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Mountain Tasting : Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda
Published in Paperback by Weatherhill (1980)
Authors: Sant-Oka Taneda, Santoka Taneda, and John Stevens
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The small pleasures are sometimes the finest.
Kaneda Santoka, Mountain Tasting (Weatherhill, 1980)

Kaneda Santoka, itinerant Zen monk, storied drunkard, and haiku poet, never achieved the fame in the West as did more traditional haiku poets like Basho and Soseki. Some few admirers of his work have been silently pulling strings offstage to change that, and while it hasn't happened yet, things slowly progress.

Santoka was on the cusp of the nontraditional haiku movement when he began writing, and was drawn to the idea of haiku that didn't use seasonal imagery, nor stick to the exact seventeen-line syllable used for traditional haiku in Japan. In the hands of a good enough poet, nontraditional Japanese haiku remain haiku; short, image-laden pieces that beg reflection from the reader while offering a quick view through the eyes of the poet. And Santoka was assuredly a good enough poet.

This selection of just over three hundred haiku from his works was, to my knowledge, the first collection of his work published in English (a complete works has been published in Japan, along with a few biographies). Santoka's haiku are deceptively simple, but open farther upon meditation (which is why the books' subtitle calls them "Zen haiku," presumably):

Going deeper
and still deeper
the green mountains.


The green grass!
I return, barefoot.

A wonderful little book, well worth reading. Especially recommended for aspiring haiku poets who write in English, as Santoka's haiku translate very well and are also excellent examples of nontraditional haiku in English. *** ½

An Acquired Taste Worth Acquiring
Beware! The haiku of Santoka is nuanced and subtle - deceptively simple:

The green grass!
I return barefoot.

Upon my first reading I had the overwhelming impulse to race through the book which I gave into. But then, I found myself reaching for it and savouring one or two of these wonderful translations.

For those writers of haiku, trying to imitate Santoka's style is quite an exercise. How to approach:

Even the sound of the raindrops
Has grown older.


The moonlight

my empty stomach

These haiku will resonate long after you put the book down.

A Golden Book!
MOUNTAIN TASTING : ZEN HAIKU BY SANTOKA TANEDA. Translated by John Stevens. 126 pp. New York and Tokyo : Weatherhill, 1980 and Reprinted.

Santoka's life may seem tragic. Son of a womanizing father who lost the family property through an unwise business venture; a mother who committed suicide by throwing herself into a well when he was eight; himself a university dropout; failed jobs; alcoholism; a failed marriage; a series of nervous breakdowns; a suicide attempt which failed when the train was just able to stop in time. How could such a man have become one of Japan's best-loved poets? And what, we wonder, could we ourselves possibly have to learn from him? The answer to this last, in a word, is everything.

Santoka was pulled from the tracks and taken to a nearby Zen temple. The head priest, Gian Mochizuki Osho, a shrewd and kindly man, simply took him in without any reprimands or questions, and offered to let him stay as long as he liked. Santoka had always been interested in Buddhism, and after one year of Zen meditation, chanting sutras, and working around the temple, at the age of forty-two he was ordained a Zen priest. The Zen he was ultimately to practice, however, though traditional, was unusual. It was the Zen of solitary walking. The open road was to become his home and his monastery.

John Stevens has provided a truly interesting and moving account of Santoka's life and work which will fill you in on the details. Suffice to say here that Santoka's first walking pilgrimage through Japan, begging as he went from village to village, began in April 1926 and was to last for four years. During this trip to Shikoku, he visited the 88 shrines and temples associated with the Buddhist saint Kukai (774-835) to pray for the troubled spirit of his departed mother.

There is a wonderful photograph of Santoka on page 30, which shows him setting out on a similar pilgrimage in 1933. With his straw sandals, white cotton pants, long robe, monk's staff, and large woven straw hat, he looks an odd, if not laughable, figure. Few would suspect they were looking at a person of incredible courage, someone who had undertaken the most fearsome and difficult task of all, the full acceptance and savoring of the moment, despite what it may bring.

All told, Santoka is said to have walked more than twenty-eight thousand miles, starting out each morning penniless and with no food, and not knowing where he would stay or even if he would find lodging for the night. These were very hard miles, miles which brought sun and rain, generosity and hostility, food and hunger, smiles and scowls, health and illness, thirst and pure water, loneliness and moments of companionship, grief and intense happiness, but moments always lived with the thought that everything should be welcomed, whether good or bad, just as he himself was not judged but welcomed and taken in by the kindly Gian.

The record of his various thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and of the myriad sights and sounds he encountered on his walks of self-discovery, will be found in his poems. The poems are characterized by an absolute simplicity, an absolute honesty, a total absence of artifice. In a world such as ours, brimming over as it is with lies, disinformation, propaganda, and the totally phony, Santoka's spontaneous utterances come to us like a pure, cool, and refreshing breath of air. He is even, as Stevens points out, honest about his failure to solve what for him was the ultimate Koan - sake.

After his very fine 29-page Introduction, Stevens has given us 372 of Santoka's free-style haiku in excellent translations. Since the poems are linguistically very simple, their literal meaning carries over easily into English. What is lost, however, as Stevens points out, is the beautiful rhythm, assonance, and onomatopoeia of many of the poems, and to offset this he has thoughtfully provided, at the bottom of each page, the romanized Japanese of the originals, a few of which are accompanied by his notes. He has also provided a useful Selected Bibliography of both Japanese and English sources at the end of the book.

Here, to give you a taste of Santoka, is Poem 18 as translated and annotated by Stevens (with my indication of pronunciation added). A halftone of Santoka's striking brush calligraphy of this poem has been used as frontispiece to the book:

"Going deeper / And still deeper - / The green mountains.

Wake itte mo wake itte mo aoi yama [wa-ke it-te mo wa-ke it-te mo a-o-i ya-ma]. This was written in early summer in the mountains of Kumamoto Prefecture and is perhaps Santoka's best-known poem. Deeper and deeper into the human heart without being able to fathom its depth. . . ." (page 37).

The human heart, yes, but also self, nature, time, reality, the mystery of existence, and, ultimately, the world of Buddha, or, for others, God.

Santoka's great merit is that he returns us to a reality that is also ours, though most of the time we choose to overlook it. I can't even begin to do justice to him here - he's just too big. But what can be said is that there is a depth and resonance to his poems that will evoke a powerful response in all sensitive readers. His love of the simple things in life, of nature, and of all life-forms and living creatures, is infectious.

'Mountain Tasting' is a golden book that would make a wonderful gift for someone very special to you, but you'd better not start reading it - or you won't want to part with it!

For All My Walking
Published in Hardcover by Columbia University Press (15 April, 2003)
Authors: Burton Watson and Santoka Taneda
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Santoka den
Published in Unknown Binding by Furukawa Shobåo ()
Author: Shinzo Kinoshita
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