Compassion: Poem Number 95

Photo by Prince Kumar on

Since today is the Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day, the Enlightenment of the Buddha, I felt this poem would be very suitable:

おほけなくŌkenakuInadequate, but
うき世の民にUkiyo no tami nithey must shelter the folk
おほふかなŌu kanaof this wretched world—
わがたつそまにWaga tatsu soma nimy ink-black sleeves, having begun to live
墨染の袖Sumizome no sode“in this timber forest that I enter”.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The author of the poem is by a priest of the Tendai sect of Buddhism named Saki no Daisōjō Jien (先の大僧正 慈円, Former Archbishop Jien, 1155-1225) who was the son of Tadamichi (poem 76) and nephew of fellow poet Yoshitsune (poem 91) as well as Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) himself.

The last line of the poem is noteworthy because it is a direct quote from the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Saichō who lived centuries before. So, for many, this has been interpreted as Jien’s vow as a monk to carry on this tradition of compassion for all beings in a world that is transient and marked by suffering. Here, the “ink-black” or sumizome no sodé (墨染の袖) literally means “ink-black sleeves” (sumi is Japanese ink), and is the traditional color that Buddhist priests in East-Asia wear. Compare with the more orange-ochre robes in Southeast Asia, or red robes in Tibet.

This notion of compassion for all beings is exemplified by the Buddhist notion of a bodhisattva who is a being who is highly advanced on the Buddhist path and has turned outward to help and teach all beings before becoming a Buddha (i.e. enlightened) themselves. For example, the bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokitesvara), who hears the cries of the world.

Kannon, symbolized here with 1,000 arms, providing aid to all who seek it.

Tendai Buddhism, in particular, reveres the Bodhisattva ideal and practices, and not surprisingly the poem reflects this.

Interestingly though, Professor Mostow suspects the poem may actually be an allusion to Emperor Daigo, who was said to have taken off his robe one winter night to suffer the same cold as the people did.

In any case, the notion of good will and compassion for others is something I hope anyone finds inspiring.

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