Japan, the Beautiful and Myself

Yasunari Kawabata

“In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the cuckoo.
In autumn the moon, and in winter the snow, clear, cold.”

“The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me company.
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold.”
The first of these poems is by the priest Dogen (1200-1253) and bears the title “Innate Spirit”. The second is by the priest Myoe (1173-1232). When I am asked for specimens of calligraphy, it is these poems that I often choose.

The second poem bears an unusually detailed account of its origins, such as to be an explanation of the heart of its meaning: “On the night of the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the year 1224, the moon was behind clouds. I sat in Zen meditation in the Kakyu Hall. When the hour of the midnight vigil came, I ceased meditation and descended from the hall on the peak to the lower quarters, and as I did so the moon came from the clouds and set the snow to glowing. The moon was my companion, and not even the wolf howling in the valley brought fear. When, presently, I came out of the lower quarters again, the moon was again behind clouds. As the bell was signalling the late-night vigil, I made my way once more to the peak, and the moon saw me on the way. I entered the meditation hall, and the moon, chasing the clouds, was about to sink behind the peak beyond, and it seemed to me that it was keeping me secret company.”

There follows the poem I have quoted, and with the explanation that it was composed as Myoe entered the meditation hall after seeing the moon behind the mountain, there comes yet another poem:

“I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.
Night after night we shall keep each other company.”

Here is the setting for another poem, after Myoe had spent the rest of the night in the meditation hall, or perhaps gone there again before dawn:

“Opening my eyes from my meditations, I saw the moon in the dawn, lighting the window. In a dark place myself, I felt as if my own heart were glowing with light which seemed to be that of the moon:

‘My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.’ ”

Because of such a spontaneous and innocent stringing together of mere ejaculations as the following, Myoe has been called the poet of the moon:

“Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.”

In his three poems on the winter moon, from late night into the dawn, Myoe follows entirely the bent of Saigyo, another poet-priest, who lived from 1118 to 1190: “Though I compose poetry, I do not think of it as composed poetry.” The thirty-one syllables of each poem, honest and straightforward as if he were addressing the moon, are not merely to “the moon as my companion”. Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature. The light of the “clear heart” of the priest, seated in the meditation hall in the darkness before the dawn, becomes for the dawn moon its own light.

 As we see from the long introduction to the first of Myoe’s poems quoted above, in which the winter moon becomes a companion, the heart of the priest, sunk in meditation upon religion and philosophy, there in the mountain hall, is engaged in a delicate interplay and exchange with the moon; and it is this of which the poet sings. My reason for choosing that first poem when asked for a specimen of my calligraphy has to do with its remarkable gentleness and compassion. Winter moon, going behind the clouds and coming forth again, making bright my footsteps as I go to the meditation hall and descend again, making me unafraid of the wolf: does not the wind sink into you, does not the snow, are you not cold? I choose the poem as a poem of warm, deep, delicate compassion, a poem that has in it the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit.

Dr. Yashiro Yukio, internationally known as a scholar of Botticelli, a man of great learning in the art of the past and the present, of the East and the West, has summed up one of the special characteristics of Japanese art in a single poetic sentence: “The time of the snows, of the moon, of the blossoms – – – then more than ever we think of our comrades.” When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure. The excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow feelings, yearnings for companionship, and the word “comrade” can be taken to mean “human being”. The snow, the moon, the blossoms, words expressive of the seasons as they move one into another, include in the Japanese tradition the beauty of mountains and rivers and grasses and trees, of all the myriad manifestations of nature, of human feelings as well.

That spirit, that feeling for one’s comrades in the snow, the moonlight, under the blossoms, is also basic to the tea ceremony. A tea ceremony is a coming together in feeling, a meeting of good comrades in a good season. I may say in passing, that to see my novel Thousand Cranes as an evocation of the formal and spiritual beauty of the tea ceremony is a misreading. It is a negative work, and expression of doubt about and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen.

“In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the cuckoo.
In autumn the full moon, in winter the snow, clear, cold.”

One can, if one chooses, see in Dogen’s poem the beauty of the four seasons no more than a conventional, ordinary, mediocre stringing together, in a most awkward form of representative images from the four seasons. One can see it as a poem that is not really a poem at all. And yet very similar is the deathbed poem of the priest Ryokan (1758-1831):

“What shall be my legacy? The blossoms of spring,
The cuckoo in the hills, the leaves of autumn.”

In this poem, as in Dogen’s, the commonest of figures and the commonest of words are strung together without hesitation – – – no, to particular effect, rather – – – and so they transmit the very essence of Japan. And it is Ryokan’s last poem that I have quoted.

 “A long, misty day in spring:
I saw it to a close, playing ball with the children.

“The breeze is fresh, the moon is clear.
Together let us dance the night away, in what is left of old age.”

“It is not that I wish to have none of the world,
It is that I am better at the pleasure enjoyed alone.”

Ryokan, who shook off the modern vulgarity of his day, who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries, and whose poetry and calligraphy are much admired in Japan today – – – he lived in the spirit of these poems, a wanderer down country paths, a grass hut for shelter, rags for clothes, farmers to talk to. The profundity of religion and literature was not, for him, in the abstruse. He rather pursued literature and belief in the benign spirit summarized in the Buddhist phrase “a smiling face and gentle words”. In his last poem he offered nothing as a legacy. He but hoped that after his death nature would remain beautiful. That could be his bequest. One feels in the poem the emotions of old Japan, and the heart of a religious faith as well.

“I wondered and wondered when she would come.
And now we are together. What thoughts need I have?”

Ryokan wrote love poetry too. This is an example of which I am fond. An old man of sixty-nine (I might point out that at the same age I am the recipient of the Nobel Prize), Ryokan met a twenty-nine-year old nun named Teishin, and was blessed with love. The poem can be seen as one of happiness at having met the ageless woman, of happiness at having met the one for whom the wait was so long. The last line is simplicity itself.

Ryokan died at the age of seventy-three. He was born in the province of Echigo, the present Niigata Prefecture and the setting of my novel Snow Country, a northerly region on what is known as the reverse side of Japan, where cold winds come down across the Japan Sea from Siberia. He lived his whole life in the snow country, and to his “eyes in their last extremity”, when he was old and tired and knew that death was near, and had attained enlightenment, the snow country, as we see in his last poem, was yet more beautiful, I should imagine. I have an essay with the title “Eyes in their Last Extremity”.

The title comes from the suicide note of the short-story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927). It is the phrase that pulls at me with the greatest strength. Akutagawa said that he seemed to be gradually losing the animal something known as the strength to live, and continued:

 “I am living in a world of morbid nerves, clear and cold as ice… I do not know when I will summon up the resolve to kill myself. But nature is for me more beautiful than it has ever been before. I have no doubt that you will laugh at the contradiction, for here I love nature even when I am contemplating suicide. But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity.”

Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927, at the age of thirty-five.

In my essay, “Eyes in their Last Extremity”, I had to say: “How ever alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment. However admirable he may be, the man who commits suicide is far from the realm of the saint.” I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide. I had another friend who died young, an avant-garde painter. He too thought of suicide over the years, and of him I wrote in this same essay: “He seems to have said over and over that there is no art superior to death, that to die is to live,” I could see, however, that for him, born in a Buddhist temple and educated in a Buddhist school, the concept of death was very different from that in the West. ”

Among those who give thoughts to things, is there one who does not think of suicide?” With me was the knowledge that that fellow Ikkyu (1394-1481) twice contemplated suicide. I have “that fellow”, because the priest Ikkyu is known even to children as a most amusing person, and because anecdotes about his limitlessly eccentric behavior have come down to us in ample numbers. It is said of him that children climbed his knee to stroke his beard, that wild birds took feed from his hand. It would seem from all this that he was the ultimate in mindlessness, that he was an approachable and gentle sort of priest. As a matter of fact he was the most severe and profound of Zen priests. Said to have been the son of an emperor, he entered a temple at the age of six, and early showed his genius as a poetic prodigy. At the same time he was troubled with the deepest of doubts about religion and life. “If there is a god, let him help me. If there is none, let me throw myself to the bottom of the lake and become food for fishes.”

Leaving behind these words he sought to throw himself into a lake, but was held back. On another occasion, numbers of his fellows were incriminated when a priest in his Daitokuji Temple committed suicide. Ikkyu went back to the temple, “the burden heavy on my shoulders,” and sought to starve himself to death. He gave his collected poetry the title “Collection of the Roiling Clouds”, and himself used the expression “Roiling Clouds” as a pen name. In his collection and its successor are poems quite without parallel in the Chinese and especially the Zen poetry of the Japanese middle ages, erotic poems and poems about the secrets of the bedchamber that leave one in utter astonishment. He sought, by eating fish and drinking spirits and having commerce with women, to go beyond the rules and proscriptions of the Zen of his day, and to seek liberation from them, and thus, turning against established religious forms, he sought in the pursuit of Zen the revival and affirmation of the essence of life, of human existence, in a day civil war and moral collapse.

His temple, the Daitokuji at Murasakino in Kyoto, remains a center of the tea ceremony, and specimens of his calligraphy are greatly admired as hangings in alcoves of tea rooms.

 I myself have two specimens of Ikkyu’s calligraphy. One of them is a single line: “It is easy to enter the world of the Buddha, it is hard to enter the world of the devil.” Much drawn to these words, I frequently make use of them when asked for a specimen of my own calligraphy. They can be read in any number of ways, as difficult as one chooses, but in that world of the devil added to the world of the Buddha, Ikkyu of Zen comes home to me with great immediacy. The fact that for an artist, seeking truth, good, and beauty, the fear and petition even as a prayer in those words about the world of the devil – – – the fact that it should be there apparent on the surface, hidden behind, perhaps speaks with the inevitability of fate. There can be no world of the Buddha without the world of the devil. And the world of the devil is the world difficult of entry. It is not for the weak of heart.

“If you meet a Buddha, kill him. If you meet a patriarch of the law,
kill him.”

This is a well-known Zen motto. If Buddhism is divided generally into the sects that believe in salvation by faith and those that believe in salvation by one’s own efforts, then of course there must be such violent utterances in Zen, which insists upon salvation by one’s own efforts. On the other side, the side of salvation by faith, Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of the Shin sect, once said: “The good shall be reborn in paradise, and how much more shall it be so with the bad.” This view of things has something in common with Ikkyu’s world of the Buddha and world of the devil, and yet at heart the two have their different inclinations. Shinran also said: “I shall not take a single disciple.”

“If you meet a Buddha, kill him. If you meet a patriarch of the law, kill him.” “I shall not take a single disciple.” In these two statements, perhaps, is the rigorous fate of art.

In Zen there is no worship of images. Zen does have images, but in the hall where the regimen of meditation is pursued, there are neither images nor pictures of Buddhas, nor are there scriptures. The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless. There are of course masters of Zen, and the disciple is brought toward enlightenment by exchanging questions and answers with his master, and he studies the scriptures.

The disciple must, however, always be lord of his own thoughts, and must attain enlightenment through his own efforts. And the emphasis is less upon reason and argument than upon intuition, immediate feeling. Enlightenment comes not from teaching but through the eye awakened inwardly. Truth is in “the discarding of words”, it lies “outside words”. And so we have the extreme of “silence like thunder”, in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Tradition has it that Bodhidharma, a southern Indian prince who lived in about the sixth century and was the founder of Zen in China, sat for nine years in silence facing the wall of a cave, and finally attained enlightenment. The Zen practice of silent meditation in a seated posture derives from Bodhidharma.

Here are two religious poems by Ikkyu:

“Then I ask you answer. When I do not you do not.
What is there then on your heart, O Lord Bodhidharma?”

“And what is it, the heart?
It is the sound of the pine breeze in the ink painting.”

Here we have the spirit of Zen in Oriental painting. The heart of the ink painting is in space, abbreviation, what is left undrawn. In the words of the Chinese painter Chin Nung: “You paint the branch well, and you hear the sound of the wind.” And the priest Dogen once more: “Are there not these cases? Enlightenment in the voice of the bamboo. Radiance of heart in the peach blossom.”

Ikenobo Sen’o, a master of flower arranging, once said (the remark is to be found in his Sayings): “With a spray of flowers, a bit of water, one evokes the vastness of rivers and mountains.” The Japanese garden too, of course symbolizes the vastness of nature. The Western garden tends to be symmetrical, the Japanese garden asymmetrical, and this is because the asymmetrical has the greater power to symbolize multiplicity and vastness. The asymmetry, of course, rests upon a balance imposed by delicate sensibilities. Nothing is more complicated, varied, attentive to detail, than the Japanese art of landscape gardening. Thus there is the form called the dry landscape, composed entirely of rocks, in which the arrangement of stones gives expression to mountains and rivers that are not present, and even suggests the waves of the great ocean breaking in upon cliffs. Compressed to the ultimate, the Japanese garden becomes the bonsai dwarf garden, or the bonseki, its dry version.

In the Oriental word for landscape, literally “mountain-water”, with its related implications in landscape painting and landscape gardening, there is contained the concept of the sere and wasted, and even of the sad and the threadbare. Yet in the sad, austere, autumnal qualities so valued by the tea ceremony, itself summarized in the expression “gently respectful, cleanly quiet”, there lies concealed a great richness of spirit; and the tea room, so rigidly confined and simple, contains boundless space and unlimited elegance. The single flower contains more brightness than a hundred flowers. The great sixteenth-century master of the tea ceremony and flower arranging, Rikyu, taught that it was wrong to use fully opened flowers.

Even in the tea ceremony today the general practice is to have in the alcove of the tea room but a single flower, and that a flower in bud. In winter a special flower of winter, let us say a camellia, bearing some such name as White Jewel or Wabisuke, which might be translated literally as “Helpmate in Solitude”, is chosen, a camellia remarkable among camellias for its whiteness and the smallness of its blossoms; and but a single bud is set out in the alcove. White is the cleanest of colors, it contains in itself all the other colors. And there must always be dew on the bud. The bud is moistened with a few drops of water. The most splendid of arrangements for the tea ceremony comes in May, when a peony is put out in a celadon vase; but here again there is but a single bud, always with dew upon it. Not only are there drops of water upon the flower, the vase too is frequently moistured.

Among flower vases, the ware that is given the highest rank is old Iga, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it commands the highest price. When old Iga has been dampened, its colors and its glow take on a beauty such as to awaken on afresh. Iga was fired at very high temperatures. The straw ash and the smoke from the fuel fell and flowed against the surface, and as the temperature dropped, became a sort of glaze. Because the colors were not fabricated but were rather the result of nature at work in the kiln, color patterns emerged in such varieties as to be called quirks and freaks of the kiln. The rough, austere, strong surfaces of old Iga take on a voluptuous glow when dampened. It breathes to the rhythm of the dew of the flowers.

The taste of the tea ceremony also asks that the tea bowl be moistened before using, to give it its own soft glow.

Ikenobo Sen’o remarked on another occasion (this too is in his Sayings) that “the mountains and strands should appear in their own forms”. Bringing a new spirit into his school of flower arranging, therefore, he found “flowers” in broken vessels and withered branches, and in them too the enlightenment that comes from flowers. “The ancients arranged flowers and pursued enlightenment.” Here we see awakening to the heart of the Japanese spirit, under the influence of Zen. And in it too, perhaps, is the heart of a man living in the devastation of long civil wars.

The Tales of Ise, compiled in the tenth century, is the oldest Japanese collection of lyrical episodes, numbers of which might be called short stories. In one of them we learn that the poet Ariwara no Yukihira, having invited guests, put in flowers:

“Being a man of feeling, he had in a large jar a most unusual wistaria. The trailing spray of flowers was upwards of three and a half feet long.”

A spray of wistaria of such length is indeed so unusual as to make one have doubts about the credibility of the writer; and yet I can feel in this great spray a symbol of Heian culture. The wistaria is a very Japanese flower, and it has a feminine elegance. Wistaria sprays, as they trail in the breeze, suggest softness, gentleness, reticence. Disappearing and then appearing again in the early summer greenery, they have in them that feeling for the poignant beauty of things long characterized by the Japanese as mono no aware. No doubt there was a particular splendor in that spray upwards of three and a half feet long.

The splendors of Heian culture a millennium ago and the emergence of a peculiarly Japanese beauty were as wondrous as this “most unusual wistaria”, for the culture of T’ang China had at length been absorbed and Japanized. In poetry there came, early in the tenth century, the first of the imperially commissioned anthologies, the Kokinshu, and in fiction, the Tales of Ise, followed by the supreme masterpieces of classical Japanese prose, the Tale of Genji of Lady Murasaki and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, both of whom lived from the late tenth century into the early eleventh. So was established a tradition which influenced and even controlled Japanese literature for eight hundred years.

The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it. That such a modern work should have been written in the eleventh century is a miracle, and as a miracle the work is widely known abroad. Although my grasp of classical Japanese was uncertain, the Heian classics were my principal boyhood reading, and it is the Genji, I think, that has meant the most to me. For centuries after it was written, fascination with the Genji persisted, and imitations and reworkings did homage to it. The Genji was a wide and deep source of nourishment for poetry, of course, and for the fine arts and handicrafts as well, and even for landscape gardening.

Murasaki and Sei Shonagon, and such famous poets as Izumi Shikibu, who probably died early in the eleventh century, and Akazome Emon, who probably died in the mid-eleventh century, were all ladies-in-waiting in the imperial court. Japanese culture was court culture, and court culture was feminine. The day of the Genji and the Pillow Book was its finest, when ripeness was moving into decay. One feels in it the sadness at the end of glory, the high tide of Japanese court culture. The court went into its decline, power moved from the court nobility to the military aristocracy, in whose hands it remained through almost seven centuries from the founding of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192 to the Meiji Restoration in 1867 and 1868. It is not to be thought, however, that either the imperial institution or court culture vanished. In the eighth of the imperial anthologies, the Shinkokinshü of the early thirteenth century, the technical dexterity of the Kokinshu was pushed yet a step further, and sometimes fell into mere verbal dalliance; but there were added elements of the mysterious, the suggestive, the evocative and inferential elements of sensuous fantasy that have something in common with modern symbolist poetry. Saigyo, who has been mentioned earlier, was a representative poet spanning the two ages, Heian and Kamakura.

“I dreamt of him because I was thinking of him.
Had I known it was a dream, I should not have wished to awaken.

“In my dreams I go to him each night without fail.
But this is less than a single glimpse in the waking.”

These are by Ono no Komachi, the leading poetess of the Kokinshu, who sings of dreams, even, with a straightforward realism. But when we come to the following poems of the Empress Eifuku, who lived at about the same time as Ikkyu, in the Muromachi Period, somewhat later than the Shinkokinshu, we have a subtle realism that becomes a melancholy symbolism, delicately Japanese, and seems to me more modern:

“Shining upon the bamboo thicket where the sparrows twitter,
The sunlight takes on the color of the autumn.”
“The autumn wind, scattering the bush clover in the garden,
sinks into one’s bones.
Upon the wall, the evening sun disappears.”

Dogen, whose poem about the clear, cold snow I have quoted, and Myoe, who wrote of the winter moon as his companion, were of generally the Shinkokinshu period. Myoe exchanged poems with Saigyo and the two discussed poetry together. The following is from the biography of Myoe by his disciple Kikai:

“Saigyo frequently came and talked of poetry. His own attitude towards poetry, he said, was far from the ordinary. Cherry blossoms, the cuckoo, the moon, snow: confronted with all the manifold forms of nature, his eyes and his ears were filled with emptiness. And were not all the words that came forth true words? When he sang of the blossoms the blossoms were not on his mind, when he sang of the moon he did not think of the moon. As the occasion presented itself, as the urge arose, he wrote poetry. The red rainbow across the sky was as the sky taking on color. The white sunlight was as the sky growing bright. Yet the empty sky, by its nature, was not something to become bright. It was not something to take on color. With a spirit like the empty sky he gives color to all the manifold scenes but not a trace remained. In such poetry was the Buddha, the manifestation of the ultimate truth.”

Here we have the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient. My own works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundation would seem to be quite different. Dogen entitled his poem about the seasons, “Innate Reality”, and even as he sang of the beauty of the seasons he was deeply immersed in Zen.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

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