Articles / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Let the Voices Speak

by Michael Tsang


Miller, Stephen D. (Author and Translator) and Patrick Donnelly (Translator), The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, Cornell University East Asia Program, 2013. 480 pgs.

The Wind from Vulture Peak provides an extraordinary combination of poetic sensibility and academic sophistication. As revealed in its subtitle, "The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period," the book examines the process by which Buddhist concepts, themes and scriptures gradually rose to prominence in the writing of Japanese waka—a traditional 31-syllabic poem from which the haiku was derived.

The book's central argument is that the rise of the Buddhist waka was not only evident in the number of waka written during the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE) but also in how compilers' arranged the poems within imperial anthologies as a means of exemplifying the Buddhist path to enlightenment. In this way, the Buddhist waka not only helped interpret scripture for the reader but also became a religious practice for the poet. This idea later became known as "waka-as-michi": the practice of Buddhism is through the path of waka. Yet, as Miller's research shows, the formation of waka-as-michi had to overcome several obstacles, the main one being that waka was originally viewed by Buddhist monks as a secular literary form of the Japanese imperial court. The book examines how Buddhist religious ideas and the writing of courtly waka were slowly reconciled, starting with the occasional waka on Buddhist subjects or concepts in the 8-10th centuries, through to the formation of a subgenre of Buddhist waka called the shakkyō-ka (waka explicating a Buddhist scripture) in the 11th century and finally to dedicated Buddhist waka anthologies in the 12th century.

Miller identifies the key moment when Buddhism and waka began to bridge epistemologically at the end of the 11th century when poets saw a similarity between kotodama—the idea that (poetic) words have magical power to transform the world—and a type of Buddhist speech called dhāranī, which is believed to provide salvific power to believers.

Apart from the many Buddhist concepts and sūtras, which may be difficult for the non-specialist to remember, the academic arguments of the book are easy to follow, owing to Miller's clean and straightforward language. But in this review, I will be mainly concerned with the translation of the waka poems, especially as they are ultimately used to enhance the persuasiveness of Miller's thesis. Instead of putting all the translations of a given waka anthology together, Miller often breaks up the anthologies into sequences that consist of a number of poems, around which he builds his arguments. Fortunately, he clearly identifies the sequences in the book, enabling readers to understand how the progression of themes within and between the sequences illustrates the numerous stages of the path to enlightenment.

Miller's interpretation of the poems is equally easy to understand most of the time—not only because his readings never lose sight of the holistic progression of Buddhist themes in the waka, but also thanks to his impressive knowledge of the poets' lives, the politics and history of the Japanese court and the background of many of the individual works and anthologies.

This detailed background is sometimes necessary to fully appreciate a poem, such as this one written by Princess Senshi:

[Shūishū 1337]

               for my sins

      I'm the turtle

in this hand-bath of the gods—


the raft of truth

      will never drift

                my way!

Here we hear the voice of a self-determined sinner lamenting the inaccessibility of the raft of truth. But to understand why the metaphor of a turtle is used, we must look to the Buddhist scripture called "Lotus Sūtra" for the story of a one-eyed tortoise who does not have the opportunity to "encounter a hole in a floating piece of wood" (according to Miller, the hole refers to Buddhist teachings). Princess Senshi compares herself to a turtle with no hope of encountering the floating wood of truth as a means of expressing frustrations arising from the conflict between her personal commitment to Buddha and her public role at court which demands devotion to the Shintō gods.

A reader who can read English and classical Japanese will not miss the effort Miller and Donnelly have put into their translations. As they emphasise time and again, many of the Buddhist waka were meant to satisfy both aesthetic and religious standards. They have thus set themselves the challenging task of conveying "the emotional and spiritual arguments of these poems in accurate versions that are also excellent poems in idiomatic, musical, contemporary English." Needless to say, this is a very tall order. As Miller points out, some of the most significant differences between waka and English poetry lie in the use of syllabics and the one- or two-line aesthetic presentation of waka, as opposed to the stresses, lines and stanzas of Western poetry. Miller and Donnelly admit that due to the difficulties of bridging these differences that even their best efforts may not be able to retain the rich rhetorical devices and diction of the originals.

It is worth exploring the poetics of the translation vis-à-vis the originals in greater detail. In fact, I believe we ought to pay extra attention to literary form when translating ancient literary texts. East Asian classical poetic forms often have specific requirements about rhyme scheme and the number of syllables and lines, such as in the Korean sijo, Chinese shi and, of course, the Japanese waka. The importance of form was underlined by the famous waka theorist Fujiwara no Toshinari—a central figure in the last two chapters of Vulture Peak. Toshinari dedicated a separate book to the shakkyō-ka in a 12th-century imperial anthology he compiled and apparently saw both poetic configuration (sugata, i.e. form) and sentiment (kokoro, i.e. content or essence) as essential to understanding the Buddhist path. Since perfect replication of sugata and kokoro into English is impossible, the literary form of the translation chosen by the translators should reflect their respectful attitude towards the nature of waka and even the act of translation itself. In this respect, Donnelly and Miller have done a brilliant job.

Their translations usually adopt a form that demonstrates an aesthetic symmetry or repetition. Most consist of two or three groups of lines separated by a blank line, usually following a pattern of 3+3, 2+1+2 or 3+1+3 (as seen in some of the examples in this review). The lines often also progress with indentations that may be completely reversed in the next group, thus forming an aesthetic symmetry.

This aesthetic symmetry reveals the accomplishment of the translation. The formality of the Japanese waka lies most obviously in its five-phrase structure: the first and third phrase each has five morae while each of the rest has seven (see below for a discussion on morae), forming a 5-7-5-7-7 rigidity that primarily affects the acoustic quality of the poem (this rigidity is seldom reproduced visually since waka is often written out in one vertical line).

The symmetrical forms and indentations of the translations, however, constitute a kind of visual regularity which helps translate the form for English readers. The sonic formality in the original is displaced into visual formality in the English version, cleverly liberating the translations from syllabic constraints and offering the translator much creative freedom to experiment with the number of words, lines and groups in the translation, while still expressing some sense of the original formality. As opposed to the original waka which was written out in one line, the translated versions use indentations, white space and/or blank lines to indicate the appropriate pauses and meditative moments that are implied in the original but hard to reproduce in translation. Take this poem as an example:

[Shūishū 1342]

the path I have to take

   will lead from dark

               to darker—


                           O moon


               on your mountain edge

   shine across

the vast emptiness

–Masamune no Musume Shikibu

The reader takes the hint that "O moon" is the most important image of meditation—indeed the moon in Buddhist waka is often the metaphor of enlightenment. By isolating "O moon" from the bulk of the poem, the reader is forced to pause and consider the meaning of the moon image. The ample space around and within the poem allow the works to breathe.

This clever use of form is not the only notable feature of the translations. While the authors admit to the difficulty of rendering the original diction into English, they have managed to convey some of the poems' hidden meanings. Take this poem by Izumi Shikibu:

[Kin'yōshū 644/688]



       until the sword

               has bent like a branch—


               what kind of seed

       could body forth                                         


such fruit?

Although Miller's commentary on this poem is not particularly detailed, the translation itself is remarkably well done. It describes a painting in which a person is impaled on a sword in hell; such paintings have been commonly referred to in poetry ever since the Pure Land teachings (Jōdo) spread to Japan. Miller comments that works such as this one have expanded the usage of death as a waka theme. He does not spell out the obvious—that is, that death and hell are used in this poem to illustrate Buddhist karma: the concept of cause and effect, action and result, condition and phenomenon. In the Japanese original, this is expressed through a pivot word (kakekotoba in Japanese) in the phrase mi no naru. Depending on the context, mi can refer to "body," "fruit" (of a tree) or "seed" (of a fruit), while naru can mean "to bring about" or "to bear." Thus, while the poem's second half literally means "what kind of body [i.e. person or bad deeds] could have caused this [terrible punishment in hell]," the idea of karma is amplified by the more explicit image of "what kind of seed bears this fruit" pivoted upon mi no naru. The English translation—"what kind of seed/could body forth/such fruit?"—further turns "body" into a verb and alludes to all three possible meanings of mi without losing the sense of karma. Like many other instances throughout the book, this is a perfect collaboration between Miller's knowledge of the Japanese language and Donnelly's poetic skills.

That said, I do not completely agree with all of the book's translations and arguments. Miller, for example, tends to describe waka as a "31-syllable poem," but in an academic publication I would have preferred the term "mora" rather than "syllable" (the word "mora" only appears once in the book). In Japanese, the mora is the basic rhythmic unit, just as the syllable is in English. But unlike an English syllable, a Japanese syllable can consist of two morae, such as the word "haiku," which has two syllables but three morae of equal length, "ha-i-ku".

The difficulty of Japanese linguistics also hinders the interpretation of the poems. Miller's interpretations are careful to stay within a Buddhist framework, but sometimes I felt he could have been bolder in his translations. In Masamune no Musume Shikibu's poem quoted above ("the path I have to take/will lead from dark/to darker—//O moon//on your mountain edge/shine across/the vast emptiness"), Miller identifies an allusion to a journey to enlightenment mentioned in Chapter 7 of the "Lotus Sūtra" and subsequently also detects a pleading tone that seems to seek light for the journey. Yet he also asks:

While it is clear that both the actual moon and the metaphorical moon of enlightenment, the Tendai priest Shōkū Shōnin, are in the distance (haruka ni), does she request that her path be lit so she can make her way to enlightenment/Shōkū or does she request enlightenment in this very body at this very moment in time? Furthermore, why does Izumi use the imperative form of the verb (terase) to a figure as exalted as Shōkū (a representative of the Buddha himself)?

Miller seems undecided whether to pinpoint an interpretation for the phrase "shine across/the vast emptiness" or "haruka ni terase" in the original. My own thought is that since the poem's first half implies a road to be taken after the moment of speaking ("The path I have to take/will lead"), it seems certain that Masamune no Musume Shikibu is hoping for a light to shine on her upcoming path to enlightenment, which may be dark and full of difficulties. The particular conjugation used here for the verb to shine, terase, is called the imperative form in modern Japanese linguistics but which before the 20th century belonged to a form of speech called kekugen that expresses longing or wishes. Moreover, if we accept that Shikibu is solemnly asking for shining light on her path, then perhaps translating the word haruka as "emptiness" may not fully reflect the remoteness of enlightenment or the long length path.

There is no doubt that The Wind from Vulture Peak is an important contribution to the study of Japanese waka and Buddhism, and, as a work of literary translation, it sets a good example for translators about how to work around classical literary forms to shed light on the uniqueness of each poem. As Miller writes in the Afterword, Donnelly has said that "he heard real people speaking in these poems." These are the voices of Buddhist believers following the path to enlightenment—sometimes they waver or are confused, other times they show strong determination. Through their scrupulous creative endeavors, Miller and Donnelly have managed to let these voices speak in a different tongue.

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