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Patrick Donnelly

Patrick Donnelly

Gyōki (668-749) was an iconic and somewhat mythologized figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism—so much so that he was given the honorific bosatsu (bodhisattva) by his followers before his death.

Nichizō Shōnin (904-985?), also called Dōken, was a Nichiren Buddhist priest about whom many setsuwa (folktales) were written, describing his supernatural exploits.

Priest Sokaku, whose lay name was Fujiwara no Iemoto (12th c., dates unknown), was a member of the Karin’en group of poets.

Patrick Donnelly is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Little-Known Operas (Four Way Books, 2019). He is director of the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire, now a center for poetry and the arts, and a recipient of the US/Japan Creative Artists Program Award.

Stephen D. Miller is associate professor of Japanese language and literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is author of The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013), which includes co-translations of 141 Japanese poems with Patrick Donnelly, and which won the 2015-2016 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

Three Buddhist Poems from the Shinkokinshū

Shinkokinshū 1919

   When the author heard the rustling of reeds at Mitsudera in Namba

                        going in and out
like waves that rustle 
                        the hollow reeds—
how long will I go
across this sad world—
                             — Gyōki Bosatsu

ashi soyogu / shiose no nami no / itsu made ka / ukiyo no naka ni / ukabiwataran

Shinkokinshū 1923

    When the author secluded himself in a mountain cave
lonely soundless
           mossy door
to silence—
not one day 
           hasn’t rained!
a rain of tears
                             — Nichizō Shōnin

jakumaku no / koke no iwato no / shizukeki ni / namida no ame no / furanu hi zo naki

Shinkokinshū 1956

    The sad cry of the bleating deer, painful longing for the herd   

fleeing Ono
—the deep grasses,
   the hunting ground—
   I hear the deer crying
for his lost friend
                             — Priest Sokaku
kusa fukaki / kariba no ono o / tachiidete / tomo madowaseru / shika zo naku naru

Three Buddhist Poems from the Shinkokinshū

   Between the early 10th century and the 15th century, the Japanese emperors ordered the compilation of twenty-one anthologies of poetry. These anthologies contained anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand poems. The Shinkokinwakashū (Shinkokinshū for short, “New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems”) with 1,978 poems, was the eighth such anthology, commissioned in 1201 by retired emperor Go-Toba and officially presented in 1205.

     The compilers of the anthologies, in addition to arranging the poems under thematic headings (seasons, love, grief, travel, etc.), gave many poems a short prose preface. These prefaces, which addressed the poems’ thematic content or the occasions of their composition, are now considered aesthetically inseparable from the poems themselves. (In the Shinkokinshū, some prefaces are quoted directly from Buddhist scriptures.)

     The Japanese originals of these poems (like most poems in the imperial anthologies) are waka, the thirty-one-syllable form that was primary in Japanese poetics for over a millenium. Because Japanese poetry is written in vertical columns, there are no “lines” as such, but in waka the syllables are broken into groups of 5 - 7 - 5 - 7 - 7 syllables. These groupings are often rendered as five lines in English translations, but we chose to let the syntax in English take precedence over the poem’s original form. Likewise, our translations don’t imitate the syllabic form of the originals, on the reasoning that there isn’t a strong tradition of syllabics in English poetry. In part, this is because English, unlike Japanese, is a language in which the alternation of strong and weak stresses is important, a fact that gave accentual rhythm precedence over syllable-counting in English prosody. Our goal was to create interesting English poems that convey the emotional and spiritual arguments of the Japanese originals.

Notes on the specific poems:

The author of poem 1919, Gyōki (668-749), was an iconic and somewhat mythologized figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism, so much so that he was given the honorific bosatsu (bodhisattva) by his followers before his death. Namba is a ward in present-day Osaka.

The first word of poem 1923, "jakumaku," meaning "lonely" or "alone," contains the Chinese character for "quiet." This word is found in Chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra: "If a man preaching dharma / Is alone in a quiet and idle place, / Lonely, without a human sound / There reading or reciting this scriptural canon..." The author, Nichizō Shōnin (904- 985?, also called Dōken), was a Nichiren Buddhist priest, about whom many setsuwa (folktales) were written, describing his supernatural exploits.

Poem 1956, by Priest Sokaku (Fujiwara no Iemoto, 12th c., dates unknown), uses a common autumn trope, the crying (or "belling") of the male deer for its mate, an erotic or romantic metaphor, here inflected to refer to spiritual longing. The poem's preface is from the Makashikan, one of the most important texts of Tendai Buddhism.