Saigyō Hōshi (Japanese: 西行法師, also called Sato Norikiyo) (1118 – 1190) was a Japanese Buddhist priest-poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura periods whose life became the subject of many narratives, plays, and puppet dramas, and was one of the greatest masters of the tanka (a traditional Japanese poetic form). He originally followed his father in a military career, but became a priest at the age of twenty-three, affected by the sense of disaster that overwhelmed Japan as the brilliant imperial court life of the Heian era passed into a period of civil wars in the latter half of the twelfth century. He traveled all over Japan, living as a hermit in the mountains and writing poetry which expressed his Buddhist principles and love of nature.
Sankashu (Mountain Hut Anthology), his major work, contains poems on love and other seasonal and miscellaneous topics. The Mimosusogawa utaawase (“Poetry Contest at Mimosusu River”) is a poetic masterpiece in which he pitted his own poems against each other. Many of his poems are included in the imperial anthology Shin kokin-shu. He wrote about solitude and loneliness, often using images from nature to portray his emotions. Among Saigyo’s waka poetry there are 34 poems about pine trees, 25 poems about plum blossoms, and 230 poems admiring cherry blossoms. Saigyo portrayed nature and the universe as he saw them, peering out through the window of his hut or sitting on a rock in front of his door. The personal warmth and engagement of his poetry differed from the detachment of typical Chinese and Japanese Buddhist poetry.
Satō Norikiyo (佐藤義清) was born in 1118 in Kyoto to a noble and a fairly wealthy family, and grew up studying martial arts and training to serve the emperor. During his teens, he became a private guard for the emperor Toba, who had abdicated his throne. Satō Norikiyo witnessed the traumatic transition of power from the old court nobles to the new samurai warriors. After the start of the Age of Mappō (1052), Buddhism was considered to be in decline and no longer effective as a means of salvation. These cultural shifts contributed to the sense of melancholy or sabishisa in his poetry.
In 1140 at the age of twenty-two, for reasons now unknown, Satō quit worldly life to become a monk. He later took the pen name, "Saigyō" meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise, and spent the rest of his life traveling throughout Japan, returning to the capital periodically to participate in imperial ceremonies. He lived alone for long periods of his life in Saga, Mt. Koya, Mt. Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is best known for his many long, poetic journeys to Northern Honshū, which later inspired Basho in his Oku no Hosomichi” (“Narrow Road to the Deep Interior). Major collections of Saigyō's poems are found in the Sankashu (Mountain Hut Collection), Shinkokinshu (Imperial anthology), and Shikashu. The Mimosusogawa utaawase “Poetry Contest at Mimosusu River”) is a poetic masterpiece in which he pitted his own poems against each other. Saigyō died at Hirokawa Temple, Kawachi, Osaka, in 1190, at the age of seventy-two. His grave in the temple grounds remains the site of various ceremonies celebrating his life and literary achievement.
No one knows why, at the age of 22, Saigyo left his position as an imperial guard for Emperor Toba to live a religious life as a Buddhist monk. One opinion is that Saigyo fell in love with Emperor Shirakawa’s mistress or emperess and abandoned secular life because of a romantic disappointment. Another opinion is that he was deeply grieved by the death of a friend. One anecdote describes how he kicked his child, who was crying clinging to the hem of his robe, from the veranda and left home.
During the late 1150s, Japan was undergoing serious social upheaval. Warrior clans from the outer provinces rose to power and overthrew the former government, with which Sato (Saigyo) was closely allied. This period left many Japanese, including Saigyo, with a feeling of foreboding and the sense that the demise of their culture was imminent. The violent revolution seemed a sign of the period that Buddhists call “Mappo,” or “End of the Law.” Salvation could only come through the Amida Buddha, who would take all the faithful to the Pure Land or Western Paradise.
Many aristocrats abandoned their "urban" lifestyles to withdraw from society. Though Saigyo became a priest, his determination was not unshakable; he had doubts about renouncing the world, as expressed in the following poem:.
Among Saigyo’s waka poetry there are 34 poems about pine trees, 25 poems about plum blossoms, and 230 poems admiring cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms are the most beloved flower of the Japanese people. They bloom for a brief time and are very fragile, symbolizing the transience of life; this symbolism harmonizes well Buddhist teachings. Masses of cherry blossoms are used as metaphors for clouds. Falling cherry blossoms are likened to snow, and are used as a metaphor for a warrior killed in his youth.
Visual images and fragrances dominate Saigyo's depictions of spring. He speaks of his "passion" for cherry blossoms, his expeditions on Mount Yoshino to view them, and how his heart is there on the mountain at spring even when he is many miles away. He says that he would gladly give up the night time during the spring in order to view the cherry blossoms all the time in the spring, while in the autumn he would give up daytime for night in order to enjoy gazing at the moon.
To see everything (on ten thousand mountains) is to enjoy omnipresence, like the Buddha. Saigyo sees the cherry blossoms as an aspect, however beautiful, of nature and its inevitabilities.
For several years after he became a priest, Saigyo lived in mountainous areas close to major cities. In his later years he spent much of his time at Shingon sect’s headquarters on Mount Koya or Mount Yoshino, famous for its flowering cherries.
Saigyo also wrote about azaleas, violets, and the kerria rose—all features of spring in his solitary travels.
Saigyo’s “mountain home,” which he sometimes referred to as a “mountain village,” was nothing more than a hermit hut and, by extension, his vision of life from his vantage point on the mountain. It is not always possible to distinguish poems written when Saigyo was twenty-one and had just abandoned secular life to enter a monastery, from those which he wrote in his late seventies. Occasional mentions of the places he visited during his travels provide the only chronological clues. Saigyo traveled constantly, supporting himself with his writing, the generosity of patrons and friends, and sometimes with alms. He often built himself a small hut, or took over an abandoned one, where he remained for months and even years. Most of his time was spent in the remote mountainous areas of Japan, and sometimes near the sea, visiting temples and shrines and staying with friends and acquaintances. Shortly before his death he went to reside in a monastery temple.
Saigyo’s best poetry was written while quietly observing nature from his "mountain home." In a spring poem entitled "The Bush Warbler Idling," he compares himself to that reclusive bird. Saigyo is alone in his hut, like the bird:
This poem evokes the sound of gentle spring rains, and gives us a glimpse of the poet’s frame of mind:
He identifies his lonely hermit hut with his physical body, expressing the spirituality of his beliefs:
While at Mount Koya, Saigyo composed a series of poems, each beginning with the phrase "yama fukami"—"so remote the mountain," The imagery depicts particular moments in his hermit hut: the autumn leaves of the sumac branches are the only callers to break his tedium; a monkey chatters while sitting on a moss carpet; birdsong is infrequent at his high elevation; horse chestnuts plop from the trees when he fetches water from the mountain stream; deer walk right up to him, fearless of a human. Each season offers its own perspective on sound:
The hermit poet does not offer specific details about the interior of his hut; nature and the universe are seen through his eyes as he is peering out through the window of his hut or sitting on a rock in front of his door.
Saigyo uses conventional imagery for the changing seasons, such as crickets, chrysanthemums, pampas grass, marsh birds, masterfully. What makes him unique is his expression of emotions associated with the seasons. The following poems use the wind to portray emotion:
Saigyo openly expressed the loneliness of a hermit's life. His melancholy was not subjective; it came from his observations of the cycles of nature and the political and social chaos around him. Saigyo, who always longed for human companionship, forced himself to endure long periods of isolation. The personal warmth and engagement of his poetry differed from the detachment of typical Buddhist, Chinese, and Japanese poetry.
Saigyo’s poetry is characterized by sudden and unexpected insight. He exemplified the Buddhist attitude of discovering profound meaning in a single moment. This poem is typical of Saigyo:
Japanese poetry had reached a similar peak of artistic achievement only twice before the "Sankashu": the "Manyoshu" ("Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves") in the eighth century, and the "Kokinshu" ("Collection of Ancient and Modern Times") during the late ninth centurty. By Saigyō's time, the Man'yōshū no longer exercised a strong influence on waka poetry. Saigyō was influenced by the style of the poems of the "Kokinshu," which focused on a single image, followed by the poet’s reflections, and were characterized by word play and very elegant language.
In the "Sankashu," Saigyo’s style allowed for a number of transposed images, of deepening significance. Saigyo’s poems opened with a conversational exclamation, followed by an explanation. The poems of the Shinkokinshu, an imperial anthology of poetry written by Saigyo and his contemporaries, were less subjective, had fewer verbs and more nouns, relied less on word play, allowed for repetition, had breaks in the flow, were slightly more colloquial, and were much more somber and melancholic. Affected by the turbulent times, Saigyō focused not just on awaré (sorrow from change) but also on wabi-sabi (loneliness) and kanashi (sadness).
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