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Sunday, March 9, 2003


Dropping out and tuning in to the rhythm of nature

SANTOKA: Grass and Tree Cairn, translated by Hiroaki Sato. Vermont: Red Moon Press, 2002, 74 pp., $14.95 (paper)

No matter how deep one's faith or religion is, one may experience feelings of resignation and defeat as well as the loss of compassion for others and oneself.

So it was with some comfort that I discovered the earthy humor and humble embrace of nature in the poetry of Santoka, a Zen poet who, after failing miserably as a student, businessman and husband, took to traveling the countryside.

Ordained a Zen monk in Kyushu, Santoka wandered through Japan begging for alms, much like Basho had done centuries before. Originally named Shoichi Taneda, Santoka was born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the southern tip of the main island of Honshu, in 1882.

From an early age he had plenty of reasons to despair. When he was 10 years old, his mother committed suicide. As a young man, he studied literature at Waseda University, but dropped out and returned to Yamaguchi to start a sake brewery. At the age of 25, he married and had a son, but also began to drink heavily.

By 1911, he was a member of a local haiku group and had acquired his pen name, "Santoka." He started out writing traditional haiku, but converted to "free-rhythm haiku" not long after:

Sparrows dance yeah dandelions scatter yeah

When his family went bankrupt, Santoka and his wife and child moved to Kyushu to open a secondhand bookstore. But tragedy struck again. When Santoka was 36, his younger brother committed suicide.

In the following year, Santoka left his wife and child to move to Tokyo. Before long, he was divorced.

After the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, the police used the disaster as a pretext to round up socialists. Santoka was arrested and jailed under suspicion of being one. After his release, he went back to Kyushu. Drunk, he caused a ruckus on a bus and brought it screeching to a halt. Soon after he became a Soto Zen monk, devoting himself to daily chores as a means of seeking enlightenment:

The evening shower has washed the eggplants I pick 'em

But he wasn't to stay at the isolated temple for long:

The misery of no longer being able to get drunk the crickets chirp

When he was 53, Santoka attempted suicide. Later, in 1940, he culled 701 haiku out of the 15,000 he had written to make a book called "Sumukoto Grass and Tree Cairn." Struck by wanderlust again, he donned his black robes and large hat, packed his walking stick and begging bowl, and hit the road. He lived out the rest of his days as a mendicant monk, traveling through Japan.

Haiku might have been the poet's antidote to despair. While on the road, the poet wrapped his words around the natural world and attempted to make it his home:

Withering grass I sit on its beauty

Although Santoka's life had been punctuated by distinct moments of solitude, he found that the world nonetheless offered itself for comfort and connection:

I live withdrawn and a wren

According to the translator, Hiroaki Sato, who renders each haiku seamlessly into one breathlike line, Santoka had two goals in life: to die suddenly and peacefully ("korori oujou"), and to write haiku that remained true to himself. He achieved both.

One night Santoka was writing haiku with his friends and drinking heavily; in the morning, he was found dead.

As this powerful book demonstrates, his poetry remained a sincere reflection of his inner life to the end. "Santoka" offers people a chance to experience the poignant connection this wandering poet made with the natural world when the human one all but failed him.

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