Kamakura Poetics

Nov 19, 2015 No Comments by


Fujiwara no Shunzei wrote “Korai Futeisho”in 1197. This early Kamakura treatise on poetics set the stage for many poetic developments to come. Chiefly, Shunzei discusses the connection between kotoba, or words, and kokoro, which means heart/mind. In the poetic sense, kokoro, according to Shunzei was transmitted from all the preceeding poetic anthologies, such as Man’yoshu, Kokinshu, and Gosenshu. The collective mind/heart of these poets is transmitted to the poet who is considering writing, much like the Mayahana Buddhistic idea of dharma transmission, or the transmission of the Buddha’s mind from Sakyamuni Buddha to disciple, and disciple to other disciple, alluding to the words of the Chinese monk, Zhiyi (538-597.) Kotoba, the words, are vessels for the kokoro. They should be about the poet’s subjective experience, and should display the hidden depths of rhythm and sound. Poetry is not about witty repartees or “empty words and phrases” as the Buddhist path frequently accused it of being. Monks frequently felt that poetry would only lead them down the path of further attachment, getting in the way of their quest for awakening. Shunzei’s idea is that poetry is almost like a sacred transmission of a communal mind, similar to Buddha-mind. This is a rebuke of those who would consider poetry a secular waste of time.

Likewise, following Mahayana ideas of non-duality and no-self, Shunzei says that the dichotomy between kokoro and kotoba is needless. The sugata, or form, of a poem should be the embodiment of both kokoro and kotoba, much like the self is considered non-dualistic (the self is a convenient label for the modes of feeling and awareness humans have, according to Sakyamuni; the self is not real, and is not distinct from anything else in the universe, according to Nagarjuna.) So, the kotoba and kokoro of poetry are not distinct in a poem; its sugata is made up of these elements, This is Shunzei’s “middle way” between old Heian aesthetics of poetry and the austere rejection of poetry by the monastics.

Arts, Buddhism

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I'm a PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis. I teach, write, and discuss Japanese popular culture and other topics on East Asia.