Taneda Santoka Essay - Critical Essays

Santoka, Taneda


Santoka Taneda 1882-1940

(Pseudonym of Shoichi Taneda) Japanese poet.

Santoka is considered a unique proponent of "free-style" haiku poetry, a mode that abandoned much of the customary form and subject matter of traditional haiku in favor of a direct and unadorned depiction of human experience. A wandering poet and ascetic Zen priest for the last fifteen years of his life, Santoka emphasized many of the essential qualities of Zen Buddhism in his verse, including mujo (impermanence), the necessity of sabi (solitude), the importance of simplicity in life, and the pervasive sadness that accompanies all human affairs. Many of his poems point toward the Zen goal of overcoming this ubiquitous melancholy by achieving spiritual enlightenment and serenity. To this view Santoka added his concern with what James Abrams called "the vital necessity of movement and the partial release it brings to the anguish of the soul."

Biographical Information

Santoka was born Shoichi Taneda in 1882, the son of a wealthy landowner from Hofu in western Japan. He studied literature at Waseda University in Tokyo, and while there began writing poetry. He adopted a pen-name, as is the custom among haiku poets, choosing the name Santoka, which can be rendered in English as "burning mountain peak." Excessive drinking and a severe nervous breakdown forced him to drop out of school in 1904, however. In the ensuing years he attempted to assist his father in running a sake brewery, but this too failed in all respects and contributed to Santoka's growing alcoholism. His arranged marriage in 1909 proved yet another failure in Santoka's personal life. Still, he continued with his literary efforts, and by 1911 had produced translations of such writers as Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. The forthcoming years witnessed the steady influence of the haiku poet Seisensui Ogiwara on Santoka. Leader of the so-called "new tendency" or "free-style" school of haiku poetry, Seisensui was also founder of the literary journal Soun, of which Santoka became poetry editor in 1916. Meanwhile, Santoka made half-hearted attempts to maintain employment and support his family when not succumbing to his addiction to sakè. In 1924 he attempted suicide by standing in front of an oncoming train. Before impact, however, the train's engineer saw him and was able to stop. After the incident Santoka was taken to a nearby Zen temple in order to recover. He stayed there for a year, studying Zen Buddhism, and in 1925 was ordained a priest and placed in charge of a small temple. But by the following year Santoka had forsaken his clerical duties and left the temple to wander as a mendicant priest. With the financial support of some friends he published his first collection of haiku poetry, Hachi no ko, in 1932. That year several of his friends also renovated an old hermitage for Santoka, which he named "Gochuan," or "Cottage in the Midst." He stayed at Gochuan only briefly, opting instead to spend the rest of his life as he had the prior six years: as an impoverished, itinerant poet-priest, begging for money and food. He made another failed attempt at suicide several years later—this time with sleeping pills—and went on to publish six more collections of haiku verse before his death in 1940.

Major Works

Santoka published seven small books of haiku poetry containing approximately 800 of the thousands of poems he composed during his lifetime. Based on his experiences while wandering Japan as a mendicant, the haiku are written in an unadorned style and rarely contain more than ten words—although Santoka often labored meticulously over each poem. Simple in form, Santoka's poems dispense with the seasonal imagery and constraining five-seven-five syllable pattern of their traditional predecessors. In them Santoka confronts manifold subjects, making observations on the natural world, Zen philosophy, the loneliness and isolation of his wanderings, art, death, and the joys of drinking sake. The last of these forms a favorite topic for Santoka, both in his haiku and his life, the drink offers him a temporary release from his feelings of guilt, which inevitably would return, accompanied by a heightened sense of remorse over his dissipated life, with sobriety.

Critical Reception

Before his death Santoka was largely unknown outside of a small group of friends who read and circulated his poetry and at times supported him financially. By the 1970s, however, his verse had reached a point of remarkable popularity in Japan and elsewhere. The mass of his writings, including his published verse and unpublished journals and diaries, have since been collected in the seven-volume Teihon Taneda Santoka Zenshu (1972), and many of his haiku poems have now been translated into English and other languages. Scholars have since evaluated Santoka's place in the Japanese poetic tradition, seeing him as among the last in a lengthy line of wandering haiku poets. Others have begun to devote closer study to his break with tradition as a writer of "free-style" haiku and examine the intricacies of what J. Thomas Rimer has called his "laconic, deceptively simple" poetry.

Principal Works

Hachi no ko (poetry) 1932

Somokuto (poetry) 1933

Sangyo suigyo (poetry) 1935

Zasso fukei (poetry) 1936

Kaki no ha (poetry) 1938

Kokan (poetry) 1939

Karasu (poetry) 1940

Teihon Taneda Santoka Zenshu. 7 vols, (poetry and prose) 1972

Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda (poetry) 1980


R. H. Blyth (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Santoka," in A History of Haiku, Vol. II , The Hokuseido Press, 1971, pp.173-88.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1964, Blyth studies Santoka's haiku poems, especially as they signify the poet's acceptance of more melancholy aspects of life.]

To give a modern poet a whole chapter to himself, albeit a short one, may seem strange, but Santoka belongs to the small group of beggar-like haiku poets; Rotsu is another example, and Basho and Issa are not dissimilar. Santoka, was born in 1882 of a landowner in Yamaguchi Prefecture. After retiring from Waseda University on account of a nervous breakdown in 1904, he married, set up a brewery with his father, whose business had failed, and together with him went bankrupt in 1916. He had begun to write haiku already in 1911, under Seisensui. He separated from his wife in 1920, and tried various jobs, but did not continue in them. From 1926, with a kasa and a begging bowl, he wandered all over Japan for eight years, and then made a hermitage in 1932 back in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and yet another outside Miyukidera Temple. He ended his life of wandering and drinking in 1940.

Here are a few anecdotes of the life of Santoka, taken from Haijin Santoka, by Oyama Sumita. When the author visited Gochuan, the hut-hermitage where Santoka lived in 1938, Santoka asked him if he had had his midday meal. On hearing that he had not, he brought in an iron bowl of rice, and a single pimento, and put it on the tatami. Oyama began to weep, it was so hot. Santoka sat gazing at him, and on being asked, "Why don't you eat too?" told him, "I have only one bowl." Thinking of Ryokan, he finished his rice. Santoka took the bowl, filled it with rice (which was mixed with barley and other things) and ate it together with the remains of the pimento. Santoka washed the bowl in the water the rice was washed in, but did not throw away the water. He used it to wash the floor, and then as manure for his little garden.

One December, the author stayed the night with Santoka. There was only one quilt, so Santoka gave him this, and three magazines of Kaizo or Bungei Shunju for a pillow, and spread on the top of him his own underclothes and summer garments, and then everything that remained in the cupboard. As he was still cold, Santoka put his little desk over him, reminding us of what Thoreau says in The Week on the Concord, Tuesday:

But as it grew colder towards midnight, I at length encased myself completely in boards, managing even to put a board on top of me, with a large stone on it, to keep it down.

At last he went to sleep, and when he woke at dawn he found Santoka still sitting by him doing zazen.

Even though he had no rice, he would buy sake to drink, being unable to keep money in his pocket. Someone gave him a tombi, a kind of coat used in the Meiji Era. He was very pleased, for two or three days, and then gave it to someone else. One autumn Seisensui came to see him, and gave him a piece of calligraphy, Gochu ichinin, referring to his hut-hermitage. Santoka had it framed, and for some time enjoyed it, but then gave it away.

One night Santoka came home at two o'clock in the morning, followed by a dog with a very big rice-cake in its mouth. He received this and roasted it and ate it.

Santoka loved weeds, like Clare, and wrote in his diary for the 19th of August, 1940:

Those who do not know the meaning of weeds do not know the mind of Nature. Weeds grasp their own essence and express its truth.

He wrote many verses on weeds. His view of life is given in another entry in his diary:

I do not believe in a future world. I deny the past. I believe entirely in the present. We must employ our whole body and soul in this eternal moment. I believe in the universal spirit, but the spirit of any particular man I reject. Each creature comes from the Whole, and goes back to it. From this point of view we may say that life is an approaching; death is a returning.

In these anecdotes about Santoka we see the naturalness of his life, his unattachedness to things, and his lack of plan in everything, like God's.

He put every ounce of his spiritual energy into his verses, which were often free as to form and season-word like those of his teacher Seisensui. He recalls to us Pascal, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Kraus, Rilke, and others of the "disinherited mind." The verses are a combination of Zen, Buddhism, and Japaneseness, the last word implying an innate appreciation of the transitoriness of life, the just-so-ness, the thus-ness of things, their existence value.

Ushiro-sugata no shigurete yuku ka

My back view as I go,
Wetted with the winter rain?

We may compare this with Issa's verse on a picture of himself:

Ushiro kara mite mo samuge na atama kana

Even seen from behind,
His head looks

But Santoka's verse is better, I think, because it gives us the picture of himself as viewed by the friends who are seeing him off.

Itsumademo tabi wo suru koto no tsume wo kiru

Up to the very end, it is journeying,
And cutting our (toe-) nails.

We must journey alone through life; and we must cut our toe-nails. These things are so, inevitably.

Furusato wa tokushite ki no me

My native place
Far away:
The buds on the trees.

When we are young, neither far nor near, youth nor age has any very deep meaning, but when we are old, distance and youth affect us beyond measure.

Tetsubachi no naka e mo arare

Into the iron bowl also,

Democracy is a weak word to express the universal, all-penetrating, indiscriminate, "religious" power of nature.

Kasa e pottori tsubaki datta

Plop on my kasa
The flower of the camellia!

This verse is very good in its onomatopoeia, not merely the pottori, but the datta at the end.

Itadaite tarife nitori no hashi wo oku

I have gratefully received it;
It was enough;
I lay down my chopsticks.

This would make a good death-poem. We have received what we were born to receive. We have had enough. We used our own chopsticks and fed ourselves. We now lay them down. Compare Landor's "I warmed both hands," which is however the verse of a well-off, artistic, and self-satisfied man.

Shizukana michi to nari dokudami no me

The road became quiet and solitary;
Dokudami is...

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James Abrams (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Hail in the Begging Bowl: The Odyssey and Poetry of Santoka," in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol . XXXII , No. 3, Autumn 1977, pp. 269-302.

[In the following essay, Abrams provides an overview of Santoka's life and work.]

Into my metal bowl too,


Taneda Santoka, 1882-1940, is one of the most recent and perhaps one of the last of a long and colorful line of priest-poets in Japanese literary history. An alcoholic and business failure who became a Buddhist priest after an attempted suicide at the age of forty-two, Santoka spent the last...

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John Stevens (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: In an introduction to Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda, translated by John Stevens, Weatherhill, 1980, pp. 9-29.

[In the following excerpt, Stevens discusses Santoka's poetry, life, and worldview.]

Recently, a remarkable interest in the life and poetry of the mendicant Zen priest Santoka Taneda (1882-1940) has developed in Japan. Collections of Santoka's haiku and accounts of his life are being published regularly. At present, more books on Santoka are available than perhaps on any other Japanese poet, ancient or modern. In addition, he is considered to be a great Zen master much like Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan. How is it that such an eccentric,...

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J. Thomas Rimer (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Santoka (1882-1940)," in A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, Kodansha International, 1988, pp. 121-23.

[In the following essay, Rimer discusses Santoka's life and "laconic, deceptively simple" haiku poetry.]

The reader who believes that art transcends its own times will surely take solace and inspiration from the work of Taneda Santoka (1882-1940), a remarkable Zen priest and poet of our century who produced poetry as personal and profound as that of his illustrious predecessor and spiritual mentor, Ryokan (1758-1831). Like Ryokan's poetry, Santoka's work can best be understood as a record of his quest for spiritual enlightenment, the kind...

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