“… in the Zen consciousness everything resolves itself into the final harmony of the universe.”
The “tanka” is a short poetic form of thirty-one syllables arranged into 5,7,5,7,7 syllable scheme of five lines. It is one of the forms of traditional Japanese court poetry dealing with a variety of topics ranging from the most seemingly commonplace to the preeminently sublime. It is also the form used by many contemporary Japanese poets in giving expression to the “cry of their hearts” as they respond, like other human beings, to the world that at once allures and rebuffs them. It later evolved into the haiku. The tankas selected here are taken from Fujiwara Teikas’s collection titled, Superior Poems of Our Times, compiled in the early thirteenth century.
One of the striking features of these poems is the preoccupation with the cycle of seasons. The poets experience a communion with nature so that its ambivalent moods which change with the seasons also become their own. Oe No Chisato writes: “A thousand things overcome me with their sadness/As I gaze upon the moon. /Although autumn surely was not meant /To be felt by my oneself alone.” The image of the solitary moon upon the background of an autumn night objectifies the poet’s feeling of sadness. At the same time, he is aware of the fact that somewhere in the autumn night other human beings share with him the same experience. Hence, the “thousand things” which with sadness overcome him are not his own burden alone. And the thought that one’s comrades and those close to one’s heart are confronted with the same situation cannot but reinforce the bond of fellowship that links one human being with another. Indeed, even the beautiful things in nature assume larger significance only when appreciated not by one’s own self alone but in the company of friends or a partner.
The priest Sosie’s poem, for instance, is an invitation to a shared enjoyment of the pleasures afforded by springtime when cherry blossoms are in bloom. He writes: “Come, just for today/Let us lose ourselves wandering/Deep in spring hills—If darkness falls, how can we fail to find/A place to sleep beneath those blossoming boughs?” There is here an expression, too, of intense delight and of faith in the life-giving powers of nature. One is here reminded of the Russian theme of Sophia—a kind of cosmic, rapturous love for all creation. Yet the Japanese love for the “spring hills” and the “blossoming boughs” takes on a mystical aspect—that of the Zen wedding of spirit and matter. In the contemplation of the poet-priest Sosei the “falling darkness,” if it comes as it must, cannot overcome the luxuriant beauty of the blossoming boughs nor the sensuous delight derived from them since in the Zen consciousness everything resolves itself into the final harmony of the universe.
In another poem, however, Sosei presents a gloomy perspective, a distinctively Buddhist vision of the evanescent character of the phenomenal world of men and things. The world is Maya, an imperfect and pale reflection of the unmanifested realm of Being. He says: ”Here it is, yes here,/Where these set forth and those return/and others come to part/Both friends and strangers meet together/At the Barrier Post of meeting!” Sosei is said to have composed these lines upon watching the passers-by outside the hut that he had built at the Osaka Barrier. He regards from a detached vantage point the ceaseless coming hither and going thither of human beings as they proceed with the business of daily living. As he contemplates the scene, he was moved to compose this metaphysical allegory. The incessant flux of human life pictured in this poem is reminiscent of the Shakespearean metaphor of the world as a stage. But unlike Shakespeare who ends on a note of utter nihilism and black despair, the despair of Sosei springs from what in the Oriental lore is believed to be a privileged and higher knowledge–the common inability of human beings to liberate themselves from the wheel of rebirth which they could have done by the generation of new and good karma that would offset the old evil ones that pin them down to the sufferings of “samsara.”
Another poet-priest, Bishop Henjo (816-90 A.D.), a contemporary of Sosei (ca. 890), echoes the same note of subdued sadness about the human lot. He laments: “In this mortal world,/Whether we linger on or pass away ahead,/Our brief span is like/The greater fall of dewdrops from the leaves,/Or the shorter drop of moisture from the stalk.” The formation of dewdrops upon the leaves or of moisture upon the stalks corresponds to our coming into existence in the phenomenal world; and the expulsion of dewdrops from the leaves of grass and moisture from the stalks are analogous to the long or short duration of human life before its expiration.
There is really nothing new about the above notion; but Henjo succeeds here in not sounding too platitudinous in his use of the “dew” imagery to convey the motif of life as an insubstantial, ephemeral thing. But the evanescence being lamented on is only of life as it is lived right here and now. There is no dramatic posturing here of a defiant existentialist faced with the irrational prospect of being blotted out of the universe. The dewdrops fall and evaporate. However, they do not really vanish into absolute non-being. They return to the elements whence they came, just as life at the moment of death becomes merely transformed into other states of being. As Chuang Tzu, the great Taoist sage, said on the occasion of Lao Tzu’s death: “What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted elsewhere and we know not that it is over and ended.”
In the treatment of the theme of love, a tanka selected here gives it a careful honing so that what could have easily fallen into mawkish sentimentality becomes an oblique, artistically understated expression of an intensely felt emotion. This is achieved by the figurative use of image that reinforces the sense of the discursively worded lines. Sakanoue Korenori writes: “If we cannot meet,/Joining together like the threads I twine/Now so, then thus,/To make a cord to string my jewels upon,/Of what shall I make up my thread of life?” The power of this poem consists not only in what is being said, but also in what was left unsaid. The lady speaker in the poem conveys the intensity of her love by implying that she could not go on living without the company of the man she loves or without consummating their love as suggested by the imagery of the joining together of threads in the second line. But this is precisely what she left unsaid but merely hinted at in the lines, “If we cannot meet,/…Of what shall I make up my thread of life?”
This poetic device of expressing the unknown in terms of the known is employed more deftly in the three-line haiku which is the shortest poetic form in the world. It is similar to the tanka minus the last two lines of seven syllables each. In Japanese graphic art, its counterpart is called “portraiture by absence,” in which the painting of an object or objects is indirectly evocative of something else, as, for example, a chrysalis implies the butterfly.
The overall tone of these poems is one of sadness even as the poets celebrate the beauty of nature. It is as if the pure act of living is already an act of supreme sacrifice instead of a blessing. This is essentially a Buddhist outlook. While we are not asked to adopt the same view of life, we can at least understand the mental attitude and conditioning factors underlying such sensibility. After all, there is a measure of truth in what the poet Shuzei says: “O wretched world, That affords no pathway to release!/Even the mountain depths/To which I fled when overcome by care/Echo with the anguished cry of deer.” Is this not also expressive of the mood of the twentieth century (or the 21st) which was dubbed by W. H. Auden as the “Age of Anxiety”? (AI/MTVN)