how can we quell
the burning thoughts
that inflame the body?
only by encountering
the cooling wind
– Saigyō Hōshi
Tr. Stephen Addiss
Before I dive into the tanka itself, I want to supply some information about this renowned Japanese writer.
Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118 – 1190) was a famous Japanese poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura period. Born Satō Norikiyo (佐藤 義清) in Kyoto to a noble family, he lived during the traumatic transition of power between the old court nobles and the new samurai warriors. After the start of the Age of Mappō (1052), Buddhism was considered to be in decline and no longer as effective a means of salvation. These cultural shifts during his lifetime led to a sense of melancholy in his poetry. As a youth, he worked as a guard to retired Emperor Toba, but in 1140 at the age of 22, for reasons now unknown, he quit worldly life to become a monk, taking the religious name En’i (円位). He later took the pen name, “Saigyō” meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise. He lived alone for long periods in his life in Saga, Mt. Koya, Mt. Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is more known for the many long, poetic journeys he took to Northern Honshū that would later inspire Matsuo Bashō in his Narrow Road to the Interior. Some main collections of Saigyō’s work are in the Sankashū, Shin Kokin Wakashū, and Shika Wakashū. He died in Hirokawa Temple in Kawachi Province (present-day Osaka Prefecture) at the age of 72.
In Saigyō’s time, the Man’yōshū was no longer a significant influence on waka poetry, compared to the Kokin Wakashū. Where the Kokin Wakashū was concerned with subjective experience, word play, flow, and elegant diction (neither colloquial nor pseudo-Chinese), the Shin Kokin Wakashū (formed with poetry written by Saigyō and others writing in the same style) was less subjective, had fewer verbs and more nouns, was not as interested in word play, allowed for repetition, had breaks in the flow, was slightly more colloquial, and more somber and melancholic. Due to the turbulent times, Saigyō focuses not just on mono no aware (sorrow from change) but also on sabi (loneliness) and kanashi (sadness).
To me, Saigyō is a great self-realized poet who showed his depth of spirituality through symbolism. This tanka is no exception. The idea that thoughts can inflame the body is quite a Zen idea, I would say. The Zen state is being aware without thoughts. The burning might be real or metaphorical. If we indulge in thoughts, we set our reality ablaze instead of seeing it in its natural serenity. Speaking on a physical level, thoughts are reactions to stimuli, and these reactions can even heat up our liver and cause our body to heat up.
However, the last two lines can also be taken literally or figuratively. Saigyō was a wanderer and hermit who survived harsh conditions. He may have been giving credit to nature to exposing him to his true self by settling his thoughts through cool wind. But this also could be a reference to the wind that Bashō said called him to poetry. This wind, felt on the palms and above the head when one is a self-realized person, has been described in many spiritual practices and traditions, including Zen. It is interesting he says “cooling wind” instead of “freezing wind or “cold wind,” as “cooling wind” points more to a soothing experience, and possibly to the experience of wind being emitted from the hands and above the head from enlightenment. To some readers, feeling a cool breeze coming out of one’s hands and head may seem far-fetched, but this experience has been recorded by Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and many other traditions in the past and currently.
Personally, I believe Saigyō is talking directly about his experience as a self-realized person, and tells readers that they need to feel their eternal spirit to fully dispel their thoughts in order to know reality. Unless and until we experience this, reality will always be clouded by what we think of it.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky