To Welcome or Let Go

(The memorial to Saigyo and the courtesan’s encounter at Eguchi, now in present-day Osaka.)

This morning, from the window in the living room, the rising sun could be seen just above the mountains in the distance. Above the sun, dark clouds, their undersides faintly lined in gold. Then suddenly snow started falling in sheets like rain, lightning flashed, and thunder followed. Today is not a day I want to be outside, walking through the changeable weather.

In the Kokinwakashū, a pair of poems exchanged by Saigyo and a courtesan (yūjo in Japanese) on a rainy evening comes to mind. Or rather, these poems, as incorporated in the nō Eguchi, have been on my mind for the last few months, since they comprise a core component of my thesis, but for now I’ll set the thesis aside, because I really just want to tell you the story of these poems as I see it.

Saigyo gave the first poem to a courtesan who had refused him lodging on a rainy evening.

世の中を厭ふまでこそ難からめ仮の宿りを惜しむ君かな

Yo no naka wo itou made koso katakarame kari no yadori wo oshimu kimi kana

To hate the world is hard, but you deny me a moment’s shelter?

Her reply:

世を厭ふ人とし聞けば仮の宿りに心を留むなと思ふばかりぞ

Yo wo itou hito to shi kikeba kari no yadori ni kokoro wo tomu na to omou bakari zo

Hearing you hate the world, I simply thought you should not set your heart on a moment’s shelter.

Within the context of the scene, these poems may be easily interpreted. A monk being a monk lives off the generosity of the communities he visits and sees the courtesan’s refusal as stinginess on her part. He believes the reason for her refusal is that she would not be able to make money off of him, a penniless monk who lives off of the goodwill of others. She, however, says she refused to give him shelter because a monk should not spend time in a house of pleasure, thereby taking higher moral ground. But it seems to me that there is more to this exchange than may be gained from a strictly socio-historical interpretation. These poems appear to be interpretable in many, many ways and the following is the most comprehensive possibility as I currently see it.

“A moment’s shelter” alludes to a story in the Lotus Sutra in which a teacher guides his disciples along a long and difficult road. The disciples grow weary, so the teacher leads them to a marvelous city with gardens, beautiful men and women, delicious food, anything they might desire. Once fully rested, the teacher leads the disciples further along the road, but not before explaining that the city was an illusion he created for them. Saigyo’s poem, by alluding to this story, seems to say he is aware of the nature of the activities at the courtesan’s house, but wishes to rest there nonetheless. The courtesan’s response points out the futility and danger of bending to such temporary distractions.

Things are not as they at first appear. Since the courtesan is the one to point out the danger of Saigyo’s desire to rest from his ascetic practice, she seems to be demonstrating a deeper insight into the nature of what it means to “hate the world.” Although as a courtesan, she is representative of a particularly artificial form of lust and passionate love, she herself seems well aware of her position and warns Saigyo against a lack of such awareness on his part. It seems as though her art as a courtesan has exposed her to all the evils of attachment to the transient world. She has learned not to place any value or expectations on the appearances she creates for her customers.

Here, therefore, it seems like the courtesan has gone a step beyond the expected. She is not a woman who places value on worldly possession and emotional attachment. Behind her artistically created facade of beauty, her own self-presentation, there lies a deeper sadness about the futility of the kinds of relationships her art engenders. No doubt she has seen men fall in love with and obsess over her and her fellow courtesans, and yet she does not give her beauty to the person who loves her the most or the person she loves, but to the person who is her customer on any given night.

And yet, it does not seem like she has grown cold as a result of this situation. Her concern for Saigyo demonstrates her respect for him and his specific goals as a monk. As she says in her poetic reply, her decision to refuse him shelter is not because she cannot make money off of his stay with her, but because she sees through his eyes the possible attachment to the pleasures of her house and her art, an attachment that she has seen arise in the eyes of so many men before him.

Does she similarly respect the customers she usually entertains, those who take pleasure in the superficial charms of her art? I think in all likelihood she does not. Thus it seems she is turning away the person she most respects, because he is closest to understanding her insight into the transience of the world she represents, the world she helps create for her customers. I can only imagine a deep loneliness resides beneath her respect.

3 thoughts on “To Welcome or Let Go

  1. I should have figured of course that there would be a monument or marker for this site, but I didn’t think it’d in metropolitan Osaka… Isn’t Eguchi a pretty out-of-the-way rural place in the story?

    I do love this sort of thing… Thanks for sharing the photo. I’ll add this to my list of places to find ;) Right after Ataka, up in Ishikawa, where they’ve got some pretty awesome Benkei / Yoshitsune statues.

    1. Dear Travis,

      The memorial and its immediate surroundings are really a nice place, but all around is urban sprawl, half residential, half industrial, half institutional. I had a hard time finding it from the subway station, but the small temple this memorial is located in is called Eguchi-dō and has an altar to Eguchi no kimi, of which I have pictures I’ll probably use in other posts here, but they’re already on my photo blog (http://bit.ly/vQyVh9 and http://bit.ly/tZ0eJr).

      I’d love to see pictures when you’re up in Ataka! When are you planning to travel?

      Best,
      Hanna

      1. Hi Hanna,

        I wish I could say that I had specific plans to be going to Japan any time soon, but I’m afraid there’s nothing on the horizon. Going to Ataka is just a wishlist sort of thing. But I’m hoping something will come up before too long … :)

        Best wishes & Happy New Year,

        Travis

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