Sawaki on the poetry of Shōdōka

sakura-426877_1280Poetry gives off subtle tones that prose cannot express. The resonance of a verse awakens mysterious emotions in us. It’s a matter of a direct and personal understanding, an immediate and intuitive apprehension or, according to the expressions of Zen: “transmission from my mind to your mind,” “a special transmission outside of instruction,” or again, “beyond words and letters.” The personality of its author flows from a verse. A Zen monk who teaches the Way must be like a deaf-mute. His clumsiness matters little, what counts is the radiance he gives rise to; resonances must flow from his person. The deaf-mute expresses himself through gestures and mime and if we had to make ourselves understood like him, we would certainly be much more creative and original. In truth, the Zen monk’s transmission is situated somewhere else than in words.

The direct transmission of the spirit of the teaching of the Buddha takes very special forms of expression. Let’s say it is the originality of Zen. They always say that in Zen one has need of neither sutras nor literature, but if one consults a bibliography of Buddhist writings, one is surprised to ascertain that works of Zen are by far the most numerous. The reason for this abundant production lies precisely in the creativity and originality of Zen thought. It is truly very interesting and worth the effort of uncovering it, if only by the reading of a single sentence. But the words that express it will remain empty shells if one is unaware of its substance. The historical linguist is a blind man who contemplates the cherry trees in bloom. He hugs the trunk in his arms and asks himself if it is a cherry tree he’s clutching. There are those who see and those who do not see, and in the case of cherry trees in bloom, that makes all the difference.

Through study one can know everything there is to know about the five aggregates, six roots and twelve causalities that lie at the origin of the illusions which engender our actions, causes of our suffering in the past, present and future. This mountain of learning will perhaps be useful for passing an exam, but what does it have to do with our own self? Zen is not that. The transmission from person to person is an electric current that passes between two beings. From Shākyamuni, the current has passed to us. Conventional words are powerless to transmit the spirit of Buddha. Only poetic language can stir resonance in us. The first Zen poem that appeared in China is the Shinjinmei of the third patriarch. The second text in verse is the Shōdōka. The poem is in Chinese, but in order to render it accessible to the Japanese reader, I have introduced kana and restructured the phrases in the Japanese order.   Nevertheless, I advise the reading of it in Chinese to better appreciate its extraordinary flavor.

We know the quality of the Indian dharani, of the Japanese haiku and waka, but the resonance of Chinese poetry is completely exceptional. Zen was introduced into China at a time when the writings of Lao-tzu were in vogue and Taoism had exercised a profound influence. I am not an historian, and I cannot say if it’s due to the Zen or to the Chinese, but the poetry of this epoch sounds clear to the ear and crackles on the tongue. The highly subtle verses are sharpened like a razor. For whatever reason, a new literary genre with unique resonances was brought to life.

The verses of the Shōdōka sound clear and strong when read aloud. The rhythm of the verses and the modulation of the sounds render their recitation easy. In addition to the Shōdōka, numerous Zen songs belong to the same genre, such as the Shinjinmei, Sandōkai. and Hōkyō Zanmai, or also the poems to recite, Senshi and Shinpō, as well as the poem Sōan by Sekitō Daishi.

These long poems antedate the Hekigan. They were put to music and gave birth to the music of ceremony. The Chinese poems are rhythmic and melodious; their impact is still greater when one chants them. It is not a didactic poetry aiming at touching the intellect. Rather, it is like playing an instrument or listening to music. One experiences a religious feeling simply by reciting them.

K​​ōd​ō​ S​awaki​
Commentary​ on​ The Song of Awakening by Y​​ōka Daishi
​French translation of Japanese original by Janine Coursin
English translation from the French by Tonen O’Connor
Copyright 2014 Tonen O’Connor

2 thoughts on “Sawaki on the poetry of Shōdōka

  1. Bill

    “We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us.  We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.”

    Rainer Maria Rilke from John J. L. Mood.  Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties:  Translations and Considerations of Rainer Maria Rilke.


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