“I Only Desire”: Poet Monks

Running into a monk at a hostess bar in Kyoto was as jarring to me as bumping into a rowdy rabbi or Baptist minister at a strip club.  Though all may marry, there is still something incongruous when holy men revel at establishments where women are the entertainment.  But maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked.  For Japanese monks, at least, love has been the mind for centuries, back to the time when celibacy was required.

The crooning and flirting by monks at a hostess bar have parallels in classical Japanese poetry, beginning in the Heian era (794-1185).  Like most members of the court aristocracy in ancient Japan, many monks were prolific poets.  Conventionally, the majority of poems dealt with the seasons or love.  Taking the same approach as their lay counterparts, poet monks did not shy away from exploring passion through words.  Much of the poetry was composed for semi-public occasions where it was chanted aloud, such as the following poem written for a contest:

Mi wa oshikarazu
Au koto ni
Kaemu hodo made to
Omou bakari zo
As I die of love,
I care nothing for myself;
I only desire
To live until I might trade
My life for a meeting with you.

Monk Dōin [1090-1179]

But contests were not the only reason to write love poetry.  Poems were also an intimate part of romance.  Would-be lovers exchanged poems, sizing each other up; if a lover’s eye appeared to wander, the refined thing to do was to dash off a resentful poem.  In this arena, monks occasionally reveal themselves to be as immersed in amorous attachments—a cardinal sin Buddhism—as lay men and women.  And their affairs were not necessarily heterosexual or between adults:

Composed and sent upon seeing a beautiful boy while cloistered at a mountain temple in the foothills below Yokawa:

Yo o itou
Hashi to omoishi
Kayoiji ni
Ayanaku hito o
Koiwataru kana
I thought this path
Was a bridge that led away
From the waking world;
Yet I cross as a reckless man,
Foolish with love for you.

Monk Ninshō [c. 12th century]

The poetry composed by monks in the distant past may set precedents for their modern counterparts, but it doesn’t quite make the sight of carousing monks seem natural.  Just less surprising.

Don’t miss “Zen and the Art of Hostessing,” by the translator.

Y.B. Shiraz is a house-husband residing in Japan. He is currently raising a toddler and enjoying life away from graduate school.