“The Life and Zen Poetry of Santoka Taneda” by Sumita Oyama and “Writing Poetry, Surviving War: The Works of Refugee-Scholar Official Chen Yuyi (1090-1139)” by Yugen Wang

The Life and Zen Poetry of Santoka Taneda, Sumita Oyama, William Scott Wilson (trans), Gary Miller Haskins (illus), (Tuttle, April 2021); Writing Poetry, Surviving War: The Works of Refugee-Scholar Official Chen Yuyi (1090-1139), Yugen Wang (Cambria, October 2020) The Life and Zen Poetry of Santoka Taneda, Sumita Oyama, William Scott Wilson (trans), Gary Miller Haskins (illus), (Tuttle, April 2021); Writing Poetry, Surviving War: The Works of Refugee-Scholar Official Chen Yuyi (1090-1139), Yugen Wang (Cambria, October 2020)

Despite being separated by the sea and eight centuries, both of these poets share feelings of exile and displacement and exile as they wander more or less aimlessly around their respective countries, attempting to sort themselves out through writing poetry. They also share the good fortune of having attracted excellent biographers, who let them speak freely and directly through their poetry rather than simply writing about their deeds and personalities. Readers as a result vicariously travel with the poets, feeling their experiences directly and responding to them viscerally and emotionally as well as intellectually.

For Santoka, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, free-verse haiku was his whole life, while for Chen Yuyi, poetry was a way to come to an understanding of adverse circumstances and find his way eventually to some kind of solace. As he writes, even if  “The travellers’ sorrows fill the world’s roads,” there is still

 

No need to feel sad as we say farewell,
The road is filled with new poems, all waiting for you to pick up.

 

Santoka could have easily written those lines.

Both these men become their poetry, their voices ringing out clearly from it, displaying them movingly as living, breathing people dealing with life’s ups and downs and solitude as well as they could. “There is nothing more lonely than living alone,” wrote Santoka, but “There is nothing more tranquil than living alone,” so “The tranquility more than makes up for the loneliness.” At the end of his life, Chen described himself as “An old, feeble sojourner by Green Mound Creek,” who “Stands alone in the eastern winds watching the peonies.” Watching the peonies gives him the mental tranquility he seeks, it seems; Santoka, too, quite often sits by himself watching something, too:

 

Watching the mountain,
I blow my nose
in my hand.

 

Standing or sitting still is how to experience the moment, “watching the world on the river’s edge,” as Chen puts it.

 

There are, of course, marked contrasts between the two. Santoka was a free spirit who purposely dropped out of society to become a Zen priest (or at least dress and act like one), drink a great deal of sake and walk endlessly without really knowing or caring where he was going most of the time or where he might end up. “Sake is a Buddha,” he writes irreverently in his diary: “it is also a demon. As a Buddha it’s a hateful Buddha, as a demon it’s a lovable demon.” In another place he makes a fruitless vow: “I absolutely must renounce and abandon sake on this journey.”

Santoka had tried marriage and running a shop as well as sporadic attendance at Waseda University.None of these worked out, buthe did maintain a more or less cordial relationship with his ex-wife and their son (Chen brought his family with him at one point), and was lucky in the loyalty and generosity of friends. In the end, Santoku had no money (at least of his own), no wife and no job, so he simply renounced the world, put on a Zen priest’s robe and started walking, only stopping for a while when some friends persuaded him to try living in a hermitage. He survived by reciting sutras to however would listen (and to people who didn’t), offering his begging-bowl for food and accepting any monetary donations that came his way. True to his Buddhist belief that one must live only in the here and now, “Santoka walked and lived only for his day-to-day life,” as Oyama recounts. Every so often, though, thoughts from his past would assail him, and he would deal with them by getting drunk or writing poems or a combination of the two, which was also the way he coped with life in general.

Chen Yuyi was a much more serious and conventional person who began his adult life as a civil servant in northern China and “had established himself as one of the most talented poets of his generation,” looking forward, he assumed, to a more or less successful career and plenty of leisure time to read his favorite poetic hero, the 8th-century Du Fu, whose name features prominently in Chen’s writings and who was a profound influence on his work. The seven-syllable verse-form, which Wang tells us was “profusely used by Du Fu,” was also a favorite of Chen’s, and was apparently the “gold standard” by which poetic skill was judged. Chen writes about Du Fu in one of his longest poems,

 

The only regret is all my life
I have taken lightly of Du Fu’s poems.

 

Major political upheavals and their consequent societal strife, however, led to Chen’s life being upended, first by banishment to a small town and then, when seriously violent unrest erupted on his doorstep, Chen, writes his biographer,

 

joined the massive flight south, and embarked upon a journey that would last more than five years … the trials and tribulations of his personal odyssey would transform him as a poet.

 

As he put it on the road, reversing his direction,

 

The world’s happenings are truly forceful,
Pushing me once again to gallop north.

 

Well, at least at that point Chen had a horse; apart from the occasional train journey, Santoka had to rely on Shanks’s pony,

 

Walking without end,
spider lilies blooming
without end.

 

Apart from the loneliness which exiles always experience, in their travels both poets rediscover a nostalgia for the past as well as being acutely aware that constant movement from place to place can both take a toll on them psychologically as well as allow them to determine who they are and why they are living this way. In the case of Chen, it was involuntary but necessary, a way to survive the collapse of his immediate society, indeed of his world as he knew it: “In the clashing of arms and weapons, no date for return,” he writes with rueful finality. He asks himself on another occasion, “This hustle-bustle of human life, what indeed can be achieved?” For Santoka, becoming a Zen priest begging his way from place to place forced him to live in the here and now—the past was gone and he could make no plans for the future, yet from time to time both the past and future interrupted his present, forcing him to wonder what he should do next, or cast his mind back to his past life as a more or less regular person. Oyama recounts a scene of Sankota seeing a mother cat mourning for her lost kittens; he is, “forced to think deeply about the affection between parent and child,” and writes poignantly of

 

The mother cat
looking for her kittens, crying
to the end of time.

 

His own mother had committed suicide years ago because of her husband’s philandering. As he walks through a fishing village, Santoka hears “the unending sound of waves” which takes him back to “my hometown / far away,” where now, Oyama explains, “his house had fallen into ruin and people passed away, and there was not one person who would be thinking of someone like Santoka.” Chen, too, uses natural occurrences and objects to illustrate his state of mind:

 

Those high craggy clouds in the northwest—
thinking of them broke my heart in pieces.

 

Again, it seems as if Santoka could have written these lines.

 

The theme which is perhaps paramount in the two poets is, of course, the displacement caused by constant travelling, having no particular place to go either mentally or physically, and finding permanence only in writing poetry. The poetry they write is a result of what they see and hear on their journeys—Santoka, the Zen priest, is more firmly rooted in the moment than Chen, which is why the short free-verse haiku suits him so well, and he sticks with it. Chen, the more consciously intellectual of the two, composes longer and more recognisably reflective poems using various forms, although he too can capture particular moments in time. Santoka had, as Oyama puts it, “become conscious of his own meek self in existence just as it was.” He himself wrote in his diary that “In regard to poetry, I must absolutely manifest myself;” he has thereby blurred the subject-object dichotomy. For Chen, poetry can bring order in a disorderly world; at one point he says that “As I approach old age, poetry becomes an addiction,” perhaps, because, as he says in another place,

 

Life’s splendid blossoms do not betray the sojourner,
One by one, they enter my poems.

 

Both biographers present readers with a great deal of poetry; as the poets travel, their poetry reflects their intellectual, psychological and emotional development. Santoka’s progress along the road heightens his awareness of what it means to be a Zen priest, relying on others for his physical sustenance and his poetry for everything else. “There is no mistaking that he was a panhandling priest,” Oyama writes; “but this panhandler was one who wrote haiku.” Santoka himself displays acute self-awareness, writing in his diary “Ah, Santoka! Have you no thoughts of shame about the priest’s robes you wear?” And sometimes, he is brought painfully down to earth; in Kusu, for example, a man shouted “Get out of here, you panhandling monk! You’re bad for business!” and “It’s bad luck to see some dung-faced monk in the morning! Get going, get going!” His reaction was, as Oyama relates, “thinking that this, too, was the compassion of the Buddha, Santoka fervently recited the Kannon Sutra.”

Chen, too, uses poetry to alter his psychological state:

 

In the rustling winds, my mind was jammed up,
Worried and companionless, I composed a poem.

 

As with Santoka, it was what Chen saw around him that made him come to terms with his isolation and displacement. Both poets have a heightened sense of natural beauty; “The crabapple flowers still wait for this old man’s poems,” Chen writes; flowers, rivers, birds, mountains are all self-sufficient. “In this complete, fully present moment the geese just rise, the blossom-studded banks just recede,” Wang comments on Chen’s poem “Boating on the Shao River” which almost seems like a Zen moment in time. “My happy heart is content in itself,” says Chen, “Not merely because sequestered from turmoil and noise.”

Wang’s is more formal and analytical of the two books, and is based on prodigious research using Chinese and English sources. His obvious empathy with Chen nonetheless shines throughout and his book does not read like a conventionally academic work. Wang’s focus is on Chen’s years of wandering, which is what makes his experiences similar to those of Santoka, as are their poetic responses to those experiences. Behind Chen’s personal displacement is also a societal upheaval and regime changes, and for Santoka the experience is of transferring the traditional into the modern.

Santoka died in 1940, when Japan was engaged in a terrible war which would eventually change its way of relating to the world and emerging as unrecognizable for people like Santoka. In his final sentence, Oyama summed it up this way: “From about that time, the tide of war worsened for Japan, and rice and sake for those who did no work disappeared altogether.” For Chen, at the end of his life he is “standing alone watching the peonies … in this moment of perfect stillness, mental tranquillity and non-abiding presence.” Oyama’s book is entirely sympathetic to Santoka without being an apology or an exercise in hagiography written for someone he knew well and was obviously close to. Its style is informal, admirably captured by William Scott Wilson’s splendid translation. Oyama’s sympathy is shot through with a gentle sense of humor and the simple brush-and-ink illustrations by Gary Miller Haskins beautifully capture the lighter side of Santoka. As he said, “While heaven does not kill me, it will have me write poetry.” I think this works for both poets.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.