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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 205-207
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Grass and Tree Cairn by Santoka. Translated by Hiroaki Sato. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002. 74 pages, paper $14.95.
Imagine yourself on a pilgrimage to some of the many temples in Kyushu, Japan. Like me several years ago, you ride there on a motorcycle, getting whipped by the rain—not quite so Zen an experience. But I was young then, and wisdom was what I was looking for. Instead, I found an old temple in a ramshackle state, completely abandoned except for an irritable old monk. Nothing peaceful about him. Not so Zen looking, I thought. Still, something in him stayed with me: the frustration...the strain of a life completely cut off from the world.
Over time, I came to understand that a certain resignation and defeat can easily follow the loss of compassion for others and for oneself, no matter the depth of one's faith or religion. So it was with some comfort that I discovered the poetry of Santoka, a Zen poet who failed miserably at being a student, a businessman, and a husband, yet who maintained an earthy humor and humble embrace of nature. Ordained a Zen monk in Kyushu, he wandered through Japan begging for alms, much like Basho had done centuries before.
Santoka had plenty of reasons to despair. He was born Taneda Shoichi in Yamaguchi, the southern tip of the main island of Honshu, in 1882. When he was ten years old, his mother committed suicide. As a young man, he went to Tokyo to study literature at Waseda University, but dropped out and returned to Yamaguchi to start a sake brewery. At the age of twenty-five, he married and had a son, [End Page 205] but he also began to drink heavily. By 1911, he had joined a local haiku group and acquired his pen name, which means "Mountain-Head-Fire." Though he started out writing haiku with seasonal themes of kidai, he converted to "free-rhythm haiku" two years later. Rejecting the strict 5-7-7 syllable count, he was writing such haiku as this:
Sparrows dance yeah dandelions scatter yeah
Suzume odoru ya tampopu chiru ya
When his family went bankrupt, Santoka and his wife and child moved to Kyushu to open a second-hand bookstore. But tragedy struck again. At age thirty-six, his younger brother committed suicide. The next year, he left his wife and child and went to Tokyo. Before long, he was divorced. In 1923, the Great Earthquake struck. The police used the quake as a pretext to round up socialists, and he was arrested and jailed.
After his release, he went back to Kyushu. Drunk, he created a ruckus on a streetcar and sent it screeching to a halt. After that, he became a Soto Zen monk, devoting himself to daily chores as a means of seeking enlightenment.
The evening shower has washed the eggplants I pick 'em
Yuudachi ga aratte itta nasu o mogu
But he wasn't to stay at the isolated temple for long.
The misery of no longer being able to get drunk the crickets chirp
Yoenakunatta mijimesa wa korogi ga naku
When he was fifty-three, he attempted suicide. Several years later, in 1940, he culled 701 haiku from the fifteen thousand he had written and put them in a book titled Sumukoto (Grass and Tree Cairn). Struck by wanderlust again, he donned his black robes and large hat, packed his walking stick and begging bowl, and hit the road. He lived out his days as a mendicant monk, traveling through Japan.
Haiku might have been Santoka's antidote for despair. On the road, he wrapped his words around the natural world and attempted to make of it his home:
Withering grass I sit on its beauty
Kareyuku kusa no utsukushisa ni suwaru
Though the world had distinct moments of solitude, Santoka found that it offered comfort and connection as well:
I live withdrawn and a wren
Hissori kuraseba misosazai
According to Hiroaki Sato, who translated Grass and Tree Cairn and who renders the haiku seamlessly...