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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

Emptiness and Temporality: Buddhism and Japanese Poetics
by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Professor Ramirez-Christensen's Emptiness and Temporality is the companion volume to her Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by The Poet-Monk Shinkei. Although the ultimate aim in the writing of this book, as Ramirez-Christensen states, "is to situate medieval Japanese poetic practice and aesthetics within the discourse of Buddhist philosophy and religion, with the central Buddhist concepts of emptiness and temporality as the leading themes, renga and waka as the principal illustrative models for analysis, and the critical writings of Shinkei, Shunzei, Teika, and Shotetsu as primary references . . . the book is made up of three foci: . . . woven of the three strands of medieval Japanese poetry and aesthetics, Western postmodernist theory, and Buddhist philosophy."

This book is obviously not a text for beginners nor can the gist of the book be explained within the confines of a book review, yet its importance to poets and scholars should not be underestimated. Instead, I will highlight a few segments of a book which, along with its companion book, Murmured Conversations, are in my estimation, two of the most important books published so far in the 21st century having to do with Japanese poetics, specifically renga and waka.

In this excerpt from Chapter 4, "Linking as Hermeneutical Process," Ramirez-Christensen comments:

Perhaps the most interesting facet of renga's uniqueness as a poetic genre is the centrality in it of the act of interpretation. Here, poetic composition is an interpretative act before it is a creative one; its creativity is specifically judged on the basis of the quality of its interpretation of the previous verse. And it is this hermeneusis that resists a reductive description of renga as only an endless play of signifiers. This because each link represents the crucial intervention of a reading/speaking subject in the chain of supplementarity generated by the movement of infinite deferral that is difference. So much is this true that Shinkei would go as far as to declare that "To discern the particular quality of another's verse is said to be far more difficult than to compose an interesting verse oneself. This means that the Way [of renga] lies less in the making of verses than in the discipline of illuminating the intelligence of another [Shinkei, Sasamegoto, translated by Ramirez-Christensen, SSG 40: 173]."

I like it that the author thoroughly explores the subjects she writing about in detail, with references and annotations. To use an American slang term, she's serving readers meat and potatoes versus a quick microwave dinner in a box. A good example is the commentary by Ramirez-Christensen in Chapter 15 ("The Mode of Ambiguity Is the Dharma Body"), following Shinkei's observations about "The mode of Ambiguity" in the Sasamegoto.

Writes Shinkei:

People in these rustic parts do not care that their verses are all flabby and awkwardly stumbling [futomi-tsumazukkitaru]; being most impressed with skillfully painted surfaces [irodori takumi naru], they brush aside those verses whose diction and figuration have an ineffable remoteness [yoon]. A venerable old sage has said that the same holds true for all the arts, but in the Way of poetry in particular, one sets the highest value on sensibility, nuance, and overtones [kansei. Omokage, yoyo]. In truth, the ineffably profound and moving resides precisely in what is left unsaid, in what is empty of overt meaning [ikani mo iinokoshi naki tokoro ni yugen aware wa arubeshi to nari]. In waka as well, the so-called mode of ambiguity [fumyotei] that is constituted solely of nuance [omokage] is the awesome mode of the ultimate realm . . .

Here Shinkei cites two examples:

    aki no hi no
usuki koromo ni
    kaze tachite
yuku hito matanu
sue no shirakumo

    On the thin cloak
of autumn sunlight, rippling
    a wind rises, without a
pause, the figure moves on
a cloud in the blank horizon

    aki no hi wa
ito yori yowaku
    sasagani no
kumo no hatate ni
ogi no uwakaze

    Frailer than the thread
the spider hangs suspended
    the autumn twilight
along a distant web of cloud,
a passing wind upon the reeds.


Using these two poems to exemplify his point, Shinkei continues:

These superior poems [shuka] are truly in the mode of the Dharma Body [hosshin no tei], manifestations of spontaneous enlightenment without instruction [mushi jigo]. Their meaning is difficult to grasp in the language of words . . .

Commenting on Shinkei's analysis later in the same chapter, Ramirez-Christensen writes:

. . . Singly and together, the two poems recall one of Shinkei's metaphors for poetic figuration: "In their immensity, even the empty space constrains them; in their minuteness, the space in a poppy seed is yet too big for them." Like Jozo, poetic inscapes room marvelous transformations [shimpen]. (SSG 12:134) As evidenced by the pointed quotations from the Diamond Wisdom Sutra (kongohannya-kyo) and the Great Sun Sutra (Dainichi-kyo) terminating the section in which they appear, these "ultimate" poems are operating right at the far margins of language, deliberately stretching meaning, logic, and syntax to their utmost limits, using the subtle ambiguity of poetic language in order to reveal the silent, inexpressible principle at the heart of the ten thousand dharmas. Opaque on the surface, hollow within, they have no express statement to make, no meaning to impart. They are merely and wholly the charged forms of a penetration into the emptiness of the sign; they are a symbolic miming, a performance, a virtual dharani or embodied truth.

The above commentary is a minute sampling as the book's author goes into considerable detail in her analysis and commentary coupled with book notes and a helpful glossary regarding Shinkei's exposition.

As I said at the beginning of my review, this book is obviously not a text for beginners, nor can the gist of the book be explained within the confines of a book review. Yet its importance to poets and scholars should not be underestimated.

Professor Ramirez-Christensen's book, Emptiness and Temporality, is a compelling journey into the mind of poet/priest Shinkei (1406-1475), especially for practitioners and serious students of linked poetry.


Emptiness and Temporality: Buddhism and Japanese Poetics
by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen
Stanford University Press 2008
ISBN-10: 0-8047-4888-8