Santoka Taneda

by Rev. Nonin Chowaney
Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center

Santoka Taneda (1882-1940) was one of the most famous and influential haiku poets of twentieth century Japan. He was also a Zen Buddhist monk, and his haiku is steeped in our tradition. Santoka was no ordinary monk, however. By the time he was ordained, he was an accomplished poet whose life had more than its share of tragedy. When he was eleven, his mother committed suicide. His father, a notorious womanizer, mismanaged the family’s property and eventually lost everything, with Santoka’s help – for the young man became an alcoholic at an early age and helped ruin the business he was involved in – a sake brewery. Santoka’s younger brother also committed suicide, and Santoka’s marriage was a disastrous failure.

My favorite collection of Santoka’s poetry translated into English is Mountain Tasting, translated by John Stevens. In his introduction to the book, Stevens recalls the circumstances by which Santoka became a monk, "Near the end of December 1924, Santoka, drunk and apparently intent on committing suicide, stood in the middle of some railroad tracks facing an oncoming train. The train screeched to a halt just in time, and Santoka was pulled out of the way. He was taken to a nearby Zen temple call Ho-on-ji. The head priest there, Gian Mochizuki Osho, did not reprimand or question Santoka; he didn’t even ask his name. The monk fed Santoka and told him he could stay at the temple as long as he wished."

A year later, Santoka was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest by Gian. He was 42 years old. For the rest of his life, Santoka mostly wandered throughout Japan, living from hand to mouth and composing a remarkable body of free-style haiku. He never overcame his alcoholism, however, and his addiction dogged him throughout his wanderings.

Mountain Tasting is one of my favorite books of poetry and, I’d like to introduce Santoka to those of you who don’t know his work and comment on some of his poems and the dharma contained in them. All of the poems we’ll look at are from Mountain Tasting and were translated by John Stevens.

One of my favorite Santoka poems is this one:

Just as it is –
It rains, I get wet, I walk.

Here’s another one along the same lines:

Begging: I accept
The blazing sun.

One of my favorite Zen Buddhist phrases, one that I’ve written in calligraphy many times is nyoze in Japanese. I translate this into English as "just this." The phrase represents our primary concern, what’s right in front of us – things as they are. In Santoka’s first poem, he faces "just this" squarely and walks on through the rain, getting wet. In the second, he’s begging and accepts what he’s given, "just this," the blazing sun. There is no complaining and no wishing for things to be different in either of these poems. I find this refreshing.

All we can do is live what’s in front of us, whether we like it or not. What we think of it is really of no consequence, for thinking doesn’t change anything, nor do our likes and dislikes. When we lose a loved one, we grieve and walk on. When we get sick, we live it through till the end. Sometimes we get better; sometimes we don’t. What we think of any of this is beside the point.

Last January, I had three emergency surgeries and almost died from complications afterwards. During the surgeries, my colon was removed, and I have an ileostomy. In other words, the end of my small intestine, the ileum, was routed up through my skin, and I poop into a bag attached to my lower abdomen. Periodically, I have to empty the bag into the toilet and change the bag itself every few days. Whether I like this or not is beside the point. This is my life: things are as they are. My poem about this would be:

Just as it is –
I poop; I empty the bag;
I go about my business.
What do likes or dislikes have to do with it?

Here’s a pair of Santoka poems:

After all,
It’s sad to be alone –
The withered grasses.

After all,
It’s good to be alone –
The wild grasses.

What’s the difference here? Santoka’s state of mind. One moment he’s lonely and the grasses are withered. The next moment, he’s content to be alone, and the grasses are wild. Most of the time, our mental states determine how we view things. We view the world through the lenses of our thoughts, sensations, and desires and project them onto the scenes in front of us.

One April Sunday here at the temple, I had planned a yard-cleanup after services. However, wet, dense snow started to fall just as people began to arrive for 9:00 a.m. zazen, and I was bummed out. I walked downstairs and said to Albert, one of our members, "It’s snowing pretty hard out there." Albert replied, "Yes, there’s something quite beautiful about these spring snowstorms." Well, not if you’d planned a yard clean up for that day and all you can see is the snow ruining your plans!

Those two poems by Santoka remind me of this one by the contemporary American poet David Budbill:

Of Two Minds

As Ryokan said,
Truly I love this life of seclusion.

Then why do I pine away
for a visit from friends?

And why,
when they do come,

why is it that all I can think about
is how to get away,

back into the woods, back to my life
of seclusion?

Why? Because that’s the nature of mind – always grasping, always clinging. Santoka looks at this in another way in the following poem:

My heart is empty;
The violent waves come and go.

Even though his heart is empty, which means that it doesn’t consist of anything fixed and permanent, violent waves come and go. Why? Because it is "empty" of anything fixed and permanent, whatever arises has to come and go. One moment we love the person next to us dearly; the next moment, we can’t stand to be around her! This is the nature of the heart, or of the mind. It’s interesting that the character for "heart" and "mind" is the same character, shin, in Japanese. Because the heart (or mind) is empty, the waves, violent or not, come and go, like the waves on water. Below the waves, the ocean is deep and clear. On the surface, however, the waves can be violent.

Here’s another of my favorite Santoka poems:

In the grass trampled by the horse:
Flowers in full bloom.

Oh, they’ve been trampled! What a shame. Did the horse mean to trample them? I don’t think so. He or she was just being a horse going from one place to the next. Sometimes something beautiful gets crushed and the crusher didn’t intend it. That’s one of the aspects of life, isn’t it? A beautiful young woman is killed in a tragic car accident. Maybe it was a suddenly icy road, or a mechanical failure, or a bridge collapse, like the one in Minneapolis a short time ago. What a shame. But, that is life. Santoka knew loneliness intimately, for he was a solitary wanderer. Sometimes it was fine:

No path but this one –
I walk alone

Sometimes it was not fine:

This straight road
Full of loneliness

Sometimes is was wonderful wandering alone:

Aimlessly, buoyantly,
Drifting here and there,
Tasting the pure water.

Sometimes it was a relief:

Well, which way should I go?
The wind blows.

These are the ups and downs of life, which Santoka knew intimately and accepted wholeheartedly. Some days, solitude is wonderful, but the next day, it can be overwhelmingly sad. Santoka wrote about all aspects of the solitary life unflinchingly.

One of Santoka’s most economical and beautiful poems is the following:

I have no home;
Autumn deepens

This poem touches something deep within me. Santoka’s homelessness is especially poignant and troubling for him when autumn comes; can winter with its snow and cold be far behind? This is no time to be homeless, but he is, as, ultimately, we all are. This life is transitory, and any home we have is only temporary. As the Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra:

So you should view all of the fleeting worlds:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

(trans. Mu Soeng)

The following poems were written by Santoka during the Sino-Japanese war, which started in 1937. John Stevens introduces these poems in Mountain Tasting by saying, "No one in Japan was permitted to oppose this conflict, and all poets were expected to support the war effort in their works." Nevertheless, out of great compassion, Santoka wrote and published these poems, along with others dealing with the war:

Winter rain clouds –
Thinking: Going to China
To be torn to pieces.

Leaving hands and feet
Behind in China,
The soldiers return to Japan.

The bones,
Silently this time,
Returned across the ocean.

There is a universality in Santoka’s poetry that transcends the circumstances of his life, and it’s this universality that makes him a great poet. He touches us all, no matter where and when we live.

Santoka’s most famous poem is this one:

Going deeper
And still deeper –
The green mountains.

This is a poem about spiritual practice. "Going deeper and still deeper" means to look into ourselves as deeply as we can to try to get to the bottom of who we are and what human life is. When we look deeply, we come to "The green mountains," which are huge and unfathomable. This is a metaphor for the ground of human life. We can always go deeper and deeper. The spiritual pilgrimage is constant and endless, for we can never reach bottom. Understanding can always be deepened.

Santoka saw his wanderings as a pilgrimage, and early on, he completed a few of the famous pilgrimages in Japan. Later, he went wherever "the wind blows," as he stated in a poem above, and his pilgrimage never ended.

In a collection of twentieth century Zen Buddhist art, in which Santoka’s calligraphy is displayed, Audrey Yoshiko Seo says this about him: "He has become beloved in Japan for the difficulty of his spiritual journey, the depth of his trial and effort, and the simple but profound haiku that he left to the world." Hopefully, as time goes on, there’ll be more and more translations of Santoka’s poems, and he will be beloved by people in more and more countries throughout the world.

© Copyright Nonin Chowaney, 2008

Nonin Sensei is the Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center and a disciple of Dainin Katagiri Roshi.

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