has never
                                    gone dark

                   — Former Grand Archbishop Kakuchû

Senzaishû 1208/1211

           yo o terasu
hotoke no shirushi
           arikereba
mada tomoshibi mo
kienu narikeri




                            musn't signs
                  of the grudge they bore
        be seen in the heavens?

over "throw-the-old-woman-away" mountain
        moonlight shines

               — Fujiwara no Atsunaka

Senzaishû 1241/1244

          uramikeru
keshiki ya sora ni
          mietsuran
obasuteyama o
terasu tsukikage

The poem refers to the fact that old women were abandoned at Mt. Obasute in Japan (literally, "throw old woman away mountain"). It also subtly refers to the Buddha's maternal aunt, referred to in the "Fortitude" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, whose name is left out when the Buddha says who shall attain supreme enlightenment. After this omission—in response to the aunt gazing at the Buddha fixedly—he promises her that she will indeed achieve buddhahood in an age to come.

 

 

NOTES ON THE POEMS, AUTHORS & TRANSLATIONS

Between the early 10th century and the 15th century, the Japanese emperors ordered the compilation of twenty-one anthologies of poetry, each of which contained anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand poems. These translations are of Buddhist-themed poems (shakkyô-ka) from the Goshûishû (1086), Kin'yôshû (1124 - 1127), and Senzaishû (1183 - 1188), respectively the fourth, fifth and seventh anthologies.

Minamoto no Toshiyori no Ason (also known as Minamoto no Shunrai) was an active and influential waka poet from the middle of the eleventh to the beginning of the twelfth centuries. He participated in numerous poetry competitions at the Heian court, compiled the fifth imperial poetry anthology, produced an influential private collection of poems (more than twice as long as the imperial poetry anthology he compiled), and was partly responsible (along with his father) for introducing a new descriptive style to the writing of court poetry.

Former Grand Archbishop Kakuchû was born in 1118 and died in 1177. He became the Grand Abbot of Enryaku-ji Temple of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism and lived on Mt. Hiei near present-day Kyôto. Twelve of his poems are included in the imperial poetry anthologies.

Fujiwara no Atsunaka was a waka poet during the second half of the Heian period (794 - 1185). He has three poems in the imperial poetry anthologies.

Most of the poets in the imperial antholgies, even the poet-priests, were connected in some way either to the aristocracy or the imperial court, and would have lived in or near the capital Kyoto, then called Heian-kyô.

Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century, but because it was at first felt that literary pursuits and Buddhism might be mutually exclusive, it was several hundred years before poems began to be written on Buddhist themes. Once the conceptual barriers were surmounted, the writing of poems, especially Buddhist poems, actually developed into a recognized path to enlightenment. Gradually such poems began to be included in the imperial anthologies.

The compilers of the anthologies, in addition to arranging the poems under thematic headings like seasons, love, grief, travel, etc., gave many poems a short prose preface. These prefaces, which addressed the poems' thematic content or the occasions of their composition, are now considered aesthetically inseparable from the poems. In our translations, to join preface to poem in a way analogous to English poetry, we've presented prefaces as titles.

The Japanese originals of these poems (like most poems in the imperial anthologies) are waka, the thirty-one-syllable form that was primary in Japanese poetics for over a millennium.

 
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