The image of the traveling monk-poet, going from village to village and spending endless hours alone in the mountains composing poetry, has been common in the East for hundreds of years. This image was later popularized in the West by such writers as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth. The Japanese poet Saigyo was the embodiment of that image.

Born in 1118 to a fairly wealthy family, Saigyo was named Sato Norikiyo and grew up as any semi-aristocratic child may: studying martial arts and training to serve the emperor. During his teen years, he became a private guard to the emperor Toba who had abdicated his throne.

At the age of 22, Sato pulled a 180-degree turn. He quit his cushy government gig to enter the religious life as a Buddhist monk. No one really knows why and there are many theories. But one thing’s for sure: for somebody with his background this was the equivalent of tuning in, turning on and dropping out.

On young herbs, thinking of the past”
Sad the haze in the meadows
where I pick young herbs
when I think
how it shrouds me
from the faraway past

During the late 1150s, Japan was undergoing a serious social upheaval. Warrior clans living in the outer provinces rose to power and overthrew the former government, which Sato was allied with.

To Sato, as well as many other Japanese, this period left them with a feeling of foreboding and eminent demise for the civilization’s culture. They believed the revolution was a sign of what the Buddhists call Mappo, or the End of the Law. Their only salvation would come through the Amida Buddha, who would take all those who have faith to the Pure Land or Western Paradise.

This caused many to abandon their “urban” lifestyles, withdraw from society and take more hedonistic approaches to life.

After becoming a monk, Sato took the name Saigyo, which means “Western Journey”. For the first few years, Saigyo resided in mountain homes close to major cities. Later on after be became more accustomed to the lifestyle, he spent much of his time at Shingon sect’s home on Mount Koya or Mount Yoshino, famous for its flowering cherries.

Mountain Path, Fallen Blossoms”
First snowfall
of cherry petals
starting to scatter
how hateful, tramping through it
over the pass from Shiga!

He spent much of his time writing poetry (generally in the accepted 31-syllable style) and keeping in touch with poetry circles around the nation. Saigyo was a controversial character, as many Buddhists disapproved of his focus on literary pursuits over his religion.

During his life, Saigyo made a number of trips around Japan to visit particular shrines and temples known for their scenic beauty. Saigyo became better known throughout the territory during these travels. During one visit, he was summoned to the home of the founder of the local shogunate. After a conversation relating mainly to martial arts, Saigyo was presented with a silver image of a cat. As he left the domicile, he handed the silver cat to a child playing nearby.

Saigyo’s extensive travels inspired verse on the pull of the secular world, old age and death, and the beauty of nature. The “Sankashu” (“Mountain Home Collection”), is his major work and is a high-water mark for Japanese poetry. It is organized by topic (“Spring”, “Love”) with no composition dates.

In the “Sankashu”, Saigyo was able to go beyond his previous, more conventional prose and create a new style that became characteristic of the 12th century. Previously, Japanese poetry focused on a limited number of themes and the language was very mannered and shallow. Saigyo introduced successfully a wider range of themes and colloquialisms to the art.


When we flood
the mountain paddies
grown over with sedge grass,
what joyful faces
on the croaking frogs!

Before the “Sankashu”, Japanese poetry had twice reached such a peak of artistic achievement: the “Manyoshu” (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) in the 8th century, and the “Kokinshu” (“Collection of Ancient and Modern Times”) during the late 9th centurty. The poetry of the “Kokinshu” influenced Saigyo greatly.

The “Kokinshu” style of poetry focused generally on a single image with the remainder of the poem given to the poet’s reflections on the image. It also is characterized by word play and, as stated previously, very mannered language.

In the “Sankashu”, Saigyo’s style allows for a greater number of images, layered in prominence. Saugyo’s work opens with an exclamation by the poet in a conversational style of language, followed by an explanation for the exclamation.

Saigyo, who always longed for human companionship, forced himself to endure long periods of isolation. In his poetry he openly expresses his feelings of loneliness. This is why his poetry differs so greatly from other Buddhistic Chinese and Japanese poetry: it has a personal warmth whereas the former is often detached.

Does the moon say “Grieve!”
does it force
these thoughts on me?
And yet the tears come
to my reproving eyes

With the moon shines
without the smallest blemish,
I think of her
and my heart disfigures it.
blurs it with tears

In 1190, at the age of 73, Saigyo died in his mountain temple home of Hirokawa-dera, south of Osaka. To this day his grave in the temple grounds is the site of various ceremonies celebrating his life and literary achievement.

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