Seeking Freedom

(A residential area in the eastern mountains of Kyoto.)

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit more about Saigyo (see also an earlier post about him). Shortly before becoming a monk, Norikiyo (as he was called before receiving his Buddhist name) was on an excursion with friends in the eastern mountains of Kyoto, where they exchanged poems on the topic 「寄霞述懐」or the gathering mist and expressing desires or recollections.


Sora ni naru kokoro wa haru no kasumi nite yo ni araji tomo omoitatsu kana

I begin to think that like spring mist, the troubled heart is not of this world.

Yo (world)” can be found in phrases such as “kono yo (this world)” or “ano yo (the next world).” And yet considering also how long Saigyo lived after composing this poem, he is not saying here that he wishes to die.

In its onyomi or Chinese reading, the same character 「世」 (yo) can be found in the compounds “seken (society, world)” and “sekenbanashi (chat, gossip).” The spheres of existence are therefore understood in three areas, the profane world (or society with its established social structures), the area outside of the profane world (or the natural world), and the world beyond death.

Therefore, considering Saigyo’s biography, this poem is generally interpreted as expressing his desire to become a monk. Within the context of this poem, “yo” refers to the profane world, to the social expectations that regulate and dictate the path his life takes.

But what does it mean to leave society behind? Sure, one can leave family, friends, institutions, and profession behind, but isn’t it then replaced with something else such as a dedication to religious vows? What I’m trying to ask if it’s even impossible to go beyond one’s own existence in the world, no matter which structures we use to understand that world, be they social or religious? In other words, is there something beyond a structural or conceptual understanding of the world?

A literal translation of “sora naru kokoro (restless heart)” would be “heart that turns into the sky” or “heart that turns into nothingness.” This second meaning hints at a desire to experience a vastness beyond the particular phenomena of existence.

Considering Saigyo became a monk at age 22 (in 1139), this poem must have been written shortly before. I think it expresses a basic desire that all young people have, a desire to go beyond the limited possibilities given them, a desire to break away from social convention t0 live freely.

In comparison, here’s a later poem also by Saigyo that was incorporated in the “Shika Wakashū,” a compilation of poetry completed ca. 1151, when he was in his early 30s.


Mi wo sutsuru hito wa makotoni sutsuru ka wa sutenu hito koso sutsuru narikeri

Does a person who throws their position away really throw it away? Precisely the person who doesn’t throw it away, ultimately throws it away.

Yes, in English the repetition is overwhelming and a bit off-putting poetically. In Japanese, the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure ties the words into a rhythmic whole. But the word play expresses Saigyo’s doubt as to the necessity of leaving the profane world behind.

The word “mi” means both “position” and also (and more commonly) “body,” but again “throwing position (or body) away” conventionally means leaving the secular world and becoming a monk. Saigyo’s poem plays with this conventional meaning.

If the goal is to find a greater vastness beyond the secular or profane world of objects and obligations, is it really necessary to leave that world behind altogether?

The person who remains in the secular world is the one who discovers that the vastness of possibilities may be found even within the limitations of a particular occupation or lifestyle. Taking this idea a step further, the person who leaves that life behind to seek vastness in the larger world beyond the secular world deludes herself by thinking that such vastness or freedom of being is somewhere to be found.

3 thoughts on “Seeking Freedom

  1. Hanna, I hope you will go into teaching, I very much enjoy your philosophical essays !
    You can write beautifully and one does clearly understand the meaning of what you
    are saying. This is rare ….
    And I Like the newly styled format of Sleeping Mountains Nr. 2
    The best to you – and thanks for writing!
    love, CH
    “The raftsman on his mat escapes the world.”
    from Mutamagawa

  2. Dear Christiane,

    Exactly that has been a major goal for me this last year, since in academics, being able to read and think is only half the battle. The other half is expressing what one thought. :)

    I’m off to Nagano for a long weekend, so I won’t be posting again until Tuesday at the earliest. I hope you have a good weekend, too!


  3. Can’t wait for the next post and pictures.
    Have been to Nagano in the middle of a snow storm
    Hope you have a good and interesting time.
    Take care,
    love, CH

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