To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

From the Nihon Ryoiki of the Monk Kyokai (An Oral Narrative), with an additional found poem of praises for the Buddha

Hiromi Ito and Jerome Rothenberg, with Jeffrey Angles (left)

Translation from Japanese by Hiromi Ito & Jerome Rothenberg

It was Sugaru of the Little Boy Clan who was the chancellor of the Emperor Yuryoku, as vital to him as his heart and liver.  One day when when the Emperor was residing at Iware-no-Miya palace and was having sex there with his wife, Sugaru burst into the chamber and the Emperor, feeling shame, broke off his foreplay.  At that moment they heard thunder and the Emperor told Sugaru: Go forth now and send a summons to the God of Thunder.  Sugaru replied that he would go.  The Emperor then proclaimed: Go forth and send a summons to the God of Thunder.  Following his sovereign’s orders Sugaru set forth.  He left the palace, wreathed his head with garlands, raised a lance from which a red flag flew, and started out on horseback.  As he rode between Toyura Temple and the Abë fields he reached the sacred Tsuji crossroads, where he cried out in a loud voice to the sky: O you celestial God of Thunder our Emperor has summoned you to him.  And having spoken so, he came back to the road where he had started, thinking: When the Emperor once speaks, even a god can’t spurn his summons.  And so, somewhere between Toyura Temple and I-Oka hill, Sugaru found the God of thunder who had come to earth.  He summoned the shrine’s guardians, who brought a palanquin on which they sat the God of Thunder, and they bore him to the Palace.  Sugaru told the Emperor: I’ve brought the God of Thunder for you.  At that the God of Thunder radiated gobs of light, at sight of which the Emperor felt shock and awe.  He offered him a wealth of goods and had his people bring him to the place where he had come to earth, which to this day we call the Hill of Thunder. 

Years passed and Sugaru grew old and died.  The Emperor had his body laid in state for seven days and seven nights, and all that time he mourned his loyal chancellor.  He made a grave for Sugaru there where the God of Thunder came to earth and carved a monument on which he wrote: This is the grave of Sugaru who caught the God of Thunder.  But the God of Thunder raged on hearing this.  He danced around it, kicking, trampling it until he broke the monument in two, which closed around him trapping him again.  The Emperor when he heard of it released him, but the God of Thunder was bereft.  For seven days and nights he lay there senseless.  Then the Emperor sent forth an emissary to that place and had the monument restored.  And on its side he wrote once more: This is the grave of Sugaru who caught the God of Thunder both alive and dead.

This is the story of the place called Hill of Thunder.

NOTE. The preceding is an attempt by Hiromi Ito and me to translate the first of the curious pre-Buddhist narratives gathered by the Buddhist monk Kyokai in a three volume work, Nihonkoku genpo zen'aku ryoiki (Miraculous Stories of Karmic Retribution of Good and Evil in Japan), dating between A.D. 810 and 823. Writes Helene Bowen Raddeker in the Journal of Religious History (Vol.22 No.2,June 1998, pp.246-248): “The very modest Kyokai could not have imagined that the ‘future generations’ for whom he so painstakingly recorded these miraculous tales from Japan's oral tradition would extend so far into the future. … One reason for the later recognition of the importance of Kyokai's Nihon ryoiki has been its contribution to an understanding of religious belief and practice in early Japan. Even in the title of his work, Kyokai made quite clear the didactic intent of his project, which was to convince his contemporaries of the Buddhist maxim that ‘good and evil cause karmic retribution [in this or in subsequent lives] as a figure causes its shadow, and suffering and pleasure follow such deeds as an echo follows a sound in the valley’ (preface to vol. 1, 101).
       In addition the following found poem was also assembled by me & dedicated to Hiromi Ito, in whose presence I was then working:
from Daichidoron: 32 Ways of Looking at the Buddha

 (1) When the Buddha walks. his feet are so close to the ground that there is not even a hair's space between his soles & the earth;

(2)  the imprint of a wheel appears on the soles of the Buddha's feet;

(3)  the Buddha's fingers are exceptionally long & slender;

(4)  the Buddha's heels are broad, round & smooth;

(5)  the Buddha has a web-like membrane between his fingers & toes;

(6)  the skin of the Buddha’s hands & feet is soft & smooth;

(7)  the Buddha’s feet have unusually high insteps;

(8)  the Buddha's calves are rounded & firm like those of a stag;

(9)  exceptionally long arms,when standing, the Buddha's hands reach his knees;

(10) the Buddha’s genitals are hidden inside the body;

(11) the Buddha's body height is equal to his armspread, considered to give a classically proportioned body;

(12) the Buddha's body hair grows in an upward direction;

(13) one hair grows from each pore on the Buddha’s skin;

(14) the Buddha's body gleams with a golden light;

(15) the Buddha emits a halo of light which frames his body & extends outward about three metres;

(16) the Buddha’s skin is extremely smooth;

(17) seven regions of the Buddha's two feet, shoulders, & neck are full & rounded;

(18) the sides of the Buddha’s body under the Buddha’s arms are full, not hollow as on an ordinary person;

(19) the upper part of the Buddha's body is majestic, like a lion;

(20) the Buddha's posture is firm & perfectly erect;

(21) the Buddha’s shoulders are full & rounded;

(22) the Buddha has forty teeth, as white as snow;

(23) the Buddha’s teeth are straight, without gaps, & equal in size;

(24) the Buddha also has 4 canine teeth which are larger, whiter, & sharper than the rest;

(25) the Buddha’s cheeks are full & firm like those of a lion;

(26) the Buddha's saliva imparts a delicious taste to everything he eats;

(27) the Buddha’s tongue is long & flexible, when extended it reaches to the Buddha’s hairline;

(28) the Buddha's voice is pure, strong & deep, has an exceptional ability to communicate to the listener, & can be heard from a long distance;

(29) the pupils of the Buddha’s eyes are a deep blue color, like the blue lotus flower;

(30) the Buddha’s eyelashes are long & regular;

(31) the Buddha has a protuberance on the top of his head, representing wisdom;

(32) the Buddha has a light emitting clockwise curls of hair on his forehead.

NOTE.  The lead to the poem came, like much else, from conversations with Hiromi Ito, herself a major figure in contemporary Japanese poetry & for some years a neighbor & close friend in southern California.  I had recently written & published a series of poems, The Treasures of Dunhuang, many of which were my own takes on images of the Buddha from the great painted caves of Dunhuang in western China.  My first sighting of those was in an exhibit of that name at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, in 1996, reenforced by a visit to Dunhuang in 2002.  What struck me then was the surprising twist given to images that we thought of as familiar – much like images of Jesus when one sees them in out-of-the-way regions of the Christian world.  I had long had in mind, & more so recently, perceptions about the nature of poetry enunciated by poets like Novalis – “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics” – & referential too, I thought, to how we come at poetry today.
              It was Hiromi’s sense of other images, other places, though, that led me to the Daichidoron - the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, discourses on the-Great Wisdom Scriptures, attributed to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 a.d.).  The 32 lines, as they appear here, are a found poem that in some sense completes the work for me.  (For which see also China Notes & The Treasures of Dunhuang, published by Ahadada Books in 2006.)

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