Lean on Me: Poem Number 75

Japanese Mugwort (yomogi, ヨモギ) leaves, photo by Sphl, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is another autumn-themed poem, but with an interesting story behind it:

契りをきしChigiri okishiDepending with my life
させもが露をSasemo ga tsuyu woon promises that fell thick
命にてInochi ni teas dew on sasemo plants—
あはれことしのAware kotoshi noalas! the autumn of this year too
秋もいぬめりAki mo inumeriseems to be passing.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The author of the poem, Fujiwara no Mototoshi (1060-1142), was a leading poet of the famous Insei Period of Japanese history, along with his contemporary Toshiyori (poem 74).

According to Professor Mostow, this poem was written as a complaint to the former Chancellor and Buddhist lay-novice (upasaka) named Tadamichi, the same man who composed poem 76. The reason for Mototoshi’s complaint is that his son, better known as Bishop Kōkaku of Kofukuji Temple wanted to be the official lecturer of the Vimalakirti Sutra, but was overlooked year after year. But what does this mean? Buddhism in Japan at this time was a highly bureaucratic system that tended to favor the noble families, and official lectures on certain Buddhist texts were held at key times of the year. The Lectures on the Virmalakirti Sutra, or yuima-e (維摩会) was one such important occasion. Being the lecturer was a competitive and prestigious honor. It wasn’t enough to have the right skills, having connections were important too. Unfortunately, Mototoshi’s son wasn’t so lucky, and his father wrote this poem on his behalf after the Chancellor failed to appoint him again.

The term sasemo is another way of saying sashimo, which in modern Japanese is the yomogi (ヨモギ) plant. In English, this is better known as the Japanese mugwort, pictured above. We saw the use of mugwort as well back in poem 51, though for a very different reason.

Sasemo plants inspired an earlier, more Buddhist poem, which Mototoshi alludes to:

なお頼めNao tanomeStill rely on me!
しめぢが原のShimeji ga hara nofor I will help those of
させも草Sasemo-gusathis world for as long
わが世の中にWa ga yo no naka nias there are sasemo-plants
あらむ限りはaramu kagiri wain the fields of Shimeji
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This was attributed to Kannon, the Buddhist figure of compassion who promised to rescue all beings in the world. This poem was in the Shinkokin wakashū, number 1917.

Thanks to Professor Mostow for the double-translation this week. If you haven’t already, definitely show him some love and check out his excellent translations. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: