Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry by Sesson Yūbai and the impact of the Middle Kingdom (China)

Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry by Sesson Yūbai and the impact of the Middle Kingdom (China)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The notable Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Sesson Yūbai (1290-1346?), witnessed the richness of culture during his stay in the Middle Kingdom (China) and the darkness of the ruling elites who imprisoned him. Hence, his time in the Middle Kingdom was extremely complex and this equally applies to the conditions he faced which differed during the years.

Sesson Yūbai belongs to the Rinzai School of Buddhism in his native land. During his time in Japan, you had countless places where Buddhist high culture was flourishing. For example, in Kamakura, Koyasan, Kyoto, and Nara. On top of this, you had many flourishing Buddhist sects and other flows of religion and philosophy that was impacting on the cultural scene of Japan.

During the informative years of Sesson Yūbai, he obtained great knowledge and wisdom from the Chinese émigré monk Yishan Yining (Issan Ichinei 1247-1317). Hence, while suffering initial trial and tribulations at first, Yishan Yining would in time enlighten the new dynamic military aristocracy that was being transformed in Japan. Therefore, the concepts of Confucian ideas would also develop further based on the influence of Yishan Yining.

Chinese poetry and the power of calligraphy would enrich the soul and artistry of Sesson Yūbai, who learned avidly from Yishan Yining. Yet, during his time in the Middle Kingdom, Sesson Yūbai would become entangled by issues related to Japanese piracy despite him being innocent of any involvement.

At one point, Sesson Yūbai faced execution but his cultural upbringing and astuteness happened to impress officialdom. Hence, he survived the hand of the executioner but not the ordered confinement put on him by authorities. Therefore, he would be confined to several monasteries in different parts of the Middle Kingdom.

Sesson Yūbai wrote:

I do not like praises and honors

Nor did I fear disdain

I just stayed away.

My mind, clear water,

My body bound and tied

For three years in Chang‘an

I sing what I feel in songs

In straight words, undecorated.

Overall, the world of Sesson Yūbai was influenced enormously by the Middle Kingdom. Yet, he also faced the wrath of the ruling elites despite not being privy to the events that riled the Middle Kingdom, in relation to Japanese piracy. Hence, on his return to Japan, one can only imagine the mixed emotions he felt.


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