The Trouble with Power

This is one of the last poems found in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. I found it thought-provoking:

[93] 世の中は Yo no naka wa
つねにもがもな Tsune ni mo ga mo na
なぎさこぐ Nagisa kogu
あまの小舟の Ama no obune no
綱手かなしも Tsuna de kanashi mo

According to one translation this is read as:

If only our world
Could be always as it is!
How moving the sight
Of the little fishing boat
Drawn by ropes along the bank.

This poem was composed by the Kamakura no Udaijin (鎌倉の右大臣) meaning “the Minister of the Right in Kamakura”, which was the official title for Minamoto no Sanetomo in the Imperial Court. He was also the third Kamakura Shogun. Sanetomo was the last Minamoto Shogun before the Hojo Clan’s dominance of the family became absolute.

Sadly Sanetomo’s life was tragically cut short. While descending the great stairs at the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, Japan, the same one photographed here by me in 2007:

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura

His nephew hid behind a nearby Ginkgo tree (the same one on the right side of the photo, now much larger)1 and then stabbed him as he approached. The nephew was killed shortly thereafter and the Minamoto line came to an end, with the Hojo now firmly in control. However, as the poem shows above, even before his demise Sanetomo was already tired of power. He longed for the simple life of a fisherman, far apart from the nasty, cut-throat politics that surrounded his life from birth to ignoble death; his lineage was simultaneously his birthright as it was his prison.

It reminds me of an old quotation from the science-fiction novel, Dune Messiah (the second in the series), which I quoted previously:

Dune was a world of paradox now — a world under siege and yet the center of power. To come under siege, he decided, was the inevitable fate of power.

Although the novel is supposed to take place tens of thousands of years in the future, the problem remains the same: when you are in power, everyone wants to knock you down, exploit your power for their own ends, or stab you in the back. It is a wonder that anyone can stay sane in such an environment.

There is a famous Taoist story in The Zhuangzi that illustrates this point too:

Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the Pu River, the king of Chu sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.”

Zhuangzi held onto the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Chu that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?”

“It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.

Zhuangzi said, “Go away! I’ll dray my tail in the mud!”
(trans. Burton Watson)

Better to enjoy your life as it is, and not add additional burden to it if you don’t need to.

1 The famous Ginkgo tree of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine blew down early this year, after staying up over 800 years, but thankfully restoration efforts are underway. Besides its age, the tree is obviously of great historical value.

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