Yamadera, Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho was well into his trip when he visited Yamadera, stage 26 of 43 recorded stops on his Journey North, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道).

There he climbed over a thousand steps to the Buddhist temple of Risshaku-ji (立石寺). The temple was founded in 860 AD by the priest Ennin, later known as Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師). Ennin had studied in China during the Tang Dynasty. This was a literary connection for Basho who had an affinity for the Tang poet Du Fu and all poems of the Tang Dynasty. At the temple, clinging to the steep, forested, rocky mountain side, he composed this haiku.

Ah, the Quiet, but piercing the Rocks — the Cry of the Cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe

For Matsuo Basho, I imagine the haiku means that poetry outlives the poet. It echoes down through generations, as solid as rock. This is similar to the Latin phrase Ars longa, vita brevis, which means either “Art lasts long, life is short” or “it takes a lifetime to learn a skill, life is short”.

Notes on Translation

Semi no koe, 蝉の声, the voice of the cicada. Whether the cicada cries or simply speaks, Gentle Reader, I leave to you.

Compare mizuno oto, 水の音, the sound of water. Unlike Matsuo Basho’s well known, old pond — frog jumps — splash, water’s sound, Basho here uses “voice” for “sound”.

Both haiku are good examples of Basho’s focus on wabi-sabi, 侘び 寂び. This Zen Buddhist concept can best be described as simple and quiet, but elegant, finding beauty in life’s imperfections. For example, a furry caterpillar crawls along a branch after having eaten part of a leaf.

Gentle Reader, how do you find beauty in this world?

Yamadera Temple figure

This haiku was previously translated.

Paddling Satchel Creek

Monday morning, mid-June, warm not hot. A kayak trip up Satchel Creek at Lake El Dorado in southeast Kansas. I am alone in the universe.

The regular rhythm of the paddle in the water inspired these thoughts.

Not haiku, but rules are made to be broken, otherwise how would we improve. Hopefully, the verse is Basho-like, Bashō no yōna. But first, a word from the Master:

With awe I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sunlight. 

— Matsuo Basho, Road to the Deep North

Let’s Start

Satchel Creek starts out wide as it empties into the lake. Then, as it meanders past rocky shoals, it narrows, until finally the kayak bottoms out on the rocks and one can go no further. But that is still a ways off. A Great Heron accompanies me for a while. Along the way are sunken logs and fallen trees. Spider webs catch their prey. Catfish and carp jump out of the water to catch a fly.

The silence of the water and woods,
The stillness of the air
Is everywhere.
Until one feels a gentle breeze,
And hears the flapping wings of a Great Heron
Leading the way

To who knows where

Paddling up Satchel Creek
In a sleek blue kayak
Past sunken logs and fallen trees
Suddenly, a carp
Grasps a floating bug
Slap goes the water

Matsuo Basho began one his famous journey north with this:

Paddling along, silently wondering, where are the turtles resting on logs in the morning sun? Birds call out sweet songs, unseen in the tall trees.

Turtles will sleep ‘til noon,
Oh, how they hate to get up in the morning.

Have you ever heard a Chickadee call,
High up in a tall tree?

Lake El Dorado was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. The waters flooded the old town of Chelsea, but its cemetery remains at the north end of the lake. Along the lakeside and up Satchel Creek, flooding left many old trees in the water. Their ghostly gray silhouettes a reminder of what was once woodlands. The first verse mimics Basho’s thoughts of a crow on a withered branch.

On a withered branch
A blue heron keeps watch
Wary of Summer’s strangers

Dead trees like skeletons
Standing in the water
Praying for what?

Water, water everywhere,
And not a drop to think.
A Mulberry tree along the bank,
Its fruit a gift for me…
Thank God

End

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go back home again.” Heraclitus said, “You could not step twice into the same rivers.” Do they mean the same thing?

I am back in Wichita.
Why do they say,
You can’t go back home again.
Why does the river flows on and on?

Uncertainty was the reason for this trip. The uncertainty of tomorrow, the uncertainty that keeps eating away at me, that brings me down. And, as I alluded to in my last post, I felt that with travel I could escape the discontent that uncertainty brings. I was surprised to find it waiting there for me.

As Seneca advises, I need a change of soul.

“Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after a long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, 29.

Matsuo Basho, on the other hand, gives us his own version of the Serenity Prayer:

Every day’s a journey, the journey itself is home.