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

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