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  • Onitsura's Makoto and the Daoist Concept of the Natural
  • Peipei Qiu

In haikai history, Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738) is famous for the following statement concerning the nature of comic linked verse: "Without makoto, there would be no haikai."1 The two Japanese terms used in this statement, haikai and makoto, present an obvious semantic conflict. Makoto in Japanese basically means "truth," "faithfulness," and "genuineness."2haikai, on the other hand, literally means "facetiousness" or "humor." The term is used to refer to facetious poems in Japan since the first imperial poetic anthology, the Kokin wakashū (905). When haikai no renga (comic linked verse) became a popular genre during the later medieval and early Edo periods, it was conceived basically as a playful and facetious poem. By saying that "without makoto there would be no haikai," Onitsura declared a revolutionary change in the nature of the comic linked verse, a reform carried out by the joint effort of a number of haikai poets during the last two decades of the seventeenth century. Before this change took place, haikai had been characterized as a poem of "free exaggerations" and "the most deluding falsehoods."3 The shift of the critical emphasis from falsehood to truthfulness transformed the genre from an entertaining pastime to a serious literary form.

An important notion in haikai poetics, Onitsura's makoto has garnered wide scholarly attention. But, because of the lack of a clear definition by the author himself, over the years scholars have been debating the precise meaning of Onitsura's makoto and trying to discover its derivation through various sources. The filiation of makoto has been traced to Zen Buddhist doctrine,4 traditional waka poetics,5 and Confucian teaching.6 The assumption that Onitsura's makoto originates in Zen doctrine is based on the preface that Onitsura wrote to Haidō Enō roku (The Way of haikai: Notes on Huineng's teaching) (1680). The preface begins with the following lines:

Printed poetry books are not trees; the paper on which a poem is written also has no stand. "From the beginning not a thing is"—this is the key to my haikai.7

Peculiar at first glance, these lines are derived from the legendary gatha of Huineng (Enō), the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. Huineng's gatha appears in section 8 of Liuzu fabao tanjing (The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch):

Bodhi originally has no tree,The mirror also has no stand.From the beginning not a thing is,Where is there room for dust?8 [End Page 232]

The third line of the verse, "From the beginning not a thing is" , is regarded by some scholars, especially some Japanese writers, as the most important doctrine Huineng contributed to Zen Buddhism.9 It is believed that the focus on the original nothingness, or original purity, of Buddha nature distinguishes Huineng's doctrine of sudden enlightenment from those of his predecessors. Okada argues that the Zen notion of original nothingness was the major source that awakened Onitsura to the necessity of haikai reform and led him to the conclusion that "without makoto there would be no haikai."10

Okada's study is enlightening in examining Onitsura's early views of poetry. It is not, however, very convincing to say that this Zen verse alone was responsible for the formation of Onitsura's makoto. For one thing, the poet's own writings suggest that Onitsura realized the significance of Huineng's words after he had become aware of the true way of haikai. In the same preface cited above, Onitsura writes:

Only after I became awakened to the true way of haikai did I begin to understand the significance of Master Huineng's words "not a thing is." I see [that] many poets in the haikai circles nowadays have ignored the true way of haikai while arguing endlessly over the old and new styles. I feel sorry for them.11

It is clear from Onitsura's words here that he borrowed the Zen term mainly to criticize the mannerism among the haikai poets of his time. He was calling for the haikai poets to put aside their prejudice about the stylistic differences and open their minds...


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