Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Saigyo, Nature, and Impermanence

Reading the verse of Basho or his poetic ancestor, Saigyo, one comes across a transcendental vision, much like Thoreau or Emerson. There is a significant difference, of course. And it’s more than just that Japanese sense of wabi sabi, although that certainly is part of it. But it’s more than impermanence itself. As the selection below from a William LaFleur essay reveals, it’s a vision of nature as an enlightened master. Literally.
The difference between nature and civilization is not that the former is permanent and the latter transitory but that the former seems to accept its impermanence whereas the latter does not. This is to say that Saigyo does not seek a union with cherry blossoms, the moon, the river, or any other phenomenon of nature because it or they are immutable or constant. They are of soteric value to him because they are accepting of their own impermanence and can, therefore, assist him in his acceptance of his own. What we seem to have here is a comparison of the forms of nature understood as fully "realized" religiously and man who still needs to wean himself from the illusion of his permanence and, hence, has only partial enlightenment. In this sense the forms of nature are to man as a "master" or demonstrator of the way. They are ahead of man both in their acceptance of truth and in the spontaneity of life they have on the basis of this enlightenment. They are in an anterior position and have a resulting freedom which Saigyo at times wishes he himself would have. An example of this is the following verse:
Wooed by the wind,
The petals fall, and off they go . ..
Together to who-knows-where!
But my grieving heart, left behind,
Stalled in its body, goes nowhere.

from Saigyo and the Buddhist Value of Nature. Part II
William R. LaFleur
History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 3. (Feb., 1974), pp. 227-248.

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