Hyakunin Isshu No. 8: My Hermit Hut

By: Monk Kisen (early Heian)                             喜撰

My hermit hut                                                          わが庵は
Above the capital,                                                  都のたつみ
I live with just a deer –                                           しかぞすむ
The world a mountain house                            世をうぢ山と
And the people, abandoned                              人はいふなり


Apart from being a monk, being an accomplished poet, and living near Ujiyama near Kyoto, nothing much is known about Kisen.  He was chosen by Ki no Tsurayuki as one of the six poetic sages, whose work was acknowledged to be superior over other poets.  However, only two known works can be confidently traced back to him, of which this tanka is one.

In the tanka, shika can be read as either deer or ‘but’ or ‘thus’.  And both translations work, given where shika is placed in the tanka.  Because there is no kanji given for it, technically ‘deer’ works too, but really, it makes more legitimate, serious sense if its meaning is ‘but’/’thus’.  Apparently, according to the notes, ‘but’/’thus’ is actually the main reading anyway, but he liked the sound of ‘deer’, and so put ‘deer’ instead.  If that is true, then the tanka now reads:

My hermit hut
Above the capital,
Thus I live –
The world a mountain house
And the people, abandoned

Personally, I like the reading with ‘Thus’ more (choosing ‘thus’ because it sounds more grammatically correct than ‘but’), because it then shows that Monk Kisen is commentating on the simplicity of his life, with only his hut and his own self to replace the world and its people.  And the quiet he captures in those five lines makes me feel peaceful, just by reading it.  It makes my once-serious thought of becoming a hermit sound wonderfully attractive again.

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