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 Tokyo Times

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

If Sōgi paid homage to Henjō by visiting the final resting place of Henjō, then only the dream world of ideas could awaken any connection. Of course, for family members and friends of Henjō after his death, the abandoned house and feeling of emptiness would have been the prevailing emotions.

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

We may realize
that people are merely dreams:
the house abandoned,
its wild garden becomes home
to a swarm of butterflies.

Throughout Henjō’s life, he mixed with the upper echelons of society. In time, Henjō became a Tendai Buddhist monk. However, despite Sōgi being born to more humble parents, he also rose high because of his knowledge and poetry.

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

In the poem below by Henjō, you can feel a sense of morose and acceptance. He wrote:

On his way to leave the world, a man
Comes to rest
Beneath the trees
But he finds no shade
For every Autumn leaf has fallen.

In a past article, I wrote, “These words are extremely poignant because all that once seemed possible is now but a second away from nothingness. Of course, individuals will read the words differently. Irrespective of this, the power remains for all time. Also, you can feel the firmness of Buddhism that shaped the world of Henjō.”

These two poems by Henjō and Sōgi are timeless. Immediately when reading, I think about my late mother (Judy Doggett Walker 1934-2019) and the last throes of her life that were an endless struggle. Hence, like Sōgi wrote, “the house abandoned” and the feeling that “people are merely dreams” becomes pervasive.

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

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

http://www.wakapoetry.net/kks-v-292/ – Waka Poetry website

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

Art by Sawako Utsumi

http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/sawako-utsumi.html – Sawako Utsumi and where you can buy her art, 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 earth on April 10, 2019

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


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