Jan 17 2014
Watching the moon
by Izumi Shikibu
English version by Jane Hirshfield
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
— from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, Edited by Jane Hirshfield
/ Photo by gavdana /
This particular poem is one of my favorites in its use of the moon, so I thought I’d feature it today in honor of the recent full moon.
Whenever the moon appears in a poem, we can read it as a reference to illuminated awareness — whether intended or not by the poet — and the meaning of the poem unwraps itself in fascinating ways…
The blissful state reveals itself as a shining light, as a luminescence permeating the still field of the mind. There is a sense of light from an undefined ‘above,’ silence, a fullness of vitality, and deep rest.
In sacred poetry, particularly in Zen poetry, this is often expressed as the full moon in the night sky.
The moon is the individual consciousness that shines only by reflecting the constant light of the sun, which is unbounded awareness. Individual consciousness, like the moon, waxes and wanes, sometimes bright and clear, sometimes dark.
When the moon, consciousness, is full, it is round, whole, complete, perfectly reflecting the light of divine awareness. The full moon is enlightenment. It is Buddha-mind. It is the soft light that illumines the land below when all is at rest.
With this understanding, reread Shikibu’s poem. Do you feel the power of the statement beneath its beautiful words?
When she says she is “Watching the moon,” she can be describing the deep meditation practice of witnessing the radiance of opened awareness. To do so “at midnight” carries the double meaning of a late night meditation (which is often the best time for deep contemplation), but midnight also suggests the depth of nighttime, the great Void. We perceive the enlightened mind shining quietly within emptiness. There is nothing else present but the light of the moon. There is only awareness. (I have read alternate translations that say “at dawn” rather than midnight, which carries additional rich meanings.)
The poet specifically describes the moon as “solitary” and “mid-sky.” In this profound communion, the awareness is recognized as being absolutely alone in the sense that there is no ‘other,’ nothing outside of its sphere; it is “solitary.” And it is the center point of being; it is the heart, it is the core; the moon is “mid-sky.”
When we stand silently bathed by the light of the moonlight, we finally experience our true nature. We know ourselves “completely” — all of the seemingly disjointed and conflicting parts of ourselves are seen to be parts of a unified whole, “no part left out.” We are the wholeness.
Izumi Shikibu is one of the towering figures of Japanese literature. She lived in Kyoto and was an official companion to the empress. She married young, but scandalized the court by abandoning her husband to become the lover of one of the empress’s sons. When the prince died a few years later, she took a series of other lovers before eventually marrying for a second time.
She was a social rebel, but willing to be fully engaged in her life. And, like her personal life, Shikibu’s poetry mixes elements of eros with the deep awareness that comes from Buddhist meditative practice.