Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

Murmured Conversations:
A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei

Translation and commentary by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


On those occasions when my good friend and I fondly converse about the fleeting affairs of this world, we find ourselves straying irresistibly even into the shadowy world of Waka Bay. Inconsequential though these words may be that pour from our lips, we need have no fear of unwelcome ears behind the walls, for these are no more than murmured conversations beneath a lowly thatched roof. Since it is said that no fewer than eight hundred million thoughts pass through the mind in a single night, it would be a grave sin contrarily to ignore them and pretend that not one had anything to do with poetry. Moreover, these words are by no means intended to guide people whose judgment is as yet immature. They are merely an account of our own perplexities as we walked uncertainly on the way of poetry.

Shinkei (1406-1464)

Murmured Conversations is a vital contribution to the understanding of Japanese poetry (specifically waka and renga) as seen through the eyes of Shinkei, whose critical treatise on medieval Japanese poetics, Sasamegoto (1463-1464), has never before been translated into the English language in its entirety coupled with annotations and commentary. This book also explores the centrality of Buddhism in medieval poetics.

Professor Ramirez-Christensen's book is one of the most important translations of a major Japanese poet/critic to date. Sasamegoto is a treatise on poetry and Buddhism by the poet-monk, Shinkei, who defied the popular beliefs of his day regarding renga and waka held by the Imperial Court, to lift renga and waka from the mundane chalice of stale wine these genres had fallen into, to the elegance and deep taste of an aged wine.

Writes Ramirez-Christensen in the book's Introduction:

He [Shinkei] is best known today as one of the most brilliant poets of renga (linked verse), as an equally distinctive voice in the classic waka form, and as the poet who, in his critical writings, formulated the principles of renga as a serious art in the Muromachi period (1392-1568). Sasamegoto is the major work in this critical enterprise. That it is also representative in the larger cultural history is due to its articulation of renga, and poetry in general, as an existential praxis, a Way.

Adds Ramirez-Christensen, "Sasamegoto lays out renga—or, more broadly, an uta no michi (Way of Poetry) by inscribing a history, a set of models, and principles of authentic practice for its own time, but its distinctive nature lies in its author's [Shinkei's] conviction that poetic praxis is equally the conduct of a life lived purely and a pedagogy of the mind aimed at liberating the Buddha-nature in oneself, the one being a manifestation of the other."

In the 3rd chapter, "On the Tsukubashū," Shinkei wrote:

Now, then, when the reknowned sage of Nijo governed the realm as Regent, he consulted that wise devotee Gusai and compiled the Tsukubashū, the anthology that brought together the remarkable examples of all the various renga configurations in existence. Could it perhaps serve as a beacon on the Way of renga?

With the Kokinshū as a model, the Nijo Regent intended to make the Tsukubashū another peerless anthology that could become a beacon lighting the way for future poets. So it may be seen as a source of various styles that those who seek to master the Way of renga ought to reflect upon, a book they ought to investigate and learn. But from the middle period on, it is said, even the name Tsukubashū itself fell into obscurity. Thus the Way of renga came to lack any guideposts, and everyone composed just as he pleased.

Ramirez-Christensen, in the first part of her commentary regarding Shinkei's above observations, states: " . . . for most of renga's history, it was the individual links, rather than the aesthetics of sequencing across longer blocks of verses, that was the focus of attention. It was not until Shinkei's own age that the aesthetic concern for sequence began to develop as an added refinement of the form . . . to construe a middle-period decline of renga, when 'the Way' came to lack any guideposts (shirube naki michi ni narite), reveals Shinkei's ambition to provide, with the treatise, precisely that missing direction, first by restoring the work of Yoshimoto and the early masters to the field of contemporary knowledge and practice; and second, by constituting a new renga aesthetics that foregrounds thought and feeling (kokoro) over the mere play of language. As is well known, modern scholarship dates the Muromachi renga revival, which was also the peak of its flowering, to the work of Shinkei and the other 'seven sages of renga', which in turn inspired the poetry of Shinkei's disciples Sogi and Kenzai, both recipients of the Sasamegoto treatise."

Shinkei saw the Way of renga in a state of decline primarily and therefore felt the need to restore the work of Yoshimoto and the early masters to the field of contemporary knowledge and practice; and by constituting a new renga aesthetics that foregrounds kokoro (thought and feeling) with an anything goes "mere play of language."

Like all Japanese genres of poetry, then and now, aesthetics supercedes the need for word-play, cleverness, and fanciful writing. It is this element that differentiates modern English language poetry from its Japanese counterpart. For Shinkei and his followers, waka and renga were equal paths that led them deeper into the Buddha-nature: an emptying of self.

The above commentary on Chapter 3 goes deeper, of course, and is heavily annotated, as is every chapter.

Separated into two parts, Shinkei's Murmured Conversations consists of 62 chapters plus 41 pages of reference notes. Chapter titles include: "The Style of Ineffable Depth (Yugen)"; "The Role of Waka in Renga Training"; "Poetry and The Mundane Mind"; "Plagiarism"; "Criticism is a Function of One's Own Limitations"; "The Three Buddha-Bodies, The Three Truths, And Poetic Levels"; and "The Difficulty of Achieving the Way: The Transmission of Mind Is Beyond Language."

Wrote Shinkei, ". . . it is the style of meditation [ushintei] that is the most notable and consummate. It is poetry in which the mind has dissolved and is profoundly at one with the numinosity [aware] of things; poetry that issues from the very depths of the poet's being and may truly be said to be his own waka, his own authentic renga."

Ah, the spring rain:
in a whirl of withered leaves,
the winter shower
even after it had vanished,
could yet confound the senses!

Lord Teika
Translated by Ramirez-Christensen

Void is the self!
As the autumn sunlight with
each passing day
dwindles starker in life
the morning glory flower

Priest Seigan [Shotetsu]
Translated by Ramirez-Christensen

Professor Ramirez-Christensen has written a follow-up book as well, Emptiness and Temporality, which explores the aforementioned poetics of Shinkei and how they relate to western thought and philosophy, which I will review in this issue of Simply Haiku as well.


Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei
Translation and commentary by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen
Stanford University Press 2008
ISBN-10: 0-8047-4863-2