by Paul K Lyons
In the moon’s clear light
all mundane desires
are but a path of dreams
So wrote the great poet Saiokuken Sōchō in medieval Japan, half a millennium ago. The verse comes from a memoir-like text, translated and published as The Journal of Sōchō. Although more a poetry collection with personal remembrances than a diary, the journal – and a companion work – have been called a ‘magisterial study’ of the poet.
Saiokuken Sōchō was born in 1448 in Suruga province (now in Shizuoka prefecture), Japan, to a blacksmith and his wife. He became a Buddhist monk in 1465 and later served Yoshitada Imagawa, but after Yoshitada’s death in battle, he left Suruga and went to Kyoto. He studied renga (a kind of collaborative way of writing poetry) under Sogi. He came to practice Zen Buddhism under Sojun Ikkyu of Daitoku-ji Temple, living by Shinjuan in Daitoku-ji Temple, and after Sojun passed away, he lived in Shuonan in Takigi village (Yamashiro Province, present-day Kyotanabe City, Kyoto Prefecture).
In 1496, Sōchō went back to Suruga, and served Ujichika Imagawa. In 1502, hearing the news of Sogi’s fall at Hakone Yumoto, he went to care for him on his deathbed. After Sogi’s death, he became the leader of the renga world with many influential friends. He is said to have been a diplomatic adviser to the Imagawa clan. In his later years, he built the Saiokuken (present-day Saioku-ji) Temple at Izumigaya by Mt. Utsuno in Totomi Province. He died in 1532. A little further information is available online at Encyclopaedia Britannica and at Worldtrade.com (a book industry website).
Sōchō left behind several manuscripts amounting to a kind a journal of his travels between 1522 and 1527. H. Mack Horton, an associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the manuscripts and produced, in 2002, an English language version, complete with annotations and various appendices – The Journal of Sōchō (published by Stanford University Press). He also produced a second work (also published by Stanford) to accompany the journal itself: Song in an Age of Discord: ‘The Journal of Sōchō’ and Poetic Life in Late Medieval Japan. The publisher claims that The Journal of Sōchō ‘is one of the most individual self-portraits in the literary history of medieval Japan’ and ‘provides a vivid portrayal of cultural life in the capital and in the provinces, together with descriptions of battles and great warrior families, the dangers of travel through war-torn countryside, and the plight of the poor.’
The journal records, the publisher explains, ‘four of Sōchō’s journeys between Kyoto and Suruga Province, where he served as the poet laureate of the Imagawa house, as well as several shorter excursions and periods of rest at various hermitages. The diverse upbringing of its author – a companion of nobles and warlords, a student of the orthodox poetic neoclassicism of the renga master Sogi, and a devotee of the iconoclastic Zen prelate Ikkyu – afforded him rich insights into the cultural life of the period. [. . .] This variety of cultural detail is matched by the journal’s wealth of prose genres: travel diary, eremitic writing, historical chronicle, conversation, and correspondence.’
The full work can be read freely online at Horton’s own website. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies has called Horton’s books ‘a magisterial study’ of Sōchō. However, describing Sōchō’s manuscripts as a diary or journal might be considered artful publishing. On the one hand, a very large part of the text is poetry, and, on the other, that which is not poetry reads far more like a memoir or autobiographical memories than a diary. Here’s an extract from ‘The Third Year of Daiei (1523)’
‘An old friend of mine named Rikijū lives at Gokokuji temple at Higuchi Aburanokōji. He called on me at my place of retirement, and for more than ten nights we slept side by side. He is an extraordinary lie-abed – a Time sect monk who cannot tell the time
Counting up the hours,
it is past four, now past six –
when does he think it is,
that Time sect monk fast asleep,
as dead to time as Fuji’s peak.
At Shinden’an in Takigi, I came across a letter case containing correspondence sent now and again about an offer to raise my son, the novice Jōha, about whom the writer had so often heard. On the back of one letter was a copy of the Diamond Sutra I had had young Jōha make at thirteen years of age. Shinden’an was built by the Zen nun Jikō, widow of Nose Inabanokami Yorinori. I perused the sutra and at the end, to the side, I wrote:
These dew-like tears
are all that now remain
after the wending wind,
a nurturing mother,
brought deep color to the oak leaves.
Inabanokami Yorinori did me great favors in the past, and I have been told that he said until the day he died that he regretted not seeing more of me. Because of his uncommon taste for renga, I inaugurated a memorial thousand-verse sequence at An’yōji temple in Higashiyama for the repose of his spirit. I discussed the matter with Lord Sanetaka, and for the occasion the Zen priest Shōhaku, Sōseki, Teramachi, Hahakabe, Kawarabayashi Tsushimanokami, and others came up to the capital. It was quite a special event. I composed the tenth hokku of the thousand verses:
In the moon’s clear light
all mundane desires
are but a path of dreams.’