Saigyō and the Buddhist Value of Nature, Part 1
With in the history of Buddhism in East Asia the world of nature gained and retained a high position —something seen as having inherent religious value. This two-part essay reviews aspects of the history of this upward valuation of nature in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism and analyzes the interpretative shifts and changes made necessary by this impulse toward the attribution of increasingly great religious significance to nature. The development is carried as far as the twelfth century in Japan and the poetry of the Buddhist monk Saigyō (1118- 90), poetry which not only itself moved the valorization of nature beyond the point where earlier writers had brought it, but also, since as poetry it gained a position in the public mind and a place in the popular imagination of the Japanese people, historically "fixed" a lasting nexus between Buddhism and nature in the popular consciousness of the Japanese people. Saigyō, therefore, is of great significance in the history of Japanese religion, a fact that has always been implicitly recognized in the Japanese regard for him as Japan's greatest "medieval Buddhist nature poet." His poetry is important not only as literature but also as a document in the history of Japanese religion.
Although in what follows I am more interested in an analysis of Saigyō's verse—in relationship to the Buddhist view of nature—than in details of his life, it is of importance to note here that Saigyō, whose name before he became a monk was Satō Norikiyo, saw his Buddhist vocation as something to be carried out in the mountains rather than in temples and monasteries. Before becoming a monk he had been a military guard in the service of Emperor Toba and a member of an elite corps of palace guards known as the Hokumen no Bushi or "North-facing warriors." But at age twenty-three he relinquished his career in court and became a Buddhist monk . He was at first loosely attached to Shingon and Tendai temples in the vicinity of Heian-kyō or Kyoto and seems to have retained a lifelong attachment to the memory of Kūkai (774-835), the Japanese founder of the Shingon school. But Saigyō's forte lay in his composition of waka or thirty-one-syllable verse and it is in the context of his writing of these verses that we gain an understanding of his vision of nature, Buddhism, and the correlation of these two. For Saigyō the world of nature was the primary world of Buddhist values, and it is this that I wish to investigate in what follows. (LaFleur, "Saigyō and the Buddhist Value of Nature," 93–94)