Review of The Wind from Vulture Peak

The Wind from Vulture Peak
Stephen D. Miller translations with Patrick Donnelly
Review by Michael Luke Benedetto

The Wind from Vulture Peak invites readers into the multifaceted world of waka poetry through powerful and moving translations as well as the in-depth analysis and historical context necessary to understand and truly appreciate the poetic form. During the Heian period in Japan (784 to 1185)—a time renowned in Japanese history for its arts, poetry, and literature—court waka, short thirty-one syllable poems, “became the vehicle by which Japanese writers brought their literary and spiritual aspirations together in a new way,” namely by integrating emergent Buddhist philosophical concepts into their writing.

Even without the ability to understand the original Japanese, which is included alongside each waka poem, it is clear that Stephen D. Miller and Patrick Donnelly’s translations are expertly crafted. Through simple yet powerful language and beautiful imagery, these poems speak volumes in so few words.

every spring
I grieved, but O

in the garden of the Law

the flowers are grateful
when they fall

This poem—as are all in this collection—is preceded by a headnote that provides insight into its meaning: “On the Essence of the Introduction Chapter of the Lotus Sutra.” Grief, loss, and acceptance are all palpable within the passing of seasons and the gratefulness of falling flowers, but a great deal of depth is lost on those unfamiliar with the text referenced in the headnote. The garden of the Law is located on Vulture Peak, where the Lotus Sutra was believed to have been taught, and this poem along with the others anthologized with it “emphasize the teachings of emptiness as expressed in the Lotus Sutra.” This concept of emptiness is presented by Miller in what he refers to as the “ontological conflation of opposites,” in this case, the fusion of grieving and gratefulness.

The discussion that follows each poetic section in The Wind from Vulture Peak allows readers to reexamine the translations and appreciate the subtleties that would have been evident to Japanese readers a millennium ago. Biographical descriptions of authors, religious figures, and royalty, as well as the role court waka played in literature, culture, and religious practices over the course of hundreds of years are all essential in understanding this poetry. The methods by which anthologies were commissioned and compiled also provide clues as to how poetic arrangements offer unique interpretations of Buddhist teachings.

By the twelfth century, in Japan, composing court waka “strongly identified with an analogous expenditure of effort to attain enlightenment on the Buddhist path.” Though waka is a small subsection of Japanese poetry as a whole, its significance is apparent throughout the pages of this comprehensive study of the form. Miller’s afterword describes waka poetry as a “world that is simultaneously historical, literary, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.” This book provides readers with all the tools needed to appreciate these translations on every level.

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