Three Waka Poems

Monk Tonna (Ton’a) 頓阿法師 Japanese

Not on view

Three poems are brushed on a single sheet of writing paper by the medieval Buddhist monk-poet and calligrapher Tonna (fig. 1). On the far right, a single column of Chinese characters announces that this is a record of a recitation of three poems, which is accompanied by the poet’s name. Each of the topics of the three poems—"Mist on the Bay,” “Flower Viewing Excursion,” and “Shinto Gods”—is also boldly brushed in Chinese characters. Following each of the topic headings is a waka, or thirty-one syllable courtly verse, that is more rapidly and delicately brushed, mostly in kana, the Japanese phonetic syllabary. This format is called a waka kaishi, or poetry sheet with waka, and for centuries was the most common format for poets to record, usually in their own hand, poems that they had recited at a poetry gathering.

Tonna, steeped in the study of waka conventions of the Heian period, similarly used Sesonji school calligraphies as his model. Tonna’s handwriting is preserved in a Compendium of Sacred Writings (Hōshaku kyōyōhon), a designated National Treasure, as well as in other poetic transcriptions preserved in tegagami calligraphy albums (fig 2–4). The brushwork of this waka kaishi work compares well with those and should be accepted as a rare genuine example of this poet-calligrapher’s work.

The three poems here were among those recited at a poetry gathering hosted by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori 足利義詮 held on 1367 at the Nii-Tamatsushima Shrine in Kyoto (Nii-Tamatsushima-sha uta-awase), to commemorate the rebuilding of this important Shinto shrine in Kyoto. Sixty-six poets participated, including Tonna, who was seventy-six years old at the time, and Nijō Yoshimoto 二条塞良, a prominent poet of the day. We may assume that the Tonna wrote these poems at the time of the poetry gathering for presentation, or afterwards transcribed three of the poems from the event. Because of the occasion and setting, all three poems share a connection through their evocation of sacred places. The final poem is a jingi no uta, or a poem about Shinto deities or, in other cases, attributed to them. Mentioned here is the goddess of Tamatsushima, who was believed to be enshrined at Wakanoura (Bay of Poetry) in Kii Province. The goddess eventually also came to be identified with Princess Sotoori, consort of an ancient emperor and one of the great female poets of the past. Together with Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamabe no Akahito, she was venerated as one of the three gods of Japanese poetry (waka sanjin).

The three poems may be deciphered and translated as follows:

詠三首和歌 ・ 頓阿
Ei sanshu waka / Tonna
Three waka recited by Tonna

清見かた かすみ吹しく うら風に 
こすゑそはるゝ みほの松はら

kasumi fukushiku
urakaze ni
kozue zo haruru
Miho no Matsubara

Mist on the Bay
As mist unfurls over
a stretch of Kiyomi Bay,
the sea breeze
stretches even the treetops
at the Pine Islands of Miho.

花ゆへに いまさらとはゝ わか屋とゝ 
たのむよし野も みちゃたとらん

Hana yue ni
imasara towa wa
waga yado to
tanomu Yoshino mo
michi ya tadoran

Flower Viewing Excursion
Because of the blossoms
you couldn’t put off any longer
the request to call at my hut
as you trace a path also
to the hills of Yoshino.

目にみえぬ 神のあはれむ 道をなを 
わきてそまもる 玉津しま姫

Me ni mienu
kami no awaremu
michi o nao
wakite zo mamoru
Tamatsushima hime

Shinto Gods
The goddess of Tamatsushima
maintains a pathway
from the heavens
so gods can manifest themselves
even if invisible to the eye.

(Translated by John T. Carpenter)

Tonna, also pronounced Ton’a, was also known by his courtly lay name Nikaidō Sadamune 二階堂貞宗. As a monk, Tonna received tonsure at age twenty-four at Enryakuji, a Tendai sect temple, but was later associated with the Ji sect, a populist Pure Land sect founded by Monk Ippen (1239–1289) that focused on salvation through reciting the name of Amida Buddha. Tonna studied waka poetry under the courtier-poet Nijō Tameyo (1250–1338), and later came to emulate the poetic style of Monk Saigyō (1118–1190). He compiled an imperially commissioned waka anthology and became a teacher in his own right to prominent courtiers of his day. Though his style can be considered conservative in vocabulary, themes, and techniques, through the centuries his poetry was praised as among the best models for aspiring poets. He was praised as one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Court Poetry (Waka shitennō) of the Nanbokuchō period. The celebrated tea master Mushanokoji Sanekage (1661–1738), writing in 1739, sang his praises, “One should continually ponder the masterworks of poets of the past, and among these it is the poems of Tonna most of all that one should continually savor.” (Shirin shūha, in Nihon kagaku taikei; translated by Carter in Just Living, 2003). Just a decade ago, Tonna’s output as a poet became better known in the West through the expert translation and commentary by Steven D. Carter in Just Living: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Tonna (2003).

Three Waka Poems, Monk Tonna (Ton’a) 頓阿法師 (Japanese, 1289–1372), Poetry sheet (waka kaishi) mounted as a hanging scroll; ink on paper, Japan

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