Munkkien rakkausrunoista Mishimaan ja mangaan: Poimintoja Japanin kirjallisuushistoriasta

Love poetry by monks: Buddhist notions in late Heian and early Kamakura love poetry

The aim of the present paper is to explore the relations between Buddhist ideas and love poetry at the end of Heian and the beginning of Kamakura periods, during the time when the world of court poetry was dominated mostly by the tastes of the Mikohidari school, and in particular the role that monk-poets such as Saigyō, Jien and Jakuren had in shaping them. As it is well known, quite a number of famous court poets have been monks since the end of the 9th century and particularly many appear in the 12th century, and it has also frequently been pointed out that the move from high to late Heian aesthetic, in addition to technical innovations, changes in imagery etc., involves a shift in values that brings the world of courtly poetry closer to the world of Buddhist ideas, so that some groups of lay poets also adopted the attitudes of monks toward the world to a certain extent. This is the period when a shift in the carrier type occurred in the cultural system of classical Japanese poetry: when formerly it had been predominantly the practice of the gallant, witty and sensitive courier, the master of the poetic occasion, then at the end of the 12th century the carrier of the practice was better characterised as a withdrawn, dedicated, still sensitive, but more introverted, almost recluse-like devotee of the high art. That the social and political processes which brought about the decline of the courtier-centered order were the main reason for this is probably clear without further comment.

At the same time, however, this is also the period when the system of poetic composition to set topics had finally firmly established itself, and thus it was institutionally inevitable that most of these poet-monks had to compose love poetry even if their vows logically would have forbidden them to do it. They did use some obvious strategies to circumvent this problem, for example, a lot of these poems, when lifted out of context, can equally well be read not as poems by abandoned lovers but as lamentations of solitude, written by frustrated hermits in mountain huts where no friends visit them. At other occasions, monk-poets, like many laymen as well, resort to a persona, adopting, for instance, the viewpoint of a lady waiting for her lover, which enables them to express the honi (‘original essence’) of some certain aspect of love while remaining personally neutral to the content of the poem. In fact, on many occasions and especially during poetry matches, this was precisely what they were supposed to do. For example, in the Roppyakuban utaawase, a major poetic match organised in 1193 and judged by Fujiwara no Shunzei, there were 50 topics of love altogether, 15 of these dedicated to various phases of an imaginary love affair, 5 described the feelings of love during various times of day and night, 5 had to do with distances and age differences, and 25 topics treated love in comparison to the moon, clouds, mountains, smoke, grass, insects, pictures, prostitutes, sailors etc. On the whole the catalogue of love topics yields an almost scientifically minded taxonomy, and it may have been fairly easy for a monk to keep such a mind while calmly composing poems to suit the requirements of each topic.

This seems to indicate that the love poetry of monks may mostly have been no more than a series of literary constructs, stylised fabrications that would have emulated the feelings expressed in allegedly genuinely motivated texts by lay authors. But a closer look at both does not reveal any significant differences of quality between love poems by monks or laymen. This again would lead us to think that perhaps most waka on the topic of love, no matter how intense feelings they seem to convey, are in reality just the outcome of a language game with no really deep emotional background. This, in turn, seems to be in contradiction with another aspect of love poetry, namely its functional use in courting practice, where men and women necessarily had to carry out an exchange of love poems for the duration of a relationship, and the successful outcome of courtship may at least partly have depended on the quality of the poems. Certain elements of a game were surely present in these exchanges during the entire Heian period, but if the poems involved had been just intellectually constructed combinations of stock imagery, this practice would hardly have persisted, nor poetic (and sometimes, as in the case of Izumi Shikibu, even scandalous) reputations built on it. Thus it seems that the problem of love poetry by monks touches more widely on the status of love poetry as such in the framework of set topic composition.

This is also a part of a bigger issue of poetic practice and attachment to the world as such, known as the kyōgen kigo argument according to a phrase from a poem by Bo Juyi in which he denounced his poetry as ‘wild phrases and floating utterances’, an unworthy pursuit compared to Buddhist spiritual training. Although not too frequent, it is not at all uncommon for monks to comment on their vows in poetry, because, as the kyōgen kigo argument had made clear, their writing itself is problematic, indicating as it does that they have been unable to leave their worldly attachments behind. So, for example, Saigyō:

Senzaishū 1066 Saigyō


hana ni somu                                   the mind that is coloured

kokoro no ikade                            by the flowers – how is it

nokoriken                                         that it is still there

sutehateteki to                              when I was sure I had

omou wagami ni                            left it behind for good

An excessive joy on seeing the flowers ‘taints’ the mind of the poet, who had thought he had freed himself of such an attachment. But it is also possible to channel a similar sentiment into a mood that is more fitting for a Buddhist frame of mind, as, for example, Jakuren has done:

Shinkokinshū 1939 Jakuren


kore ya kono                                    is this the spring

ukiyo no hoka no                           that is not of our

haru naran                                        fleeting world?

hana no toboso no                       through the narrow of the flowery door

akebono no sora                            the sky at dawn

The poem bears the topic of “The joy at the first opening of the lotus flower”, referring to the lotus bud in which the reborn adept awakens in the Pure Land of Amitabha, seeing the sky when the flower slowly opens as a door – however, it describes equally well a much more real spring dawn in a hermit’s hut, who is overjoyed by the sight of flowers just as the speaker of Saigyō’s poem, but for whom the sentiment marks an achievement rather than hindrance in the quest of enlightenment. As it is well known, the contradiction between poetry and spiritual training is overcome by the later contemporaries of Saigyō  by turning poetry into a michi, a vocation that adapted aspects of Buddhist training and whose pursuit was accordingly albeit not equal, but still comparable to Buddhist practice.

However, if the abstract joy at contemplating the world may have found justification through the approximation of poetry to meditational practice, the same outcome seems hardly likely for verse that speak of explicitly forbidden desire. An early example by Henjō states the problem:

Kokinshū 226 Henjō


na ni medete                                   seduced only by your name

oreru bakari zo                               I have plucked you,

ominaeshi                                         maiden-flower –

ware ochiniki to                             do not tell anybody

hito ni kataru na                     about my fall

According to Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū , this poem had been written when Henjō had fallen from a horse on the Saga field, but this explanation is not repeated in the anthology, so we may fairly safely assume that this is a case of overinterpretation, of providing the poem with an explanatory context after the fact that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the original setting. The poem makes much better sense as a comment on monastic vows: plucking a maiden-flower would be a breach of these if seen as an expression of suppressed desire, and it is even tempting to read the hito of the last line not as ‘people, others’, but ‘beloved’, which is a fairly common first meaning of the word in the Kokinshū. This would make the poem a real maze of denials, especially if we might think of it as sent, with the flower, to a person: first, the poet, being a monk, denies his feelings, then he projects them to the flower that he plucks, seduced by its name, next, acknowledges the breach of vows, and then denies his feelings as a Freudian slip of a kind, asking the flower to keep it secret, and finally he writes a poem about it for either a particular person or even the whole world to see. Henjō, a fairly well connected courtier, was 34 years old when he entered monkhood after the death of his protector, emperor Nimmyō, and he must already have been an accomplished poet at the time, since four of his poems have been included in anthologies under his lay name. Although he was a career monk, his rapid advancement in the Tendai school would hardly have been likely if he had openly kept a courtly lifestyle, but it is nevertheless clear that the world of amorous games is not quite alien to him, and an exchange with Ono no Komachi reported in the Gosenshū (Nos 1195-96), even if spurious, testifies to an ambiguous reputation. Thus there is no reason to put this kind of verbal play beyond him, and the disparity between his status with the corresponding code of behaviour and his personal feelings may well have caused real problems for him also during the latter part of his life.

A typologically similar tension, although expressed in a much more subdued and roundabout manner typical for the period, can be seen in a poem by Jien that appears in the first scroll of love poetry of the Shinkokinshū:

Shinkokinshū 1030 Jien


waga koi wa                                     my love is like

matsu o shigure no                      the pine of which the long rains

somekanete                                     cannot change the colour

makuzu ga hara ni                        – on the field of the leaves of truth

kaze sawagu nari                           the rustling of the wind

Makuzu 真葛 is botanically ‘arrowroot’, but in the poetic context this translation would be misleading. The leaves of this plant are green on the outside and whitish on the inside, which is why it is associated with the autumn winds that reveal their hidden colour, the ura, or true feelings, and thereby they are also associated with urami, or resentment. The range of the image is fully disclosed in the poem by Shun’e, in which makuzu makes its only other appearance in the Shinkokinshū:

Shinkokinshū 440 Shun’e


arashi fuku                                        the storm is blowing

makuzu ga hara ni                        on the field of the leaves of truth

naku shika wa                                 deer are crying

uramite nomi ya                            in resentment only

tsuma o kou ran                             still longing for their mates

Jien’s waka has two images that are related to colour (=love): first, the colour of the pines (=longing), which remains the same regardless of the rain (= tears), and secondly, the noise of the autumn wind is heard from the field of the leaves of truth, which have to bare their inner feelings, their ‘true’ whitish colour. The poem would make little sense as a conventional pledge of unchanging feelings, since the second image is autumnal and not related to the beginning of a love affair at all – but it reads well as a reflexion of the hidden distress of a priest fallen in love: all tears notwithstanding, his longing remains precisely what it is, an unconsummated longing, because the wind reminds him of his true mind that should be set on the pursuit of enlightenment.

Apart from the underlying personal problem, there is, of course, little resemblance between Henjō’s poem and Jien’s. The playful series of denials and textual gestures present in Henjō’s waka is immediately readable while Jien’s poem plainly presents a juxtaposition of images that merely hint at an untold story. The difference stems, above all, from the change of standards of who a poet should be: in Henjō’s time, the monk-poet had to live on the terms of the world of courtiers, while for Jien and his like-minded contemporaries the goal of poetic practice was rather an investigation into one’s deep self.

This shift affected everything, from the underlying moods to imagery and even syntax. In a well-known passage from Kamo no Chōmei’s Mumyōsho, Shun’e descibes the ‘contemporary style’ 近代歌体  as follows:

For example, in autumn twilight there might be no particular colour in the sky, nor sound to be heard, no particular motive whatsoever to be thought of, but all of a sudden your tears begin to flow. Shallow people would find nothing remarkable here, because they are only able to be moved by cherry blossoms and maple leaves that one can see with the eyes1.

We should note that the expression ‘no particular colour in the sky’ is not merely a figure of speech. When we look at the changes in poetic frequency of the key images mentioned here, we find that some have indeed changed drastically from the 10th century. For instance, the frequency of the word iro drops from 7 in the Kokinshū to 4.34 in the Senzaishū and 4.49 in the Shinkokinshū. To be sure, a certain decrease had occurred in its use already in the early imperial anthologies (the frequencies are 5.89 for the Gosenshū and 5.22 for the Shūishū), but even if we take the whole of the Sandaishū as a certain standard, there is still a drop to about 75% in its usage in the anthologies where the ‘contemporary style’ dominates. Somewhat lesser drops can be seen in the usage of words such as hana and sakura, and a slightly bigger one in the usage of ume (drops to 66% of the Sandaishū standard in the Shinkokinshū), but on the whole this still cannot be blamed only on the ‘colourful’ nature of these images: for instance, the frequency of kasumi drops to 80% in the Shinkokinshū, while sakura is only down to 85% – more likely, this shows the adversity of the poets to too frequently used and slightly worn-out images in general. As a matter of fact, the frequency of the less-exploited momiji (0.91 in the Kokinshū) actually rises during the period, reaching 152% of the Sandaishū standard in the Shinkokinshū.

Full Moon at the Harbor or Lady Murasaki Watching the Autumn Moon at Ishiyama. Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige.
Murasaki Shikibu watching the moon at Ishiyama temple, by Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858).

At the same time, the changes in the use of the word sora are truly spectacular. Its poetic frequency surges from 2 in the Kokinshū to 4.88 in the Senzaishū (where it passes iro for the first time) to an even more prominent 6.82 in the Shinkokinshū. This is 217% of the Sandaishū standard for the Senzaishū and 305% for the Shinkokinshū, which is more than remarkable given that this has not been a neglected and rediscovered word – with a poetic frequency of 2.24 in the Sandaishū  it ranges between sakura (2.67) and ume (1.9). Quite clearly there must be something in the semantic load of the word itself that lends it a new expressive potential.

There are several possible explanations, one of which has precisely been suggested by Shun’e – the change in the tonality of poetry in general, a certain move toward less poignant imagery that may work to convey a subdued melancholy as in the sabi style or be loaded with a mystical mood as in yūgen, in any case a mood toward a visual ambivalence that both demonstrates the sensitivity of the poet and requires a lot of it from the recipient. In this sense it is characteristic that in roughly one fourth of the poems in which appears in the Shinkokinshū, the word sora is used to finish the poem with a taigendome, an elliptical sentence that ends in a noun. All of this might explain the popularity of the word in general, and particularly for seasonal poetry, but it is still hard to see why the frequency of the word is particularly high in the love poetry scrolls of the anthology, amounting to 8.32 or 371% of the Sandaishū standard.

It is my opinion that the main reason for this is the Buddhist connotation of the word, since the character for sora, 空, is also used for kū, ‘emptiness’. In fact, the possibility of the Buddhist overtone in a love poem creates an interesting tension, which reaches beyond the negative value of emotions in the Buddhist framework: the word sora also has a range of poetically productive meanings from ‘nervousness’ and ‘unstability’ to ‘lies’. In traditional love poetry, all these moods are lamentable, one’s personal inability to calm down just as well as the potentially false pretenses of the partner. Therefore, the word has traditionally had a negative value in love poems, as in

Kokinshū 513 Anon.


asana asana                                      morning after morning

tatsu kawakiri no                          the river mist rises to the sky

sora ni nomi                                     in just as hazy

ukite omoi no                                  bitterness flows the world

aru yo narikeri                                where there is love

On the other hand, kū as ‘emptiness’ refers to the Buddhist ultimate reality, which should really have no connotations at all, but if any, then definitely not negative ones, since ‘emptiness’, for the lay context, was something rather to be grasped, understood and attained, not repelled or lamented. This meaning has traditionally been acknowledged to be active in many seasonal poems of the period that use the image, especially in a taigendome construction, ending the description of scenery with a switch to the broader view of the sky, as well as the spiritually broader Buddhist view of the world at the same time.

Another word that should not be forgotten in this context is tsuki, the moon, the poetic frequency of which has risen considerably since the early Heian times. While in the Sandaishū it is 6.77, it reaches 14.49 in the Senzaishū (214%) and 18.65 in the Shinkokinshū (275%), its growth thus not much behind the frequency of sora. Sora also develops a slight, but mentionable dependency on tsuki. Their joint appearances have a frequency of 2.17 in these anthologies, which is considerable in itself, and tsuki also appears in 36% of the poems that have sora, while the corresponding number was only 16% in the Sandaishū.

This growth of popularity is clearly connected to the stronger position of Buddhist values, moon being a popular symbol for enlightenment, as can be seen f.ex. in the poem by Saigyō:

Sankashū 1085


yama no ma ni                                the dwelling place of the moon

tsuki sumu maji to                        is not between the mountains

shirareniki                                         as I now know

kokoro no sora ni                          since the time I saw it shine

naru to mishi yori                          in the sky of my mind


But passions are strong and stay hidden even after one has reached such an enlightened state of mind, which may well be threatened by them:

Shinkokinshū 1280 Sōen


sono mama ni                                                                                      just as before

matsu no arashi mo                                            the storm in the pines

kawaranu o                                                             has not changed

wasure ya shinuru                                                are you not forgetting that

fukeshi yo no tsuki                                              you moon in the dark of the night

Shinkokinshū 1268 Saigyō


kuma mo naki                                                                                     even on moments

ori shimo hito o                                                     when no corner of the sky

omoiidete                                                                remains without light

kokoro to tsuki o                                                  I remember her

yatsushitsuru kana                                              and alas, my mind taints the moon

Of course, the image of the moon has also traditionally also had a different value in love poetry, influenced by the Chinese tradition. Expectedly we find in the Shinkokinshū poems where the moon appears on the tear-wet sleeves (1136, 1139), the moon that waits together with the neglected lover (1204) and so on, and in most of these poems the moon is connected to sorrow rather than happiness – in one poem (1138) the speaker explicitly states tsuki wo mo medeji, ‘I do not like the moon’.

However, there are also poems that bridge the gap between the two values of the moon, poems where the moon is likened to the beloved, or to the true love itself. An interesting case is an exchange adapted to the Shinkokinshū from the Murasaki Shikibu shū. In its original form it reads like this:

Murasaki Shikibu shū 93; Shinkokinshū 1262 Murasaki Shikibu


iru kata wa                                                               where the moon sets

sayaka narikeru                                                    the light shines brightly

tsukikage o                                                              – for this light

uwa no sora ni mo                                               my absent mind in the upper skies

machishi yoi kana                                                I was waiting tonight

Murasaki Shikibu shū 94 Anon.


sashite yuku                                                            halting, I go

yama no ha mo mina                                          the slopes of the mountains are all

kakikumori                                                              wrapped in darkness

kokoro mo sora ni                                                and my mind, the vanished

kieshi tsukikage                                                    moonlight in the sky

The answer plays on the two meanings of sasu (‘to halt’ 止すand ‘to shine’ 射す) and compares the speaker itself to the moonlight, asserting that now that he is separated from his lover, he is back in darkness and unstability. However, the editors of the Shinkokinshū made a small, but extremely revealing correction to the answer-poem and changed the particle mo in the penultimate segment to no:

Shinkokinshū 1263

kokoro no sora ni                                                 and from the sky of my mind,

kieshi tsukikage                                                    the moonlight has vanished

Now the speaker no longer identifies himself with the moon, but the moon has been the experience of love, the feeling of the meeting he has left behind. Here there is no other way to interpret the image of moonlight than in the vein of Saigyō’s poem above, as a state of mind akin to enlightenment, which the lovers reach when they are together. After this meeting, the mind returns, on the one hand, to the hazy and bitter unstability, and, on the other hand, to the emotionless void, barren without enlightenment.

Read in this key, quite a number of love poems that have the image of the moon reveal another layer of meaning.

Shinkokinshū 1267 Saigyō


tsuki nomi ya                                                                                       only the moon

uwa no sora naru                                                 the keepsake in the upper skies               

katami nite                                                              for my absent mind

omoi mo ideba                                                      when tender thoughts arise

kokoro kayowan                                                  my heart will find the way

The moon is a keepsake of what the enlightened mind is for a poet: not a state with no emotions at all, but, on the contrary, a mind full of intense, positive and joyful emotions which can just as well be inspired by love, as soon as it transcends the confines of rough passion. Thus there is, after all, no structural paradox inherent in love poetry by monks. The move from the ‘bright’ world of the courtier to the ‘deep’ world of the dedicated has brought about a change in the concept of love as well, changing it from the passionate emotion that leaves bitter resentment in its wake into a profound movement of the mind capable of opening it up for enlightenment – another gateway for the poet through which to reach for the essence of all things.


Kamo no Chōmei. Mumyōshō. Nihon koten bungaku taikei, vol. 65. Iwanami shoten, Tōkyō 1961.


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  1. Kamo no Chōmei, 87. []


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