The Poet and the Rain

Friday’s post featured a quote from Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa. I do not know the exact source of the quote, but have seen it around quite a bit and thought it fit. I’ve only read a few pieces of Miyazawa’s work online, and until now was only vaguely familiar with his life story, owing to his association with Nichiren Buddhism.

miyazawa2In the last few days, I’ve learned a bit more about Kenji Miyazawa and want to share some of it with you. In addition to poetry, he wrote children’s stories, and evidently, what could be called science fiction fantasy. He was a musician and educator, who chose to maintain a spartan existence living off the land.

As a student, he had an abiding interest in agriculture and geology. At the age of 25, he became a teacher at an agricultural school. At 30, he left the school to become a farmer. He established a Farmer’s Society and gave lectures on rice planting and fertilizer use. He advocated the use of natural fertilizers rather than fertilizers with chemicals.

After reading the Lotus Sutra, he took up Nichiren Buddhism and joined the Kokuchkai or “Pillar of the Nation Society”. The group based their name on several statements by Nichiren, the fiery 13th century Buddhist prophet, who declared himself “the pillar of Japan.” Tanaka Chigaku, a leading figure in the ultranationalist Nichiren movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and was associated with the Nichiren-shu sect, founded the Kokuchkai in 1914. One of Tanaka Chigaku’s students, Nissho Inoue, became head of the League of Blood (Ketsumeidan), a Nichiren-affiliated group that carried out the assassinations of former finance minister Junnosuke Inoue, Director General of the Mitsui financial group Baron Dan Takuma and Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932.

There are Japanese scholars who believe Miyazawa may have had reservations about the fascistic nature of the Kokuchkai and eventually moved away from it. Others disagree with that view. Whatever the case, Nichiren Buddhism has been attractive to those in Japan with a nationalist agenda because Nichiren maintained that the fate of the country hinged on universal acceptance and devotion to the Lotus Sutra as the highest Buddhist teaching. The sutra is an important and popular text. Its cosmic imagery and mythic allegory of the Lotus captures the imagination of idealists. Miyazawa was certainly that, imagining in his stories a utopia called “Ihatov”, the named derived from Iwate, the prefecture of his birth. Regardless of how he felt about militant nationalism in his later life, he never swayed from his faith in Nichiren’s Buddhism. When he died at age 39 from pneumonia, complicated by malnutrition as a result of a strict vegetarian diet, his dying wish was that his father print and distribute 1,000 copies of the Lotus Sutra.

Miyazawa’s literary work was largely unappreciated during his brief life. Today, he is one of Japan’s most renowned writers. His most famous poem is Ame ni mo makezu, “Be Strong in the Rain.” It is one of his later poems and I read that it was found after his death in a black notebook, interspersed with repeated copying of Namu-myoho-renge-kyo (“Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra”). The poem reflects one of the more positive themes in Nichiren Buddhism, which is perseverance in the face of obstacles and hindrances, as well as the spirit of compassion.

There are two translations of Ame ni mo makezu. One is called “Do not be defeated by the rain.” I feel the superior translation is this version by author and translator Roger Pulvers:

Strong in the Rain

Strong in the rain
Strong in the wind
Strong against the summer heat and snow
He is healthy and robust
Free of all desire
He never loses his generous spirit
Nor the quiet smile on his lips
He eats four go of unpolished rice
Miso and a few vegetables a day
He does not consider himself
In whatever occurs…his understanding
Comes from observation and experience
And he never loses sight of things
He lives in a little thatched-roof hut
In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove
If there is a sick child in the east
He goes there to nurse the child
If there’s a tired mother in the west
He goes to her and carries her sheaves
If someone is near death in the south
He goes and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’
If there’s strife and lawsuits in the north
He demands that the people put an end to their pettiness
He weeps at the time of drought
He plods about at a loss during the cold summer
Everybody calls him ‘Blockhead’
No one sings his praises
Or takes him to heart…

That is the sort of person
I want to be


Great Fool

After I included Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem (“What happens to a dream deferred?”) in my August 19th post, “Hands UP, Don’t Shoot,” I realized it had been many months since I had posted any poetry on the blog.  It’s not good to go too long without poetry, and a recent comment on The Endless Further’s Facebook page put me in mind of Ryokan (1758-1831), one of Japan’s most famous poets and calligraphers.

In 1790, when Ryokan was 32, his master, Tainin Kokusen (1723-1791), abbot of Entsuji, a large Sôtô Zen monastic center, wrote him a poem:

Ryokan! How nice to be like a fool
for then one’s Way is grand beyond measure
Free and easy, letting things takes their course –
who can fathom it?
I therefore entrust to you this staff of wild wisteria
Whenever you lean it against the wall
Let it bring the peace of a noonday nap.

The poem is presented in Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan : Poems, Letters, and Other Writings By Ryokan. In Ryuichi Abe’s essay, “The Poetics of Mendicancy,” he notes that “Kokusen praises Ryokan’s carefree spirit, which can easily be mistaken for that of a fool. Almost all subsequent biographies introduce Ryokan with this name: ‘Great Fool’.”

Evidently, he had Ryokan, a good sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously. He wasn’t too proud to refer to himself as Taigu or “Great Fool.”

Ryokan spent most of his life as a wandering mendicant and then as a hermit.  He was a Zen priest, poet and calligrapher, and lover – at age 68 he had a love affair with a young woman 40 years his junior.

In a biographical sketch of Ryokan found in Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Put simply, Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut. So that a thief could take his bedding from him, he rolled over, pretending to be asleep. If he had rice he joyfully gave some to birds or wild animals. He placed lice inside his robes, and left a leg outside his mosquito net so that the mosquitoes could drink his blood. He had boundless love of all living beings and all of nature.”

Ryokan’s residence at Gogo-an.

Many stories grew up around Ryokan, and it’s doubtful all these tales are true, but there may be some substance to the robbery story because he composed a poem about it:

At least those robbers
left one thing behind –
the moon in my window.

Ryokan entered the Sôtô order at 18 when he became Kokusen’s disciple. Kokusen was a famous Zen master at the time.  After Kokusen died, Ryokan left Entsuji temple, wanting to find a purer spiritual life. He wandered for many years and in 1804 finally settled at Gogo-an, a cottage on Mount Kugami where he became a recluse.

He was sometimes called “Temari-Shonin” (“The Priest who Plays with a Temari ball”) because he often played with a Temari ball (Japanese cotton-wound ball) together with children in the mountain village. Ryokyan loved children, he loved the serenity of nature, and, as mentioned above, he loved a woman. That in itself is not particularly exceptional, of course, but with Ryokan we must take into consideration his “profession” as well as the age difference between himself and his lover.

Around 1826 he began a relationship with a beautiful 28-year-old woman named Teishin. She had been born the daughter of a samurai in the domain of Nagaoka in Echigo province. She married a doctor when she was 17, and five years later after his death she became a Buddhist nun.

The story goes that Ryokan became sick and could no longer continue living as a hermit and moved into the home of one of his patrons. Teishin was traveling through the same town and heard that Ryokan was infirm and staying in a small house nearby, and went to care for him.  She was not only beautiful but also literary. Ryokan fell for her right away, and evidently, the feeling was mutual. When his health improved, they would meet in the foothills.  I’m not sure if it is known whether or not their love was ever consummated physically, but the two did exchange a series of tender poems.

In 1835, Teishin’s Hachisu no tsuyu (“Dew on the Lotus”), a collection of Ryokan’s haiku and waka poems were published for the first time. In 2004, this collection was translated by John Stevens, and from that translation, here is a short selection from the poems Ryokan and Teishin exchanged:

“Ry?kan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)
“Ryokan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)


Playing temari [a ball] with the village children
You enjoy walking Buddha’s path
How fruitful and inexhaustible it is!


Won’t you bounce the ball?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
Ten is the goal,
You must repeat again!


Was it really you I saw,
Or is this joy
I still feel
Only a dream?


In this dreamworld we doze
And talk of dreams
Dream, dream on,
As much as you wish.

Teishin was at Ryokan’s when he died. it’s said that before he expired, he composed this final poem:

Showing their backs
Then their fronts
The autumn leaves scatter in the wind


Black Rain

Today, August 6, is the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It happened at 08:15 Japan time. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, released a bomb named Little Boy containing 64 kg (141 lb) of uranium-235 over the city. It took Little Boy 44.4 seconds to drop from 31,000 feet (9,400 m) to a height of about 1,900 feet (580 m) where it detonated.

hiroshima-damage4.7 square miles (12 km2) of the city was destroyed. Within seconds, 75,000 people were killed or fatally injured. 65% of the casualties nine years of age and younger. Beneath the epicenter of the explosion temperatures were hot enough to melt concrete and steel. 69% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. The bomb started fires that spread rapidly through wood and paper homes.

The blast released nearly 200 different kinds of radioactive isotopes (nuclear fission particles of uranium and plutonium that escaped fission). These particles and other materials irradiated by the bomb’s neutrons were carried high into the atmosphere.

The mix of massive amounts of airborne irradiated materials merged with heat and thermal currents from the firestorms caused it to rain within an hour of the bombing. Fallout particles mixed with carbon residue from fires created the deadly “black rain” reported by many eyewitnesses.

On that day, Hiromu Morishita was 14 years old and in the ninth grade. He survived. He became a calligrapher and teacher. He was president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan. He wrote a poem:


MorishitaWatch dutifully
with your eyes.

Here, something happened that shouldn’t have.
Here now, something irreparable continues.
Here tomorrow, signs of everyone’s destruction
may appear.

Don’t watch with one eye.
Don’t watch with your arm or with your head.

With the heart of one who endures despair.

– – – – – – – – – –

“Hiroshima” (Morishita, Bradley, and Dougherty 14) Memories of the Future: The Poetry of Sadako Kurihara and Hiromu Morishita Commentary by Edward A Dougherty


Basho’s Spring

It’s been spring for about a week now, which means it’s high time for some poetry.

By the way, next month is National Poetry Month, so expect some more poetry in the coming weeks.  But for today, poems on the subject of spring by the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694). I discussed Basho in a previous post. He was a student of classical Chinese poetry, Taoism, Zen, and became the most famous poet in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867).

He is often thought of as a haiku master, but as Dr. David Landis Barnhill, University of Wisconsin, in his book Basho’s Haiku, points out “it is most accurate to speak of Basho as a master of ‘haikai’ poetry.” Basho worked with the tradition of “linked verses” (renku or renga) in which two or more poets contributed alternating parts of a poem. Dr. Barnhill further explains,

In linked-verse, whether classical renga or its haikai form, the first stanza (hokku) sets the stage for the entire poem and is considered particularly important. One feature that distinguishes hokku from other stanzas is that is must contain a a season word (kigo), which designates which season the poem was written in: hokku are by definition poems about the current season. A hokku must also be a complete statement, not dependent on the succeeding stanza. Because of its importance to linked verses and it completeness, haikai poets began to write them as semi-independent verses, which could be used not only as a starting stanza for a linked verse, but also could be appreciated by themselves. So the individual poems Basho created are, properly speaking, ‘hokku.’”*

Now on to the poems. These are my own interpretations, not that they differ greatly from any other translations.

spring awakened
only nine days and look –
these fields and mountains!

slowly spring
is coming back
moon and plum

spring of this year
how enthralling
the sky of wayfaring

spring rain
dripping from the leaking roof
down the wasp’s nest

spring unseen –
back of the mirror
plum blossoms

spring –
a hill without a name
veiled in morning fog

Kannon’s temple –
gazing at its tiled roof
through clouds of blossoms

Note: Kannon is the Japanese translation of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion

– – – – – – – – – –

* David Landis Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press, 2004, 4


Basho’s Journey

Basho's drawing while on the road.

I’m an unabashed Basho fan. As some of you may know, Basho (1644-1694) is the most famous of all Japanese poets. On this date in 1689, he set off on a 150 day journey around Honshu. His travels during this time were the basis for his travel dairy Oku no Hosomichi, or “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, considered one of the major works of Japanese literature.

You can read about the book and Basho’s journey here at Wikipedia.

Basho, a Zen Buddhist, journeyed often during his life. He approached both his poetry and his wayfaring (always dressed in Zen robes) as spiritual pursuits.

One of his best known haiku, and one of my favorites, reads:

Old pond,
frog jumps in
– splash!

D.T. Suzuki, another famous Zen Buddhist, said of the haiku:

This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the whole universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.”

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is written in a form called haibum, a combination of prose and haiku which Basho was the first to develop. The link between the haiku and the prose section is not always clear. Often it is left up to the reader to discover. However, in this selection, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, the connection is rather obvious. Yamagata is a prefecture of Japan located in the Tohoku region on Honshu island.

from Oku no Hosomichi:


There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. After arranging to stay with the priests at the foot of the mountain, I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was no sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.