Tag Archives: Buddhism

Kamakura Poetics


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.

Turning East and Back again

I’ve been reading Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox’ 1977 book, Turning East. He discusses some of the reasons American youth of the 70’s were looking towards the spirituality of Asia. One of his positions is that the “dropping out” of the 1960’s left many feeling empty. Many who dropped-out with drugs still craved the communal, experiential “trip” that drugs and drug counter-culture provided. Still anti-Western and anti-traditional, they looked to the religions of the East. They enjoyed the community and person-connectedness found in these unfamiliar traditions, especially after the protestant and Catholic churches of the 1950’s did not provide more than simply doctrine and law.

This book is as old as I am. But, as I look today, more than 30 years later, I wonder if some of the same desires for community and something experiential drive the postmodern condition. As I look at the hard-core evolutionists and other sorts of modernists, perhaps they too are craving the same cohesive community, but cannot look outside of themselves for truth? Is the rest of society more Eastern without even realizing it. How much misinterpreted Zen have we internalized in our own contexts?

Cox, not misinterpreting Zen (after studying various sutras) claims to have adopted meditative practices from Eastern religions, without adopting their doctrines; he compares meditation to taking mini-shabbats, as practiced for millenia by Jews. He says Christianity has lost its sense of quietness and stillness in the world, found in the sabbath. Cox said that these practices of quiet meditation have helped him become more authentically Christian! He took the practices of quieting the mind and thinking about his faith without attempting to be Buddhist. He also compares this type of meditation to ancient monastic practices.

On the converse, interestingly, Cox complained that a lot of American adherents to Eastern beliefs did not really know the doctrine or content of the sacred texts; they wanted the experience. How much of that is true today? Interestingly enough, Cox noted that many American adherents also tried to use their new found piety to show that they were better than others, in a sort of game of spiritual one-upmanship. Is this leftover American pietism flowing into a new spiritual skin that masks their Western musculature?