Alone with other things – The Hindu.

This hermit-poet uses poetry

to negotiate his hermit life

with the other life he is

trying to leave behind.

My kimono sleeves/blossom-scented by the air/under this orange tree/close by the caves, catch and hold/tears falling from the past’s recall .’

As always the moon/night after night after night/will stay on here/at this grass hut I put together/and now myself must leave.

Saigyo’s reclusiveness made him alive to the aloneness of things — trees, birds, animals, streams and, of course, the moon — and equally a sense of how one can be alone with other things.

A Saigyo scholar spoke of it as his “finely sharpened sense of the world’s samsara.” Kubota, another Saigyo scholar, said reading this Buddhist hermit you encounter “a motif of a body-piercing loneliness in these poems.” The moon became illumination, luminosity for the mind; Saigyo was just as preoccupied by cherry blossoms and the scholar Konishi says Saigyo “perceived cherry blossoms and the moon as mandalas .” Like Ryokan, Saigyo’s poems sought to bring the ‘way of poetry’ with ‘the way of the Buddha’, and to talk, in these poems, of the struggles and joys of the Buddhist life. Burton Watson, the gifted translator of Poems of a Mountain Home, tells us in his introduction that there is some writing to show Saigyo felt poetry and its practice was a sacred duty for a Buddhist. But one can’t be certain, points out Watson, that this was Saigyo’s aesthetics since these writings are more legend than an accurate record.

However, it seems to me, when I learn of how much and often Saigyo came out of the forest to the courts to take part in poetry competitions and even teach poetry, it doesn’t seem too far fetched that Saigyo would feel strongly about the place of poetry in Buddhism.

And as soon as he turned monk, he began writing poetry; his theme at once about the struggle to live a Buddhist life, and what it meant. The style of his poetry, his translator informs us, was waka or court poetry, which came even before the haiku and is slightly longer. Four centuries later its influence was felt deeply by Basho who underscores his debt to Saigyo all through his work. “The waka too is best opened with care, close attention, and appreciation for the skill of the person who put so much into so small a container.”

After moving around many places near in and around monasteries and temples, he frequented two mountains, Mount Yoshino and Mount Koya, often overwhelmed by the “astonishing beauty of the sakura (the cherry blossoms) often wanting to linger here, feasting his eyes on them — he was drawn to the physical beauty of the phenomenal world”. But he had to move on deeper into the forest and his mountain home to pursue solitude. He wrote: ‘ Here I huddle alone/in a mountain’s shadow, needing/some companion somehow: the cold, biting rains pass off/and gives me the winter moon.