Japan poetry and the Buddhist monk Jien: The suffering world   

Japan poetry and the Buddhist monk Jien: The suffering world                                

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Tendai Buddhist monk Jien (1155-1225) left behind a lasting legacy in the cultural and religious dynamics of Japan. This relates to his poems and historical accounts of the time alongside the Tendai Buddhist angle.

Jien was born before the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) that was established officially in 1192. Hence, the warring period and convulsions that led to the rise of Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) shaped the cultural and political dynamics of society. This culminated with Yoritomo becoming the first shogun of the Kamakura Period in 1192.

The world Jien belonged to naturally impacted on his poetry. In the poem below translated by Professor Mostow, one can envision the impact of wars that Jien witnessed and knew about.

Jien wrote in a morose tone:

Inadequate, but
they must shelter the folk
of this wretched world—
my ink-black sleeves, having begun to live
“in this timber forest that I enter.”

Of course, further convulsions would erupt during the lifetime of Jien but the consolidation of the Kamakura Period continued. This includes the Jokyu War (1219-1221) and the Battle of Uji (1221). Hence, the world Jien belonged to was a very important period that altered the political landscape of Japan.

Jien wrote:

The wind in the pines

Is entangled in the snow

Along the rocky shore,

And I hear the sound of the waves,

Breaking, now near, now far.

Thus one can only imagine the pressures that Jien felt knowing the distrust in certain circles. In this sense, the holy Buddhist monk and his poetry should not solely be seen in a religious context. Instead, alternative meanings and the factors behind his words in the realm of society – and limitations – should be held highly into account.


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