Poetry of ‘Takuan from Koto’

Poetry of ‘Takuan from Koto’

While the ‘Journey to the West’ is very poetic, ‘Takuan from Koto’ ventures into the poetic worlds only briefly.

Most of the verses are following the waka and tanka (see below) traditions whenever it is possible with the translation.

Tanka consist of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of on: 5-7-5-7-7. The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (‘upper phrase’), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (‘lower phrase’).

On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea.
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab.

— Ishikawa Takuboku

Sour Pickled Plums

One to one lay
On the silver plate
Sour pickled plums.
Look! How can unremarkable be
a verse for a dear guest!

Form and Meaning of the Poem

Soliang admires the poetic gift of the abbot and asks him to compose a poem. The abbot, however, uses this poem to indicate excessive admiration for his modest abilities:

  • In the first lines, he refers to the most ordinary dish – pickled plums. The abbot and Soliang are sitting at a lavish meal, surrounded by various dishes, but the abbot’s attention is drawn to the most ordinary plums.
  • In the conclusion of the tanka, it is stated that the remarkable aspect of a work is not determined by its subject, nor even by the artistry of the composer, but by the recipient and the feeling with which it is composed.

Bravery of Monks

Hungry demons
Await on the road.
Monk’s travel hat helps:
Through a narrow eye slit
Fear is not seen.

Form and meaning of the poem

Soliang fears hungry weredemons and seeks the assistance of two komuso monks, who have also never encountered demons before. Therefore, the abbot offers them a way to combat their fear:

  • On the heads of the komuso monks are straw hats that completely cover their faces. The abbot suggests using these hats as protection against the demons.
  • But can a mere straw hat shield them from hungry demon-werewolves or even ordinary bandits? Certainly not. The hat serves a dual purpose:
  • on one hand, it obscures the monk’s vision, helping them focus on what lies ahead;
  • on the other hand, the face hidden beneath the hat, distorted by fear, remains unseen by others.

Don’t Ever Forget

On the mountain slopes next to the Silent Sea,
Where the waters of the Yellow River wash away the sand
Between the Monastery of the Pointed Peaks and Mountain White,
Bog oak gates lead to a forest full of silence.
Follow the hyacinth path
And it will guide you to the majestic rock.
Don’t let the stone stop you,
Put your step in without any fear.
In the heart of the mountain I placed myself
A skin full of sour wine.
Where wisdom follows youth
For regret there is no reason.
Don’t ever forget, Sogi!

Meaning and Form of the Poem

Yanwang Umma-ö can hardly be called a great poet, so his poem turned out to be unrefined: he straightforwardly points out the signs that should help him find the way to his own secret hideout. He himself feels that the poem has turned out too simple and tries to rectify it by adding pompous imagery to the text.

In the final lines, Yanwang decides that he has said enough. Fearing to directly reveal what is in the secret repository, he concludes the poem with a quotation from a poet known to him.

If you want to know a little more about how the ‘Takuan from Koto’ was written, you must visit the Makipedia.

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Jamie Larson