The author of these poems, Jakuzen, a 12th century priest of the Buddhist Tendai sect, resided outside the capital of Kyoto in Ōhara. His two brothers, Jakuchō and Jakunen, were also poet-priests. Together, the three were known as the Ōhara sanjaku (the three “jaku” of Ōhara). Jakuzen left behind three manuscripts of waka poetry; that forty-seven of his poems were published in several imperial poetry anthologies of the late 12th century and later is a mark of how highly they were regarded.
One of Jakuzen’s most famous collections is the Hōmon hyakushu (One Hundred Poems of the Dharma Gate). As the first one-hundred-poem private anthology of shakkyō-ka (Buddhist-themed poems), Jakuzen’s Hōmon Hyakushu sits at the juncture between the Japanese court’s ongoing literary and religious projects, exemplifying the late-Heian period (794 – 1185) formula kadō soku butsudō: “the way of poetry is none other than the Buddha-way.”
Each of the hundred parts of Jakuzen’s sequence is comprised of a dai (poem topic, in this case a short quote from Buddhist scripture), a waka (31-syllable poem) and a lyric prose afterward on the same topic. The hundred sections of the Hōmon Hyakushu are grouped into ten books, and these four selections (1, 2, 5, and 9) are from the first book, the Spring poems [haru no uta].
Jakuzen’s particular qualities as a writer include his gifts for evoking precise sensual-specifics of the natural world as emotionalized metaphors for interior landscapes, for plain, clear speech about complex spiritual matters, and for compelling retellings of parables from scripture and stories drawn from daily life.
AS DARK CHANGES TO LIGHT, SO MELTING ICE BECOMES WATER
in spring wind ice
melt upon melt turns
to valley water: the heart runs
clear inside itself:
free to see
free to understand
WHEN THE NEW YEAR COMES AGAIN to dwellings deep in the mountains, the voice of the storm changes and morning sun on the peaks becomes
sunlight opening a window of calm and insight. And when one turns to look into the distant valley whose sounds had stopped,
spring, a familiar face, now sending up its waves again—this is what it means to feel aware. Delusions are calmed on their own,
and when the Dharma Gate floats up into our hearts, the ice of ignorance melting in the breeze of spring, of wisdom—
isn’t this a moment when we remember that the old flow of life and death becomes the waters of uncreated wisdom? When this heart must become the words Seeing Clearly?
THE MULTITUDE OF BIRDS CRY WITH GENTLE GRACE
“…only the warbler’s
—dwelling in paradise
every bird’s voice
is the beloved’s
THAT WHICH THE SCRIPTURE calls shari is the bush warbler, teachers of long ago decided: thus indeed there must be warblers in paradise. Even if not yet from actual paradise, those cries first heard at dawn in spring deeply move us, penetrating to the core of our bodies. But even more so at the jeweled water’s edge, shining with various lights, on the blossoms filled with fragrance to their very tips, that singing, because it issues from the dwelling of great compassion—how dear it must be. Because according to the customs of that land the various birds—none less than the warbler—as one body sing the wondrous Law, people’s hearts are encouraged. As for why the scripture says “with gentle grace”—isn’t this the essence of the warbler’s wondrous, elegant voice singing hō-ho-ke-kyō?
THE GREEN LEAVES AND RED FLOWERS—IT’S NOT THE CASE THAT DYEING MAKES THEM SO
whose is this?
—thread of twisted willow
and stitched here and there—
WITHIN THIS METAPHOR IS THE REVELATION that all the various dharmas are natural, from the first plum of spring to the winter-withered chrysanthemum. When one looks at the colors of the various flowers, it isn’t the case that someone came from elsewhere to dye them, and neither do their colors come from inside the tree. In accordance with the seasons only, they open according to their own nature.
When we pause to contemplate in our hearts upon the variety of colors and shapes of the many phenomena, all are accounted for within a wondrous order. When we continue to question, study, and learn about the way things are, rather than merely observing, we must consider this matter deeply interesting.
Although they do say about the green willow threads that Saohime dyed them, and that the bush warbler weaves its plum flower hat, these are just metaphors. (Truly, the question of who made them has never been settled.) This is why we’ve been taught that, “in all things, no matter how insignificant or hidden, is the truth of the Middle Way,” the green leaves and red flowers being one example, and the various colors and scents the same.
Every one of the Ten Thousand Things—not just the color of the flowers—have no owners or makers, and are empty. This is the essence of the teaching.
THE FLOWERS CLING TO SOME BODIES, AND DON’T CLING TO OTHER BODIES
falling upon the sleeves
of people gathered together—
the flowers distinguish between bodies—
THE BLOSSOMS THE GODDESS LET FALL into Vimalakirti’s room didn’t cling to the clothing of the bodhisattvas, but did cling to those disciples of the two vehicles—because these were flowers that revealed confusion, clinging only to those outside the Gate, who hadn’t yet severed the delusions of the world.