Ep. 052: In the Samurai's Garden

A quiet retreat for a samurai-turned-poet

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In November of 1998, I made my first visit to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto--and was smitten for life. I had bought a little pocket-sized guidebook entitled Illustrated Must-See in Kyoto, so I rented a bicycle from my guest-house, and--taking that title to heart--saw almost all of the sites in it (nearly 30, by my count) in that first four-day trip!

One of these "Must-Sees" was a precious little jewel to which, alas, I have not returned since. It lives in my memory as a near-paradise, as its maker intended it. So come with me and take a quick peek inside Shisen-do, the "Hall of the Poet-Immortals," and meet its now immortal creator, in this episode of--


"Chinese" pagoda amongst azaleas in the garden at Shisen-do

It is not unknown for men in martial occupations to, at some point in their lives, turn from the battlefield to gentler pursuits. The example par excellence in Buddhism is the third-century BCE Indian King Ashoka, who, in the eighth year of his reign--at roughly age 44--was responsible for a battle that caused the deaths of 100,000 men and animals, and 150,000 more men and animals were taken captive. This was too much for him, and, though still remaining king, he turned to Buddhism to assuage his remorse, becoming one of its foremost boosters.

Another example, in Japan, was the case of Kumagai no Jirō Naozane, a late-12th century soldier known for having killed the boy Atsumori--a story later told and retold in literature and on the stage. We'll examine the touching story of the "Death of Atsumori" soon, but the point I want to make here is that the killing of this boy--along with remorse for the many other lives he had taken--led Kumagai to become a priest.

Retirement from the world by men "of a certain age" was in fact a cultural norm in India, China, and Japan. In some cases, this would lead to a wandering existence; in others, to a simple life of study and culture. A perfect example in Japan of this latter is the samurai-turned-poet Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672).

Ishikawa Jozan, Samurai Poet

Ishikawa Jozan (Japanese Wikipedia)

Born in the samurai class--both his father and grandfather died on the battlefield--Jozan participated in two of the most dramatic battles of his age, both under the leadership of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the First Tokugawa Shogun, whom we met in Episode 018 (plus, they were homies, born in the same province). The first was the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, when Jozan was around 16 or 17. This is the battle considered to be the unofficial beginning of Ieyasu's shogunate, and it's said that Jozan saved one of the soon-to-be-shogun's sons in battle. He was offered a position in the Tokugawa household, but turned it down, mind already on retirement.

Let me just interject here that "retirement" in this context means escaping worldly cares or cultivating one's inner resources. It's not a matter of pensions and golf and leisure suits and so on. More on this in a moment.

An old print of Jozan's place of "retirement." (from a Japanese website)

Anyway, the second landmark battle in which Jozan took part was the 1615 Siege of Osaka Castle, in which the last significant opposition to the Tokugawa rule was definitively snuffed out.

It was at this second great battle, when he was barely 30, that Jozan committed a serious faux pas: he reportedly killed an enemy soldier against orders, and subsequently--whether voluntarily or by force--became a priest. (I have often told Japanese stories that end with an amusing flourish--"and he became a priest! Well, Jozan did!)

In one case, when Jozan tried to retire (thus leaving Ieyasu's service), the Shogun put him under house arrest. At last, he was freed to become a ronin, or masterless samurai (like Miyamoto Musashi--see Episode 042), and was thus free to move into Kyoto's Myoshin-ji Temple.

The front gate of Shisen-do

Sadly, in less than a year he received word that his mother was ill, and he needed to return to the active life in order to support her. He took a position as scholar-in-residence for the Asano clan in Hiroshima. His mother passed away after 12 years, in 1635--Jozan was now over 50--and he was once again free to pursue his studies.

Jozan was not your typical Buddhist. In fact, his focus was on the Chinese classics, especially Confucianism; this is consistent with the filial piety shown to his mother. He was what the Chinese call a wenren, and the Japanese pronounce bunjin--a "culture person" or "man of letters."

He roamed around Kyoto quite a bit, hobnobbing with the literati, writing poems inspired by what he saw and what he and his friends discussed. He lived for a while in a small house called the Suichiku-do, literally the "Hall of Dreaming Bamboo," perhaps "trying it on for size" before tackling his most enduring claim to fame.

The trees screen the garden from Kyoto, the place of "worldly dust"

As Japanologist J. Thomas Rimer wrote in an essay, "Jozan purposely removed himself from the society that was being constructed around him"--remember, this is the age in which Ieyasu was "constructing" his Shogunate--"and aligned himself with the great Chinese and Japanese recluses whom he most admired. To insist, in those increasingly practical days, that the day-to-day life of a person should be one of the mind and spirit was a powerful ideological statement..."

As quoted in the same essay, Jozan himself wrote of this life later on:

Living in seclusion, I brush off worldly dust:

remote, secluded, I do not seek neighbors.

Clear-sky moon, this night of austere solitude:

I have no need of someone else to talk to.

Living a hermit in the woods, enjoying nothing to do!

My bramble gate of course is never opened.

Serenely, in perpetual seclusion...

the dog barks, amazed that someone's come to call.

A gate in the garden. Probably not a "bramble" one.

He was able to achieve this ideal lifestyle when he built the Shisen-do in 1641, when he was nearly 60--though some part of this "seclusion" was certainly a pose, a conceit, as he continued for many years to spend time in the city. In any case, in ancient Chinese and Japanese practice, "60" was the completion of a cycle. The Chinese zodiac has 12 animals and five elements; one full revolution then takes 60 years. So a man was to be active for 60, then passive for 60, and fade out at 120 years old (!). And so, presumably, Jozan would spend six more decades in his retreat. He only managed two, though, dying around age 80.

The Hermit Tradition

Before we visit his hermitage--now a Soto Zen temple called Jozan-ji--let's quickly meet some of Ishikawa Jozan's forerunners, and some of those influenced by his life's work.

All from Wikipedia

In Shuichi Kato's History of Japanese Literature, two poems (translated by Don Sanderson) crystallize this tradition. Jozan himself wrote:

In retreat there is nothing

To enthrall me

Idle by nature,

Given up to solitude

And the later poet Kan Sazan (1748-1827) wrote:

In his time there was only

Ishikawa Jozan

A man of noble spirit,

Who made good poetry.


Along these lines, Jozan could not have been unaware of two classic Japanese works in the hermit tradition. The first is a book sometimes called An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut (its title has been translated several ways), by Kamo no Chomei (1153?-1216). After missing out on a number of opportunities, Chomei turned his back on the world and took Buddhist vows, building a small house just outside of Kyoto which features in his book. The book reads like an alarmist newspaper, chronicling the disasters that befell the people of the city in order to convey the transience of things. (It's guys like Chomei that make Buddhism look pessimistic!)

Its opening lines channel Heraclitus, who is supposed to have said, "Everything flows." They read:

The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.

This is still studied in the Japanese school curriculum.


Another work in the tradition that Jozan inherited is Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko (1284-1350). Once a palace guard, Kenko, too, became a monk and hermit, either over an unsuccessful romantic entanglement, or in mourning over the death of his favorite emperor. (Really?)

Anyway, though he wrote poems, it is his 243 short (some of them blessedly so) Essays that assured that Japanese students would have to suffer through him. But unlike Chomei, he rhapsodizes on things like the beauty of nature, as well as transience and whatnot. Donald Keene translates the book's prefatory passage:

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

Incidentally, I keep both of these books near at hand: I can reach them from the shelf without leaving my chair.


After Jozan, we encounter two of Japan's greatest priest-poets. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was a slightly later contemporary of Jozan. He's the best-known poet of the Edo period (the time of Tokugawa rule) and his best-known work was his Narrow Road to the Deep North, a sort of travelogue-cum-haiku collection. Basho undertook a five-month trip in 1689 to places of literary significance--including those mentioned in the works of Saigyo (1118-1190), another priest-poet who influenced Jozan--and wrote his own reactions in poems.

Perhaps the most famous of Basho's haiku--which has been translated dozens of ways into English--was written about a seemingly-mundane event at Iwamadera Temple (which I visited on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage--see Episode 044). Here it is translated by our old friend Lafcadio Hearn:

Old pond

frogs jumped in

sound of water.

And by D.T. Suzuki (whom we've also met in these Newsletters):

Into the ancient pond

A frog jumps

Water's sound!


Finally, the poet-priest Ryokan (1758-1831) also worked in the flow of the hermit tradition of Jozan. His deeply compassionate--and sometimes bawdy--writings were one of my special subjects of study when I lived in Japan. (His poems are a blast!)

Here's a great example: He once came home to find a thief searching his house in vain for something to steal. "You have come a long way to visit me," Ryokan told him, "and you shouldn't go away empty-handed. Please accept these ragged clothes I'm wearing as a gift." When the burglar left (shame-facedly), Ryokan sat naked for a while, watching the moon. "What a shame," he sighed. "I wish I could have given that poor fellow this beautiful moon."

He then wrote this haiku:

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window.

Ryokan is also said to have left one of his legs outside of the mosquito netting at night, on the principle that they had to eat, too!

The Hall of the Poet Immortals

Shisen-do (Wikipedia)

At long last, having trudged up from the bus stop, we arrive at the solid bamboo gate of Shisen-do.

The first character in the temple's name, Shi, simply means "poem." To make the word "poet" the second character would have to be jin, "person." Instead, the second character here is sen--in Chinese, xian, a word we discussed in Episode 023, about the "Eight Immortals." There we explained that the character is made up of two parts representing a person next to a mountain, and has been translated saint, wizard, transcendent one--even fairy. But the best meaning in this case would be perhaps "hermit," as the Chinese "immortals" were Daoist mountain dwellers seeking the elixir of immortality. Nevertheless, the connotation of "immortal" is compelling, as the poets commemorated here are meant to be some of the best (though that may not be strictly true, as we'll see in a moment).

Passing through the gate, we climb a few steps and walk a pathway through a bamboo grove, lined with rickety bamboo fences, at the end of which--after a left-and-right zigzag, presumably to keep out ghosts and evil spirits--we reach the temple's main (and only!) building. We're looking up at a square cupola that creates a very cramped second story. This is the Shogetsu-ro or "moon-viewing turret." (Moon-watching--preferably with a cup of something stronger than tea in hand--is a big pastime for poets--Chinese, Japanese, and maybe even Californian.)

We step into the building's main room--under the Shogetsu-ro--and turn left into the room which gives the place its name.

The room--with a view (Wikipedia)

What a room! Straw matted floors (called tatami) under foot, and a woven reed and bamboo ceiling overhead. Open on three sides (what do they do in a typhoon?), it offers a view across a raked sand Zen garden and downhill to the meticulously carved Azalea bushes backed by trees that block the view of the city.

But one section of the open room turns the eye back to the interior: the areas above the openings in the four "walls" bear nine paintings each, with a poem and a portrait of the poet (executed by a master artist), 36 in all. These are the Shisen, the "Poet Immortals," a selection made by Jozan (with a friend's help) of some of China's best poets.

The Immortal Thirty-Six

One-ninth of the thirty-six (note the woven reed and bamboo ceiling)

Even I recognize some of the names on Jozan's list: Li Bai (701-762), Bai Juyi (772-846), Du Mu (803-852), Hanshan (9th century), Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), Su Shi (1037-1101). But to describe and discuss all 36 would be beyond tedious.

Instead, let me just tell you that many of the poets on the list are minor lights, to say the least. It's well-established that some of them are just there to round out the list, to balance a pair: a lesser-known monk paired with the great Han Shan (Bill Porter calls him by his translated name "Cold Mountain"); two members, a greater and a lesser, of a particular school or circle; one major and one minor poet with a matching style or subjects.

Another thing the avid visitor should know: the vicissitudes of time have required that the original 17th-century paintings be replaced by copies done in the 20th. Whatever is lost in authenticity is more than gained in sharp, clear images--I suppose if I could read Chinese poetry I could read these.

For the sake of completeness, I have listed the 36 poets (18 pairs) as given in the book Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals. Unfortunately, the list is given using the Wade Giles transliterations; I have attempted to convert them to Hanyu Pinyin myself. You can look up any that strike you as interesting. Dates are given as in Wikipedia; the pairs are presented together.

  1. Su Wu (140-60 BCE)
    Tao Qian (Tao Yuanming) (365–427)

  2. Xie Lingyun (385-433)
    Bao Zhao (c. 414-466)

  3. Du Shenyan (ca. 645-708)
    Chen Zi'ang (661–702)

  4. Li Bai (701-762)
    Du Fu (712-770)

  5. Wang Wei (699-759)
    Meng Haoran (691-740)

  6. Gao Shi (ca. 704-765)
    Cen Shen (715-770)

  7. Chu Guangxi (706/707-760)
    Wang Changling (698-765)

  8. Wei Yingwu (737?-c. 792)
    Liu Changqing (709-785)

  9. Han Yu (768-824)
    Liu Zongyuan (773-819)

  10. Liu Yuxi (772-842)
    Bai Juyi (772-846)

  11. Li He (c. 790-791-c. 816-817)
    Lu Tong (790-835)

  12. Du Mu (803-852)
    Li Shangyin (813-858)

  13. Hanshan (fl. 9th century)
    Lingche (746-816)

  14. Lin Bu (967-1028)
    Shao Yong (1011-1077)

  15. Mei Yaochen (1002-1060)
    Su Shunqin (1008-48)*

  16. Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072)
    Su Shi (1037-1101)

  17. Huang T'ing-chien (1045-1105)
    Chen Shidao (1053-1102)*

  18. Chen Yuyi (1090-1138)
    Zeng Ji (1084-1166)*

*No separate article in Wikipedia

In The Garden

A sand ocean and azalea island

As attractive as the small building is, the garden is one of the best reasons to visit Shisendo. Its numerous features include a meandering stream fed by an artificial waterfall; white sand representing the ocean, with rounded azalea bushes standing in for islands; a koi pond; and a small Chinese pagoda.

Well, it doesn’t look that scary (Wikipedia)

But the talk of the tourists is the sozu, also called a shishi-odoshi or "animal scarer," a truly ingenious devious meant to chase away marauding deer and wild boars and such. A large bamboo tube is blocked at one end and suspended on a sort of pivot, so that it can seesaw up and down. A fill-pipe above directs water into the open end. The tube gradually fills until it tips forward, spilling its water. The empty back-end--which is weighted--now falls and strikes a stone, giving out a hollow "tonk" sound. The process then repeats. It may scare animals, but it's sure pleasing to us! Give a listen here: (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The prettiest sight in the garden that day


Well, that's about that. Thanks for coming along to this little slice o' heaven on earth.

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


I have enabled comments for this post. Please feel free to respond!

  1. Does Jozan's lifestyle attract you?

  2. Is it possible to remain "in the world" (say, going to town while supposedly "in retreat") and still reap the benefits of "seclusion"?

  3. Would a person have to be rich to life the lifestyle of the "hermit tradition" today?

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In the next episode: Wander with me to one functioning and three defunct temples, each with a striking pagoda--one of which contains the remains of an important Chan master!--in the ancient capital of the tiny Xianyu Kingdom, now Zhengding, Hebei.