Japanese Buddhist poetry and the shadow of life: Henjō (816-890) and Sōgi (1421-1502)

Japanese Buddhist poetry and the shadow of life: Henjō (816-890) and Sōgi (1421-1502)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Two short poems by two Buddhist holy men who hail from Japan say much about the shadow of life and the memories that are left behind. It matters not that both poets come from very contrasting times in history. After all, Henjō (816-890) was born in the ninth century, while Sōgi (1421-1502) was born in the fifteenth century.

Hence, the binding forces of Buddhism, philosophical concepts, and the role of Shintoism that shapes Japan renders the enormous gap in time to be unimportant. Thereby, the thoughtful short poems by Henjō and Sōgi hit a powerful chord to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, irrespective if yesteryear or now.

Henjō 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.

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.

In the poem by Sōgi below, you feel the aftermath of a loved one now gone. The Buddhist holy man wrote:

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

Sadly, both poems hit my own emotions after the recent death of my mother, Judy Doggett Walker (1934-2019). This equally applies to her last moments on this earth and her home feeling abandoned and soulless. Just like the withering inside flowers denote the wild garden and sometimes the dream world that I seek to enter.

Overall, the words in these two poems by Henjō and Sōgi are timeless and apply to all people irrespective of faith or no faith.

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

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

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

Images of Judy Doggett Walker and her son Lee Jay

Rest In Peace – Judy Doggett Walker (November 29, 1934, to April 10, 2019)


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