Saigyo Hoshi (1118 – 1190) was a Japanese Shingon priest who at times lived in temples on Mt. Koya and Mt. Yoshino, as well as many other locations, but spent much of his life as a wandering ascetic. He was also an accomplished poet. His name, Saigyo, was actually a penname, meaning “Western Journey.”
He approached both traveling and poetry as “a way of religious devotion.” And even though he lived much of his life “on the road,” he nonetheless lived deeply wherever he happened to be, in communion with nature, involved with the people he met. He seems to have been a friendly man, with a carefree and humble spirit, drawn to a solitary existence while often longing for companionship.
A word that occurs frequently in Saigyo’s poetry is awaré, meaning “sorrow from change,” “the pathos of things”, or “an empathy toward things”:
Yama fukaku sa koso kokoro wa kayou to mo
sumade aware o shiran mono ka wa
While you may travel back and forth
from deep in the heart of the mountain
unless you actually live here
you can’t know its sorrow.
Saigyo isn’t talking about physical space here. In this simple verse, the mountain represents the world and life. Often in Buddhism, we speak of living a life of detachment as a means to overcome the sufferings of the world. But there’s a caveat to that. To be detached, you must first be engaged. If we never take time to be engaged in the world, we can never understand its sufferings, and that lack of understanding, that lack of awareness, keeps us ignorant, and ignorance is not really bliss.
Nirvana is bliss, because nirvana means to have awareness of suffering. That’s why we also say sufferings are nirvana. It is only when we become aware of our sorrows that we can learn to work through them. And it is only when we are involved in the world and engaged in the sorrows of others that we can have true empathy.
The Fourth Precept of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing reads:
Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”
In other words, we must live in the mountain to know its sorrows.
*from Edward F. Strange’s book, ‘The Colour-Prints of Hiroshige’, first published in 1925 by Cassell & Company, London