Let me not spend my life
lamenting the world’s sorrows
in the wide sky
the moon shines pure
ukiyo to mo
tsuki no sumikeru
hisakata no sora
I came across this poem quite by accident. But it really struck home, as I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the state of the world right now. The human race appears to be quite incapable of working together to address the existential crises of the pandemic, global heating and species extinctions, and overpopulation, as well as the rejection of reason and science dramatically exacerbating these potentially soluble crises. Humans have not reacted to these crises in general by pulling together, given that collective action can indeed address and ameliorate, if not completely address, them. But ratherhave retreated back into tribes who blame the “other” for all their problems. It is indeed difficult sometimes to remember the moon shining pure in the wide sky.
Saigyō was the Buddhist name of Fujiwara no Norikiyo (1118–1190), a Japanese Buddhist monk-poet. He is regarded as one of the greatest masters of the tanka (a traditional Japanese poetic form). He influenced many later Japanese poets, particularly the haiku master Basho.
Saigyo was born into a branch of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family in Japan in the early 12th century. As a young man he joined the Hokumen Guards who served at the retired Emperor’s palace. Despite a seemingly assured future, he decided at the age of 23 to “turn from the world” and become a reclusive wandering Buddhist monk. He spent the rest of his life in alternating periods of travel and seclusion with occasional periodic returns to the capital at Kyoto to participate in imperial ceremonies. During this period, the second half of the 12th century, Japan was wracked by civil war
The translation of the poem above is by Meredith McKinney, who has published a selection of over 100 poems by Saigyo in the collection Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude (September 2021). The poems selected focus on Saigyo’s story of Buddhist awakening, reclusion, seeking, enlightenment and death. I can highly recommend this collection, which embodies the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware — to be moved by sorrow in witnessing the ephemeral world.
Meredith McKinney is an award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese literature, who lived and taught for around 20 years in Japan. She returned to Australia in 1998 and now lives near the small town of Braidwood, not far from Canberra where I lived until early 2000. I was interested to learn a little more about her, and was surprised to find out that she is the daughter of Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s greatest poets and an activist for the environment and indigenous rights. For the last three decades of her life, Wright lived near Braidwood. She became completely deaf in 1992 after progressively losing her hearing since early adulthood.