Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1968
Japan, the Beautiful and Myself
"In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the
In autumn the moon, and in winter the snow, clear, cold."
"The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold."
The first of these poems is by the priest
Dogen (1200-1253) and bears the title "Innate Spirit". The second
is by the priest Myoe (1173-1232). When I am asked for specimens
of calligraphy, it is these poems that I often choose.
The second poem bears an unusually detailed account of its
origins, such as to be an explanation of the heart of its
meaning: "On the night of the twelfth day of the twelfth month of
the year 1224, the moon was behind clouds. I sat in Zen
meditation in the Kakyu Hall. When the hour of the midnight vigil
came, I ceased meditation and descended from the hall on the peak
to the lower quarters, and as I did so the moon came from the
clouds and set the snow to glowing. The moon was my companion,
and not even the wolf howling in the valley brought fear. When,
presently, I came out of the lower quarters again, the moon was
again behind clouds. As the bell was signalling the late-night
vigil, I made my way once more to the peak, and the moon saw me
on the way. I entered the meditation hall, and the moon, chasing
the clouds, was about to sink behind the peak beyond, and it
seemed to me that it was keeping me secret company."
There follows the poem I have quoted, and with the explanation
that it was composed as Myoe entered the meditation hall after
seeing the moon behind the mountain, there comes yet another
"I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.Here is the setting for another poem, after Myoe had
spent the rest of the night in the meditation hall, or perhaps
gone there again before dawn:
Night after night we shall keep each other company."
"Opening my eyes from my meditations, I saw the moon in the dawn,
lighting the window. In a dark place myself, I felt as if my own
heart were glowing with light which seemed to be that of the
'My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;Because of such a spontaneous and innocent stringing
together of mere ejaculations as the following, Myoe has been
called the poet of the moon:
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.' "
"Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright,
bright.In his three poems on the winter moon, from late
night into the dawn, Myoe follows entirely the bent of Saigyo,
another poet-priest, who lived from 1118 to 1190: "Though I
compose poetry, I do not think of it as composed poetry." The
thirty-one syllables of each poem, honest and straightforward as
if he were addressing the moon, are not merely to "the moon as my
companion". Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen
by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with
nature. The light of the "clear heart" of the priest, seated in
the meditation hall in the darkness before the dawn, becomes for
the dawn moon its own light.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon."
As we see from the long introduction to the first of Myoe's poems
quoted above, in which the winter moon becomes a companion, the
heart of the priest, sunk in meditation upon religion and
philosophy, there in the mountain hall, is engaged in a delicate
interplay and exchange with the moon; and it is this of which the
poet sings. My reason for choosing that first poem when asked for
a specimen of my calligraphy has to do with its remarkable
gentleness and compassion. Winter moon, going behind the clouds
and coming forth again, making bright my footsteps as I go to the
meditation hall and descend again, making me unafraid of the
wolf: does not the wind sink into you, does not the snow, are you
not cold? I choose the poem as a poem of warm, deep, delicate
compassion, a poem that has in it the deep quiet of the Japanese
spirit. Dr. Yashiro Yukio, internationally known as a scholar of
Botticelli, a man of great learning in the art of the past and
the present, of the East and the West, has summed up one of the
special characteristics of Japanese art in a single poetic
sentence: "The time of the snows, of the moon, of the blossoms
– – – then more than ever we think of our
comrades." When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the
beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries
in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the
beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of
those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure. The
excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow feelings,
yearnings for companionship, and the word "comrade" can be taken
to mean "human being". The snow, the moon, the blossoms, words
expressive of the seasons as they move one into another, include
in the Japanese tradition the beauty of mountains and rivers and
grasses and trees, of all the myriad manifestations of nature, of
human feelings as well.
That spirit, that feeling for one's comrades in the snow, the
moonlight, under the blossoms, is also basic to the tea ceremony.
A tea ceremony is a coming together in feeling, a meeting of good
comrades in a good season. I may say in passing, that to see my
novel Thousand Cranes as an evocation of the formal and
spiritual beauty of the tea ceremony is a misreading. It is a
negative work, and expression of doubt about and warning against
the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen.
"In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the
cuckoo.One can, if one chooses, see in Dogen's poem the
beauty of the four seasons no more than a conventional, ordinary,
mediocre stringing together, in a most awkward form of
representative images from the four seasons. One can see it as a
poem that is not really a poem at all. And yet very similar is
the deathbed poem of the priest Ryokan (1758-1831):
In autumn the full moon, in winter the snow, clear, cold."
"What shall be my legacy? The blossoms of spring,In this poem, as in Dogen's, the commonest of
figures and the commonest of words are strung together without
hesitation – – – no, to particular effect,
rather – – – and so they transmit the very
essence of Japan. And it is Ryokan's last poem that I have
The cuckoo in the hills, the leaves of autumn."
"A long, misty day in spring:Ryokan, who shook off the modern vulgarity of his
day, who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries, and
whose poetry and calligraphy are much admired in Japan today
– – – he lived in the spirit of these poems, a
wanderer down country paths, a grass hut for shelter, rags for
clothes, farmers to talk to. The profundity of religion and
literature was not, for him, in the abstruse. He rather pursued
literature and belief in the benign spirit summarized in the
Buddhist phrase "a smiling face and gentle words". In his last
poem he offered nothing as a legacy. He but hoped that after his
death nature would remain beautiful. That could be his bequest.
One feels in the poem the emotions of old Japan, and the heart of
a religious faith as well.
I saw it to a close, playing ball with the children.
"The breeze is fresh, the moon is clear.
Together let us dance the night away, in what is left of old
"It is not that I wish to have none of the world,
It is that I am better at the pleasure enjoyed alone."
"I wondered and wondered when she would come.Ryokan wrote love poetry too. This is an example of
which I am fond. An old man of sixty-nine (I might point out that
at the same age I am the recipient of the Nobel Prize), Ryokan
met a twenty-nine-year old nun named Teishin, and was blessed
with love. The poem can be seen as one of happiness at having met
the ageless woman, of happiness at having met the one for whom
the wait was so long. The last line is simplicity itself.
And now we are together. What thoughts need I have?"
Ryokan died at the age of seventy-three. He was born in the
province of Echigo, the present Niigata Prefecture and the
setting of my novel Snow Country, a northerly region on
what is known as the reverse side of Japan, where cold winds come
down across the Japan Sea from Siberia. He lived his whole life
in the snow country, and to his "eyes in their last extremity",
when he was old and tired and knew that death was near, and had
attained enlightenment, the snow country, as we see in his last
poem, was yet more beautiful, I should imagine. I have an essay
with the title "Eyes in their Last Extremity".
The title comes from the suicide note of the short-story writer
Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927). It is the phrase that pulls at
me with the greatest strength. Akutagawa said that he seemed to
be gradually losing the animal something known as the strength to
live, and continued:
"I am living in a world of morbid nerves, clear and cold as
ice... I do not know when I will summon up the resolve to kill
myself. But nature is for me more beautiful than it has ever been
before. I have no doubt that you will laugh at the contradiction,
for here I love nature even when I am contemplating suicide. But
nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last
Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927, at the age of
In my essay, "Eyes in their Last Extremity", I had to say: "How
ever alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form
of enlightenment. However admirable he may be, the man who
commits suicide is far from the realm of the saint." I neither
admire nor am in sympathy with suicide. I had another friend who
died young, an avant-garde painter. He too thought of suicide
over the years, and of him I wrote in this same essay: "He seems
to have said over and over that there is no art superior to
death, that to die is to live," I could see, however, that for
him, born in a Buddhist temple and educated in a Buddhist school,
the concept of death was very different from that in the West.
"Among those who give thoughts to things, is there one who does
not think of suicide?" With me was the knowledge that that fellow
Ikkyu (1394-1481) twice contemplated suicide. I have "that
fellow", because the priest Ikkyu is known even to children as a
most amusing person, and because anecdotes about his limitlessly
eccentric behavior have come down to us in ample numbers. It is
said of him that children climbed his knee to stroke his beard,
that wild birds took feed from his hand. It would seem from all
this that he was the ultimate in mindlessness, that he was an
approachable and gentle sort of priest. As a matter of fact he
was the most severe and profound of Zen priests. Said to have
been the son of an emperor, he entered a temple at the age of
six, and early showed his genius as a poetic prodigy. At the same
time he was troubled with the deepest of doubts about religion
and life. "If there is a god, let him help me. If there is none,
let me throw myself to the bottom of the lake and become food for
fishes." Leaving behind these words he sought to throw himself
into a lake, but was held back. On another occasion, numbers of
his fellows were incriminated when a priest in his Daitokuji
Temple committed suicide. Ikkyu went back to the temple, "the
burden heavy on my shoulders," and sought to starve himself to
death. He gave his collected poetry the title "Collection of the
Roiling Clouds", and himself used the expression "Roiling Clouds"
as a pen name. In his collection and its successor are poems
quite without parallel in the Chinese and especially the Zen
poetry of the Japanese middle ages, erotic poems and poems about
the secrets of the bedchamber that leave one in utter
astonishment. He sought, by eating fish and drinking spirits and
having commerce with women, to go beyond the rules and
proscriptions of the Zen of his day, and to seek liberation from
them, and thus, turning against established religious forms, he
sought in the pursuit of Zen the revival and affirmation of the
essence of life, of human existence, in a day civil war and moral
His temple, the Daitokuji at Murasakino in Kyoto, remains a
center of the tea ceremony, and specimens of his calligraphy are
greatly admired as hangings in alcoves of tea rooms.
I myself have two specimens of Ikkyu's calligraphy. One of them
is a single line: "It is easy to enter the world of the Buddha,
it is hard to enter the world of the devil." Much drawn to these
words, I frequently make use of them when asked for a specimen of
my own calligraphy. They can be read in any number of ways, as
difficult as one chooses, but in that world of the devil added to
the world of the Buddha, Ikkyu of Zen comes home to me with great
immediacy. The fact that for an artist, seeking truth, good, and
beauty, the fear and petition even as a prayer in those words
about the world of the devil – – – the fact
that it should be there apparent on the surface, hidden behind,
perhaps speaks with the inevitability of fate. There can be no
world of the Buddha without the world of the devil. And the world
of the devil is the world difficult of entry. It is not for the
weak of heart.
"If you meet a Buddha, kill him. If you meet a patriarch of the
law,This is a well-known Zen motto. If Buddhism is
divided generally into the sects that believe in salvation by
faith and those that believe in salvation by one's own efforts,
then of course there must be such violent utterances in Zen,
which insists upon salvation by one's own efforts. On the other
side, the side of salvation by faith, Shinran (1173-1262), the
founder of the Shin sect, once said: "The good shall be reborn in
paradise, and how much more shall it be so with the bad." This
view of things has something in common with Ikkyu's world of the
Buddha and world of the devil, and yet at heart the two have
their different inclinations. Shinran also said: "I shall not
take a single disciple."
"If you meet a Buddha, kill him. If you meet a patriarch of the
law, kill him." "I shall not take a single disciple." In these
two statements, perhaps, is the rigorous fate of art.
In Zen there is no worship of images. Zen does have images, but
in the hall where the regimen of meditation is pursued, there are
neither images nor pictures of Buddhas, nor are there scriptures.
The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with
his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free
from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and
enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or
the emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe
of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with
everything, transcending bounds, limitless. There are of course
masters of Zen, and the disciple is brought toward enlightenment
by exchanging questions and answers with his master, and he
studies the scriptures. The disciple must, however, always be
lord of his own thoughts, and must attain enlightenment through
his own efforts. And the emphasis is less upon reason and
argument than upon intuition, immediate feeling. Enlightenment
comes not from teaching but through the eye awakened inwardly.
Truth is in "the discarding of words", it lies "outside words".
And so we have the extreme of "silence like thunder", in the
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Tradition has it that Bodhidharma, a
southern Indian prince who lived in about the sixth century and
was the founder of Zen in China, sat for nine years in silence
facing the wall of a cave, and finally attained enlightenment.
The Zen practice of silent meditation in a seated posture derives
Here are two religious poems by Ikkyu:
"Then I ask you answer. When I do not you do not.Here we have the spirit of Zen in Oriental painting.
The heart of the ink painting is in space, abbreviation, what is
left undrawn. In the words of the Chinese painter Chin Nung: "You
paint the branch well, and you hear the sound of the wind." And
the priest Dogen once more: "Are there not these cases?
Enlightenment in the voice of the bamboo. Radiance of heart in
the peach blossom."
What is there then on your heart, O Lord Bodhidharma?"
"And what is it, the heart?
It is the sound of the pine breeze in the ink painting."
Ikenobo Sen'o, a master of flower arranging, once said (the
remark is to be found in his Sayings): "With a spray of flowers,
a bit of water, one evokes the vastness of rivers and mountains."
The Japanese garden too, of course symbolizes the vastness of
nature. The Western garden tends to be symmetrical, the Japanese
garden asymmetrical, and this is because the asymmetrical has the
greater power to symbolize multiplicity and vastness. The
asymmetry, of course, rests upon a balance imposed by delicate
sensibilities. Nothing is more complicated, varied, attentive to
detail, than the Japanese art of landscape gardening. Thus there
is the form called the dry landscape, composed entirely of rocks,
in which the arrangement of stones gives expression to mountains
and rivers that are not present, and even suggests the waves of
the great ocean breaking in upon cliffs. Compressed to the
ultimate, the Japanese garden becomes the bonsai dwarf
garden, or the bonseki, its dry version.
In the Oriental word for landscape, literally "mountain-water",
with its related implications in landscape painting and landscape
gardening, there is contained the concept of the sere and wasted,
and even of the sad and the threadbare. Yet in the sad, austere,
autumnal qualities so valued by the tea ceremony, itself
summarized in the expression "gently respectful, cleanly quiet",
there lies concealed a great richness of spirit; and the tea
room, so rigidly confined and simple, contains boundless space
and unlimited elegance. The single flower contains more
brightness than a hundred flowers. The great sixteenth-century
master of the tea ceremony and flower arranging, Rikyu, taught
that it was wrong to use fully opened flowers. Even in the tea
ceremony today the general practice is to have in the alcove of
the tea room but a single flower, and that a flower in bud. In
winter a special flower of winter, let us say a camellia, bearing
some such name as White Jewel or Wabisuke, which might be
translated literally as "Helpmate in Solitude", is chosen, a
camellia remarkable among camellias for its whiteness and the
smallness of its blossoms; and but a single bud is set out in the
alcove. White is the cleanest of colors, it contains in itself
all the other colors. And there must always be dew on the bud.
The bud is moistened with a few drops of water. The most splendid
of arrangements for the tea ceremony comes in May, when a peony
is put out in a celadon vase; but here again there is but a
single bud, always with dew upon it. Not only are there drops of
water upon the flower, the vase too is frequently
Among flower vases, the ware that is given the highest rank is
old Iga, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it
commands the highest price. When old Iga has been dampened, its
colors and its glow take on a beauty such as to awaken on afresh.
Iga was fired at very high temperatures. The straw ash and the
smoke from the fuel fell and flowed against the surface, and as
the temperature dropped, became a sort of glaze. Because the
colors were not fabricated but were rather the result of nature
at work in the kiln, color patterns emerged in such varieties as
to be called quirks and freaks of the kiln. The rough, austere,
strong surfaces of old Iga take on a voluptuous glow when
dampened. It breathes to the rhythm of the dew of the
The taste of the tea ceremony also asks that the tea bowl be
moistened before using, to give it its own soft glow.
Ikenobo Sen'o remarked on another occasion (this too is in his
Sayings) that "the mountains and strands should appear in
their own forms". Bringing a new spirit into his school of flower
arranging, therefore, he found "flowers" in broken vessels and
withered branches, and in them too the enlightenment that comes
from flowers. "The ancients arranged flowers and pursued
enlightenment." Here we see awakening to the heart of the
Japanese spirit, under the influence of Zen. And in it too,
perhaps, is the heart of a man living in the devastation of long
The Tales of Ise, compiled in the tenth century, is the
oldest Japanese collection of lyrical episodes, numbers of which
might be called short stories. In one of them we learn that the
poet Ariwara no Yukihira, having invited guests, put in
"Being a man of feeling, he had in a large jar a most unusual
wistaria. The trailing spray of flowers was upwards of three and
a half feet long."
A spray of wistaria of such length is indeed so unusual as to
make one have doubts about the credibility of the writer; and yet
I can feel in this great spray a symbol of Heian culture. The
wistaria is a very Japanese flower, and it has a feminine
elegance. Wistaria sprays, as they trail in the breeze, suggest
softness, gentleness, reticence. Disappearing and then appearing
again in the early summer greenery, they have in them that
feeling for the poignant beauty of things long characterized by
the Japanese as mono no aware. No doubt there was a
particular splendor in that spray upwards of three and a half
feet long. The splendors of Heian culture a millennium ago and
the emergence of a peculiarly Japanese beauty were as wondrous as
this "most unusual wistaria", for the culture of T'ang China had
at length been absorbed and Japanized. In poetry there came,
early in the tenth century, the first of the imperially
commissioned anthologies, the Kokinshu, and in fiction, the
Tales of Ise, followed by the supreme masterpieces of
classical Japanese prose, the Tale of Genji of Lady
Murasaki and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, both of whom
lived from the late tenth century into the early eleventh. So was
established a tradition which influenced and even controlled
Japanese literature for eight hundred years. The Tale of
Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese
literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of
fiction to compare with it. That such a modern work should have
been written in the eleventh century is a miracle, and as a
miracle the work is widely known abroad. Although my grasp of
classical Japanese was uncertain, the Heian classics were my
principal boyhood reading, and it is the Genji, I think,
that has meant the most to me. For centuries after it was
written, fascination with the Genji persisted, and
imitations and reworkings did homage to it. The Genji was
a wide and deep source of nourishment for poetry, of course, and
for the fine arts and handicrafts as well, and even for landscape
Murasaki and Sei Shonagon, and such famous poets as Izumi
Shikibu, who probably died early in the eleventh century, and
Akazome Emon, who probably died in the mid-eleventh century, were
all ladies-in-waiting in the imperial court. Japanese culture was
court culture, and court culture was feminine. The day of the
Genji and the Pillow Book was its finest, when
ripeness was moving into decay. One feels in it the sadness at
the end of glory, the high tide of Japanese court culture. The
court went into its decline, power moved from the court nobility
to the military aristocracy, in whose hands it remained through
almost seven centuries from the founding of the Kamakura
Shogunate in 1192 to the Meiji Restoration in 1867 and 1868. It
is not to be thought, however, that either the imperial
institution or court culture vanished. In the eighth of the
imperial anthologies, the Shinkokinshü of the early
thirteenth century, the technical dexterity of the
Kokinshu was pushed yet a step further, and sometimes fell
into mere verbal dalliance; but there were added elements of the
mysterious, the suggestive, the evocative and inferential
elements of sensuous fantasy that have something in common with
modern symbolist poetry. Saigyo, who has been mentioned earlier,
was a representative poet spanning the two ages, Heian and
"I dreamt of him because I was thinking of him.These are by Ono no Komachi, the leading poetess of
the Kokinshu, who sings of dreams, even, with a
straightforward realism. But when we come to the following poems
of the Empress Eifuku, who lived at about the same time as Ikkyu,
in the Muromachi Period, somewhat later than the
Shinkokinshu, we have a subtle realism that becomes a
melancholy symbolism, delicately Japanese, and seems to me more
Had I known it was a dream, I should not have wished to
"In my dreams I go to him each night without fail.
But this is less than a single glimpse in the waking."
"Shining upon the bamboo thicket where the sparrows
The sunlight takes on the color of the autumn."
"The autumn wind, scattering the bush clover in the
sinks into one's bones.
Upon the wall, the evening sun disappears."
Dogen, whose poem about the clear, cold
snow I have quoted, and Myoe, who wrote of the winter moon as his
companion, were of generally the Shinkokinshu period. Myoe
exchanged poems with Saigyo and the two discussed poetry
together. The following is from the biography of Myoe by his
"Saigyo frequently came and talked of poetry. His own attitude
towards poetry, he said, was far from the ordinary. Cherry
blossoms, the cuckoo, the moon, snow: confronted with all the
manifold forms of nature, his eyes and his ears were filled with
emptiness. And were not all the words that came forth true words?
When he sang of the blossoms the blossoms were not on his mind,
when he sang of the moon he did not think of the moon. As the
occasion presented itself, as the urge arose, he wrote poetry.
The red rainbow across the sky was as the sky taking on color.
The white sunlight was as the sky growing bright. Yet the empty
sky, by its nature, was not something to become bright. It was
not something to take on color. With a spirit like the empty sky
he gives color to all the manifold scenes but not a trace
remained. In such poetry was the Buddha, the manifestation of the
Here we have the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient. My
own works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is
not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual
foundation would seem to be quite different. Dogen entitled his
poem about the seasons, "Innate Reality", and even as he sang of
the beauty of the seasons he was deeply immersed in Zen.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1968
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