Here are the endings - last sentences - of three of the stories in Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love:
1. "About this time the story of Onatsu was made into a play in the Kyoto-Osaka region, and from there it spread to even the most remote provinces, winding through each town and hamlet as an endless stream of love, on which men and women might embark with all their cares and float as light as bubbles through the Fleeting World."
2. "Their names, known in countless ballads and songs, spread to distant provinces with the warning: This is a stern world and sin never goes unpunished."
3. "And so this tale is told, with all its love and sadness, to show how unreal and uncertain life is, how much like a wild, fantastic dream."
All three tales end tragically, basically, and I suspect that any of these morals could be attached to any of the stories. Only the final story ends differently, with the gay husband examining his wife's teacups and salted mermaids and planning his sexual dissipation, which is much like a wild, fantastic dream, and not much like a stern world where sin never goes unpunished.
Saikaku's stories are built, in one way or another, on Buddhist religious ethics. This, to the reader new to Japanese literature, ignorant of Buddhist tenets (I mean me), is an obstacle to understanding. Saikaku's ironic use of these religious ideas is a futher complication. I have no idea when or if Saikaku is serious. How did a contemporary Japanese reader reconcile those endings? Or was that the, or a, point, a way that the five stories turn into one book?
Well, that's one reason we read fiction, right, to learn about the world. No reason I have to understand it all right away, or ever.
I'm making progress, though, with a lot of help. Here is a poem by the 8th century Chinese "hermit" poet Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton:
My dear friend nowhere in sight,
this Han River keeps flowing east.
Now, if I look for old masters here,
I find empty rivers and mountains.
Let's see. The friend, "the first of the great T'ang Dynasty poets," is absent, yet the world (the river) continues on its way. The landscape is empty of the friend, thus the poet's sadness. But the last line has a second meaning, that the "empty rivers and mountains" are themselves old masters. There's the Buddhism, the transcendent idea, the landscape imbued with meaning.
Have I crushed the poem to powder yet? Well, simplicity first, complexity later. I'm at least beginning to get an idea of what I should be looking for, even if I don't know what to do with it once I've found it. Small steps.
Here's a link to David Hinton's book of Wang Wei poems, with a few additional examples.