Buddhist poetry in Japan and the fallen autumn leaf: Henjō (816-890) and Sōgi (1421-1502)


Buddhist poetry in Japan and the fallen autumn leaf: Henjō (816-890) and Sōgi (1421-1502)

Lee jay walker

Modern times of Tokyo

In two short poems by Henjō (816-890) and Sōgi (1421-1502), you can feel the last pangs of life and the memories that become a dream world. Therefore, these two holy Japanese Buddhist monks – with Henjō being “past”, during Sōgi’s life, which was “now”, would eventually meet and become “past” regarding the natural passages of life.

If Sōgi paid homage to Henjō by visiting Henjō’s final abode, then only the dreamlike world of ideas could awaken a connection. Of course, for Henjō’s family and friends after his death, the abandoned house and the feeling of emptiness would have been the dominant emotions.

In a lovely poem by Sōgi below, the aftermath of a loved one can be felt vividly.

We can realize
that people are just dreams:
the abandoned house,
his wild garden becomes home
to a swarm of butterflies.

Throughout his life, Henjō mingled with the upper echelons of society. Over time, Henjō became a Tendai Buddhist monk. However, although Sōgi was born to more humble parents, he also rose up due to his knowledge and poetry.

Henjō and Sōgi were both influenced by Chinese culture and philosophy regarding the powerful heritage of the Middle Kingdom (China). Yet naturally, different Buddhist traditions in Japan emerged regarding cultural traits, Shintoism, and new Buddhist concepts that would fit well into the worldview of Tendai Buddhism.

In Henjō’s poem below, you can feel a sense of gloom and acceptance. He wrote:

On his way to leave the world, a man
come to rest
Under trees
But he can’t find a shade
For every autumn leaf has fallen.

In a previous article I wrote, “These words are extremely poignant because everything that seemed possible is now just a second from nothing. Of course, people will read the words differently. Regardless of that, the power remains forever. Plus, you can feel the steadfastness of Buddhism that shaped the world of Henjō.

These two poems by Henjō and Sōgi are timeless. Immediately as I read I think of my late mother (Judy Doggett Walker 1934-2019) and the last throes of her life which were a never-ending struggle. So, as Sōgi wrote, “the abandoned house” and the feeling that “people are only dreams” becomes intrusive.

However, just like the Buddha and Jesus – and holy people of different faiths – despite their deaths thousands of years ago, their words and actions continue to inspire and reconnect.

Now, while ordinary people have long been forgotten by time – for the short period of memories that connect people (family, friends or pets), loved ones who are part of our shorter dream world will inspire and will always bring smiles of joy on a good day!

http://www.wakapoetry.net/kks-v-292/ – Waka poetry site

http://davidbowles.us/poetry/translations/dream-people-by-monk-sogi/ – translated by David Bowles

Illustration by Sawako Utsumi

http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/sawako-utsumi.html – Sawako Utsumi and where you can buy his artwork, postcards, bags and other products. Also, individuals can contact her for individual requests.


In memory of my mother Judy Doggett Walker who passed away from this land on April 10, 2019

Judy Doggett Walker (November 29, 1934 to April 10, 2019)


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