Wednesday, February 4, 2015






(Abbot) Saki no Daisojo Jien

Though "I am not fit,"
I have dared to shield the folk
Of this woeful world

With my black-dyed sleeve —
I, who live on Mount Hiei.


Just in time
she grasped 
religion enough

to decline the "honor." 
Walk kindly, kindly walk —
how do you

talk about that
for an hour?


This poet was abbot of Enryaku-ji. The Tendai temple at the top of Mt. Hiei, from which there was a view of Kyoto in one direction and Lake Biwa in the other. Buddhism's grip on the Japanese imagination had begun to slip a little, and the monks of the more powerful sects, such as Tendai, struggled to maintain their place in political life -- to the point of forming their own armies. In later years, unwilling to have the intractable armed monks in his rear as he marched on Kyoto, Nobunaga sent part of his forces to kill everyone on Mt. Hiei and burn the temples, including Enryaju-ji. More than twenty thousand died -- men, women, children. There are risks in engaging in politics in troubled times, risks in disengaging from them. Also in being simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life, as so many poems in this collection underscore, is fragile and uncertain.

Here, the abbot declares himself as entirely focused on the needs of the people -- an appropriate goal for an aspiring Mahayana Bodhisattva. But what does he mean by it? Will he confine himself to ministry to the suffering? Or play kingmaker? Has he given up the first thing that must be given up -- an egoistic concern for his own comfort and safety?

Hokusai's Old Nurse has her suspicions. She sees the old abbot, following two acolytes to the altar to make offerings, with his entourage. The view of the pines outside is glorious. But ... where are the people? The best offerings are nowhere in sight.

Risa recalls having been called to the "ministry" -- to go on a speaking tour on behalf of an interpretation of religion to which, till that moment, she had ascribed. But she had a sudden vision of the scope of a life of faith: to offer good food to the hungry, clean water to the thirsty, nursing to the sick or dying, and comfort to the imprisoned and exiled. Where in the doing of these things does one find a hundred thousand words?