The Australian Hal Stewart (1916-1995) left an indelible mark on Kyoto literature with his By the Old Walls of Kyoto (1981), a year’s cycle of landscape poems with prose commentaries. The poems were inspired by the Jodo Shinshu faith, and many of the prose pieces are insightful investigations of Kyoto history. In one such piece he gives a series of stunning interpretations of Ryoan-ji as seen through different lenses (Daoist, numerological, aesthetic, symbolic etc).
Before coming to Kyoto, Stewart had achieved notoriety for his invention in 1943 with fellow-poet James McAuley of an imaginary poet named Ern Malley. Malley had supposedly just died, and his fictional sister wrote to Max Harris, an ambitious editor, enclosing poems by her dead brother. Harris was completely fooled by Stewart and McAuley’s tongue-in-cheek poems and declared he had found Australia’s modern poetic genius. The hoax took in many other leading literary figures too.
Stewart visited Japan in the early 1960s and converted to Shin Buddhism. He moved permanently to Kyoto and became an expert in the city’s culture and history. He also collaborated on translations of Buddhist classics.
The following comes from an article by Barry Leckenby, a former Ph.D. student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who wrote a dissertation on the metaphysical journey of Harold Stewart.
Australian born poet and Buddhist scholar Harold Stewart loved Kyoto; it was his spiritual home. He lived in Japan’s ancient capital for the last twenty-nine years of his life. During this time he collected Buddhist art, including the mandalas representing the Larger, the Smaller and the Contemplation Sutras…. Harold was writing poetry influenced by Taoism and Zen some twenty years before Zen had beach headed on to the North American continent. Mahayana Buddhism influenced his poetry from the beginning of his poetic career in the 1930’s and lasted a lifetime. His ‘independent uptake’ of Pure Land Buddhism began in earnest during the 1960s after he was drawn to Kyoto. The depth of his Buddhist knowledge gave him acute metaphysical insight, making him one of the most outstanding Eastern-influenced spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
His spiritual journey is poignantly recorded in By the Old Walls of Kyoto (hereafter referred to as Old Walls). He wrote Old Walls in celebration of Kyoto and Amida. It is the poetic soul’s ‘lonely planet’ guide to Kyoto, providing a testament to how he overcomes his spiritual doubt. The thirteen narrative poems, each accompanied by an expositional essay, capture the essence of the Pure Land teachings, following the poet amongst the temples, through the quiet lanes at sunrise, up the mountains and across the fields of Kyoto in search of Amida’s Pure Land – the land of ultimate happiness beyond this cycle of birth and death. In a fleeting moment of transcendence he briefly envisions such a paradise in the fields of Ohara: a farming district north of Kyoto, noted for its traditional Japanese thatched roofs and waterwheels. When witnessing the glory of the Pure Land here on earth he asks somewhat incredulously:
My dusty journey ends in joy today:
I see a hundred butterflies at play
About the vagrant flowers by fields of rice.
Can I have drunk the elixir by mistake,
And stumbled unawares on paradise?
As only two thousand copies of the book were ever published, it is not surprising that just a small number of people are familiar with the literary riches of Old Walls. It is difficult, but not impossible, to find a copy (try the Internet), and worthwhile tracking one down as it is an immaculate source of Buddhist wisdom filled with the sort of compassionate observation that goes straight to the heart of spiritual reckoning.
Harold, like Old Walls, is not well known outside a small circle of friends. This lack of recognition is indicative of his private nature and not an adverse judgement of his work. He never overtly sought public attention but worked to cultivate the inner light and life of Amida as he maintained a global network of friends. The words of Confucius rightfully apply to him: ‘I will not be afflicted at men’s not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.’
Harold is now ‘safely dead,’ passing during Obon in 1995 – the celebratory time in Japan when the spirits of the dead return to their living descendants. During his ‘evening years of gold’ in Kyoto he dedicated his life and poetry to the Name as he practiced the Dharma. Though as he alludes to with his declaration: ‘This irreligious world renounces me,’ the possibility of following a religious faith without ever transgressing its principles becomes increasingly difficult in a world that neglects spiritual possibilities for the more tangible and instant rewards of material pursuits.
In Poem Four Harold outlines how the workings of the spirit can subtly pervade our thoughts and clarify our spiritual equivocation. After suffering a long hot sleepless night in the stifling humidity of Kyoto’s summer, tortured by his own existential doubts and trapped in the reductive dead-ends of subjectivity, he hears the solemn boom of the bell at the Honen-in:
Hours later: in the huge and sultry gloom
A temple bell has tolled with solemn boom:
Its lingering overtones profoundly steep
The distant stillness, where it still resounds.
Again the heavy pole is swung, and pounds
Its tongueless dome, whose bronze vibrations vie
In their sonorous hive, and humming deep
Pervade the hush that holds the earth and sky.
The damp air breathes, lifting the slightest sigh:
A little windbell, hung beneath my eaves,
Instantly rings its lightly trilled reply.
I wake at once out of a lifelong sleep:
My being’s inmost solitude receives
A summons that dissolves its sombre spell,
The Heart’s reverberations rise and swell
Till lips and tongue spontaneously exclaim:
‘Amida Butsu!’ – Buddha’s sacred Name.
The lingering overtones of the temple bell ‘steep the distant stillness’ and their humming pervades ‘the hush that holds the earth and sky.’ At this profound meeting point the still damp air breathes: nature itself is resuscitated after a choking night of ignorance. A sudden breath of air rattles the poet’s windbell, replying to the sonorous boom emanating from the Honen-in. This meeting of sounds at once delivers the blessing of Enlightenment. He awakens from ‘a lifelong sleep’ of doubting. His Heart rises as the sombre spell experienced by his ‘inmost solitude’ dissolves into joy and the Name is exclaimed. The poet’s night of meditation is brought to perfect pitch by the beautiful chorus of bells. He gives thanks for Amida’s blessing as he is filled with spontaneous joy.