Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I find empty rivers and mountains - in which I fail to comprehend the religious ideas in Ihara Saikaku and Wang Wei

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:

Mourning Meng Hao-Jan

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.


  1. I also recently read Five Women Who Loved Love and have read another of Saikaku's novels, The Life of an Amorous Man.

    From what I know of books of the Floating World (of which Saikakui is reputedly the originator) is that they both celebrate the life of the body and the emotional excesses and dissipations that come with it, while simultaneously being earnestly aware of their imminent loss and and the need to let them go.

    I think that the sense of imminent loss is what gives the bodily excesses both their beauty and their urgency, and ultimately their meaning. I think this accounts for the underlying melancholy even in the most ostensibly joyful scenes of play and pleasure.

  2. I've got a pretty good background in both Buddhism and the taoist/buddhist/zen poets and to add on to your interpretation of the Weng Wei poem, there is an importance of not being dependent upon texts and teachers as one moves towards enlightenment. If a practitioner relies too much upon them, it becames another snare of attachment. There's a koan says something along the lines of "Master, if I meet the Buddha along the road, what should I do?" "Kill him". Our own Buddha natures are not only sufficient, but the only path to be taken and can only be found in ourselves.

    For the rivers and mountains, there is also an embodiement of taoist qualities: yin and yang, form and formlessness, existence and non-existence, etc. What is understood in the west as paradox.

    I would say there is some trepidation in the speaker of the poem at being alone, but then finding peace by remembering the balance of the tao.

  3. These are very helpful comments. Helpful in elucidating some difficult ideas, at least. Whether or not I actually understand them isn't anyone else's problem. Allowing contradictory ideas to coexist is not a strength of mine, but it seems to be an essential Buddhist skill.

    Differentiating between the river and the mountain, I think I get that. There I see part of the challenge of this tradition - learning about the associations packed into specific words or phrases, helped or hindered by particular translators.

  4. While I'm not so versed in Asian poetry that I know all the translators, I do know that Hinton is probably the most known at the moment. The Stephen Mitchell (Rilke) of the East.

    And even if you don't have much background behind your reading of Asian poetry, the basic asthetics are solid enough to create interest. As an example, the length of the lines can mirror the way in which the original characters communicate-- as conceptual units and not individual words. Meaning, don't scan the lines and then weave them into a whole, as you would Enlish verse. Instead, piece it together as maybe you would with a triptych or a series of photographs. Block it together. Maybe good to keep in mind that where poetry in the West was a mix of language and music, poetry in the east is more of a mix of language and painting.

  5. Kenneth Rexroth recommends that the reader without Japanese or Chinese read a variety of translators. I been doing this enough now to think that's right.

    I have my problems with Hinton - sometimes he is happy to have a sentence or phrase not quite be actual English - but he is consistent about certain terms, which draws out specific ideas in the poems.

    The pictographic elements of Chinese verse are hopeless for me, aren't they? But I'll try to remember your advice, thanks.

  6. I think the significant word is "empty."

    In many religious traditions, to be "empty" means to be "receptive" or "open."

    While he is searching for "old masters," the rivers and mountains are instead receptive or open to the tao, the way things are.

    His mourning shuts him off from now by searching for the past, which is gone.

  7. Fred, I think I see what you mean. Without the adjective, the mountains and river are just landscape.

  8. Exactly--"empty rivers and mountains" to me, in this context, suggests something more than "rivers and mountains."