Poetry: Japanese Religious Poetry

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Poetic language has long had a special prestige in Japan. The earliest extant written texts, including the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters; 712), Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan; 720), and Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Years; late eighth century), all preserve examples of ancient oral poetry or song, as well as later written verse. The ancient inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago, like many traditional peoples, believed that ritual song or recitation had a magico-religious power. Special ritual and poetic language possessed the ability to move the deities or spirits to act in specific sorts of ways. The term kotodama (koto, "words"; and tama, "animating spirit") refers to this magico-religious power. Man'yōshū 1:27, for instance, is an example of incantational praise poetry. When recited by a ritual and political leader while surveying the land, the incantation was believed to assure the vitality and fertility of the land by praising and appealing to the local deities and ancestral spirits:

yoki hito noThe good ones [of the past]
yoshi to yoku mitelooked well and found it good,
yoshi to iishiproclaimed it good.
Yoshino yoku miyoLook well on Yoshino,
yoki hito yoku miO good ones, look well!

Man'yōshū 1:2 is another example of declarative ritual poetry. The emperor recited this verse, praising the land and its gods (kami ) as he surveyed his realm from atop Kagu-yama. In myth, this is the hill to which the kami had originally descended from the high heavens. As was the case in China, the prosperity of the land (the verse uses Yamato, the ancient name of the country) was attributed to the emperor's role as ritual mediator between heaven and earth:

Sumeramikoto Kagu-yama ni noboritePoem by the Sovereign when he
Kunimishi tamau toki no ōmi-utaclimbed Mount Kagu to view the land.
Yamato ni waMany are the mountains of Yamato,
murayama aredobut I climb heavenly Mount Kagu,
toriyoroucloaked in foliage,
ama no Kagu-yamaand stand on the summit
norboritachito view the land.
kunimi o surebaOn the plain of land,
kunihara wasmoke from the hearths rises, rises.
keburi tachitatsuOn the plain of water,
umahara wagulls rise, rise.
kamame tachitatsuA splendid land
umashi kuni sois the dragonfly island,
akizushimathe land of Yamato.
Yamato no kuni wa(trans. Levy, 1981, p. 38, adapted)

Poetry served numerous other ritual functions as well. Funerary verses (banka ) were recited by women to praise the deceased and to attract his or her tama back into the body. Man'yōshū 2:155 is an example of a ritual lament performed by women in the temporary burial palace for a deceased male member of the imperial family, in this case the Emperor Tenji (r.662671):

Yamashina no mi-haka yori sokiPoem by Princess Nukata when the
arakuru toki, Nukata no ōkimi nomourners withdrew from the
tsukuru uta isshuYamashina tomb and dispersed
yasumishishiIn awe we serve the tomb
wago ōkimi noof our Lord, sovereign
kashikoki yaof the earth's eight corners,
mi-haka tsukauruon Kagami Mountain
Yamashina noin Yamashina.
Kagami no yama niThere through the night,
yoru wa moeach night,
yoru mo kotogotothrough the day,
hiru wa moeach day,
hi no kotogotowe have stayed,
ne nomi oweeping and crying aloud.
nakitsutsu tsukarite yaNow have the courtiers
momoshiki noof your great palace,
ōmiyabito waits ramparts thick with stone,
yuki-wakarenamuleft and gone apart?
(trans. Levy, 1981, p. 109)

Recitative poetry was also used in a ritual performed to pacify the spirit of the dead. In the case of grave illness or on undertaking a dangerous journey, ritual verse was used to call back the patient's vagrant spirit and to "tie" it to the patient's body (tamamusubi ) or, alternatively, to "tie" the traveler's animating spirit in absentia into an object that was to be carefully guarded in order to guarantee the traveler's safe return. Man'yōshū 1:10, an example of this, also involves a critical moment of political intrigue. Reputedly, it was recited by the empress as her brother (later the Emperor Tenji) set off to initiate a coup d'état against the Emperor Kōtoku (r. 645654):

Nakatsu sumeramikoto,Poem by the August
Ki no ideyuIntermediate
ni idemashishi no mi-utaSovereign Nakatsu when she went to the hot springs of Ki
kimi ga yo moThe span of your life
waga yo mo shiru yaand the span of my life, too,
Iwashiro noare determined by the grass
Oka no kusane oon Iwashiro Hill.
Iza musubitenuCome, let us bind them together!
(trans. Levy, 1981, p.43, adapted)

The Shintō prayers of the imperial court (norito ) include similar elements, such as rites and prayers to pacify the imperial tama, to reinvigorate it, and to guarantee its presence in the imperial body and shrine for another year (tamashizume no matusuri and mi-tamashizumeno ihai-to no matsuri ). Magico-religious verse was also employed to control interpersonal relations (e.g., to attract or keep the attention of a loved one, to calm the anger of another human or divine being). Similar uses of recited verse or song were central to the ritual and cultural life of the Ainu, an "indigenous" people of northern Japan, down to the early twentieth century.

The belief in the magical efficacy of recitative verse survived long after the introduction of writing and literacy. Ki no Tsurayuki (884946), an aristocratic poet, wrote the most famous statement on the magical power of Japanese poetry in his preface to the Kokinshū, the first imperially sponsored anthology of waka, the thirty-one syllable verse form: "Waka has its origins in the human heart and flourishes in the myriad leaves of words.Without physical exertion, poetry moves heaven and earth, awakens the feelings of kami and invisible spirits, softens the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of ferocious warriors."

Much of classical and medieval Japanese poetry was influenced by Buddhist ideals and values. Kūkai, or Kōbō Daishi (774835), the founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism, wrote that the absolute truth of Buddhism was available only through the body, language, and thought, and this through three forms of esoteric practicemudrā (hand gestures), dhāraī (mantras ), and yoga (meditation), respectively. Numerous medieval poetic treatises identified waka poems with mantras ; others, in an instance of mystical numerology, claimed that the thirty-one syllables of the waka form (5-7-5-7-7), plus one for the verse as a whole, were the same as the thirty-two marks of the Buddha. Thus, composing or reciting a waka could accrue the same religious merit as carving a statue of the Buddha or reciting a mantra.

Japanese religious poetry was not all composed in Japanese, however. Buddhist priests studied Chinese poetry and literature, as well as Buddhist sūtras and commentaries. Aristocratic males in the Nara and Heian periods also used Chinese in official matters, much as Latin functioned for centuries in Europe. Thus, from the seventh century on, one finds Buddhist poems being composed in Chinese by Japanese monks and other members of the educated elite. As one would expect, these poems were informed by Chinese aesthetics.

Even after writing had been introduced into Japan, however, oral forms of religious song and verse continued to flourish. In medieval Japan, numerous different types of popular religious figures sang or chanted religious verse around the country. For example, from the Heian period (7941185) through the Kamakura period (11851333), asobi or asobime (itinerant female singers and dancers) performed songs called imayō. Some of these carried explicit Buddhist teachings; others portrayed the vicissitudes of life. Imayō served as vehicles to convey Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings to the masses, including the claim that all dualisms (e.g., high/low, sacred/profane, reality/illusion) were ultimately false. Asobi were often affiliated with specific temple-shrine complexes, and through their travels and songs they spread tales of the miracles associated with them. Asobi had a mixed reputation, however. Not unlike gypsy women in Europe, they were associated in the popular imagination with prostitution. Thus, Retired Emperor Go Shirakawa (11271192) scandalized some members of the aristocracy when he apprenticed himself for many years to an elderly asobi in order to master the religio-aesthetic art of imayō. He preserved many imayō in a work known as Ryōjin hishō, along with personal testimonies to their ritual power and efficacy. Go Shirakawa frequently engaged in all-night rituals of sūtra recitation, meditation, and the singing of imayō as a means of achieving religious insight.

Blind lay priests (biwahōshi) also performed religious songs and tales in the medieval period. Biwahōshi were organized into loose associations and were affiliated with temple-shrine complexes. They were found at many mountain passes and pilgrimage centers, where they played a lute (biwa ) and chanted oral tales and verses about the ephemerality of life, the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, and so on. The famous oral epic, Heike monogatari (The tale of the Heike), which recounts the contestation and warfare between the Minamoto and Taira or Heike clans, was performed and transmitted by biwahōshi down through the centuries. Today only a few such reciters remain, and they preserve only parts of the Heike monogatari performative tradition.

Many of the best-known poets of medieval Japan were poet-monks. Of these, perhaps the most famous is Saigyō (11181190). He spent time in ritual retreat in the hills of Yoshino in a grass hut (sōan ), yet he also actively participated in poetry contests and other aspects of the literary life of the capital. Saigyō became a major figure in the poplar imagination down to the modern period. Modern scholars have coined the phrase "grass hut literature" (sōan bungaku ) to refer to the literary works produced by such "reclusive" poet-monks. Yet it must be understood that they were not completely separated from the mundane world. Rather, they sought to find the Buddhist truths that were to be found in the world as such. The cry of a cicada or the tolling of a temple bell at dusk equally spoke to the ephemerality at the heart of all existence (mujō ). For those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and heart-minds (kokoro ) cultivated to feel the pathos of the emptiness of all things in the material world (mono no aware ), the phenomenal world itself revealed soteriological truths.

Still, as was the case in China, some Buddhists felt that the pursuit of poetry was incompatible with the religious life of a monk or nun. In general, however, poetry was embraced as an effective form of religio-aesthetic and meditative practice. Fujiwara no Shunzei (11141204), one of the leading poets of his age, was not alone in practicing a form of Tendai Buddhist meditation, known as shikan (concentration and insight), as a part of his poetic discipline. The way of poetry (kadō ), like the way of tea and other arts, was first and foremost a discipline, in the old-fashioned religious sense of the term. The Chinese character dō in kadō is also read as michi a path, way, or discipline.

Not all poets pursued the religio-aesthetic discipline of kadō, to be sure, but those who did undertook it as a rigorous form of self-discipline and ritual praxis. The works of the Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772846) were extremely influential in medieval Japan and provided one model of practicing kadō. Comparing his own verse to the Buddhist sūtras, Bai Juyi called his poems little more than "wild phrases and flowery language" (Jap., kyōgen kigo ), yet he offered them to Buddhist temples throughout his life. This practice of offering poems to temples and shrines has continued in Japan over the centuries.

Those who study the poems of medieval Japan as literature tout court risk missing the diverse religious functions that many of them served, as well as the religious practices out of which they were created. Although numerous medieval poetic treatises describe the poetic act as a spontaneous affective response on the part of the poet to the world around him, such rhetorical claims do not reflect historical reality. Rather than passively responding to the world or to events, Japanese poets often consciously sought to evoke specific mental and affective states that were deemed spiritually efficacious. That is, through acts of disciplined imagination or meditational techniques, they envisioned scenes and situations precisely in order to provoke specific stylized psychosomatic and affective states. Many medieval aesthetic terms, such as mono no aware, yūgen, wabi, and sabi, must be understood in these religio-aesthetic terms.

If the poetry of poet-monks has long been the object of study, the poetry composed by Buddhist nuns and Shintō shrine maidens has only recently begun to attract scholarly attention. With the recent release of archival materials long held out of sight by female religious institutions, however, we may anticipate that new perspectives on the religious lives of women will be opened. Similarly, these studies will help us to fill out more fully the religio-aesthetic milieu of medieval Japan.

Numerous other forms of religious poetry bear mention. The unique linked verse form (renga ) flourished from the fifteenth century. Renga was performance art before it was a literary onethat is, the compositional or recitative act itself was originally the ritual art form. A renga sequence was composed by a group of poets, who "linked" verses of seventeen and fourteen syllables in sequences of thirty-six, one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand, or even one hundred thousand linked verses. (A single-poet form, dokugin renga, also existed, but was relatively rare). Although renga originated as a Buddhist ritual performative form, it was soon adopted and adapted as a parlor game in elite circles of the court and in samurai circles. Renga sequences were often performed on temple and shrine grounds, while the written records were presented as offerings to the buddhas and kami. Sequences were sometimes performed by priests and samurai soldiers before battles and on battlefields after an engagement in order to pacify the spirits of the dead. Renga sequences were also performed, like sūtra recitations, in order to restore the health of someone. Itinerant Buddhist priests sometimes performed renga under the blossoms of weeping cherry trees (known as Saigyō zakura, "Saigyō's cherry trees") in order to pacify the kami who caused the plague and, thus, to ward off the disease.

By the seventeenth century, haikai no renga, a more popular and democratic form of linked verse, emerged. This form was practiced by people across the social spectrum of Tokugawa Japan, including samurai, merchants, and traders. This was the genre practiced by Matsuo Bashō (16441694), perhaps the most translated Japanese poet in the West. Bashō is popularly known as a haiku poet, although this characterization is anachronistic. The opening seventeen-syllable verse of a sequence (hokku ) only emerged as an independent verse form in the late nineteenth century. Bashō is an important transitional figure, however, with one foot in the medieval world and the other in the emerging modern world. He dressed in the garb of a lay Buddhist priest, styled himself in part on Saigyō, lived at times in a grass hut, and regularly went on religious pilgrimages. These pilgrimages doubled as business trips, though, for Bashō made his living by charging students for training in poetry. His travels both enabled him to visit notable religious and poetic sites and to meet with and compose linked verse with his students, or to gather additional ones. Like Saigyō before him, Bashō has become a significant figure in the popular, as well as the scholarly, imagination. The scholarly study of this popular imagery, even when inaccurate in terms of the historical Bashō, can provide important insight into the religious needs and nostalgias of later generations in Japan and the West.

Just as the central cultural role of religion has diminished in the modern world, explicitly religious poetry as a genre has also declined in importance. It has not disappeared, however. The founders and leaders of new religions sometimes use poems as a vehicle for spreading their teachings or proffer poems as revelatory statements, while some Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines continue to maintain their poetic traditions. In a recent "invented tradition," the emperor annually offers a New Year's versea tanka (once called waka )that is reprinted in all the national newspapers. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Japanese participate in haiku and other poetry clubs, millions of tourists visit historical sites associated with poets of the past, and offertory verses are still sometimes hung above the entranceway of new homes. If religious poetry plays a smaller role in the religious ritual lives of the Japanese today, concomitantly it plays a larger role in the collective remembered past as a national cultural heritage.


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