December 30th is not too late to learn, if indeed one learns.
月白き 師走は子路が寝 覚め哉 tsuki shiroki / shiwasu wa / Shiro ga nezame kana
Under the white moon Of December Shiro wakes up
Matuso Basho, 貞亨３年, December, 1686
Note. Tsuki shiroki, means White Moon. Shiwasu, December. Shiro, a disciple of Confucius. Shiroki, a homophone, (also Shirozake), a white colored saki.
Back in Edo, living in his cottage, Basho’an, Matsuo Basho was still learning. Earlier in 1686, Spring Days (Haru no Hi) was compiled in Nagoya by Basho’s disciples, edited by him, and published in Kyoto. In 1686 he also composed his best known haiku about a frog, an old pond, and the sound of water. That December, back at Basho-an, under the moonlight he was thinking of Shiro, a disciple of Confucius.
Most likely, Basho was moon viewing and sharing a cup of saki with his friends. 白酒, Shiroki, Shirozake, is a white colored saki.
Shiro, (子路, 543 – 481), Chinese, Zhong You (仲由), courtesy name Zi-lu, one of the ten most important disciples of Confucius.
Of him, Confucius said, “If to your present ability you added the wisdom of learning, you would be a superior man.”
“What is learning be to me?” asked Zi-lu. “The bamboo on the southern hill is straight itself without being bent. If I cut it and use it, I can send it through the hide of a rhinoceros, what then is the use of learning to me?”
“Yes,” said Confucius, “but if you feather it and point it with steel, will it not penetrate more deeply?”
Zi-lu bowed twice, and said, “Reverently I await your teachings.”
No gift had a greater impact on Matsuo Basho than the giving of a banana plant by his disciple Rika. Indeed, when he was given this gift in the spring of 1681, Matsuo was not yet Basho, a word that means banana plant in English. The occasion of the gift giving was Matsuo’s move from central Edo south across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa District.
The basho plant (芭蕉) was a housewarming gift.
The ogi, 荻 which once grew profusely near Matsuo’s cottage, dwarfing his tiny banana tree, had now become a threat to his new banana plant. The Latin name of the ogi is Miscanthus sacchariflorus, better known in a nursery as Amur silvergrass, that flowers in the fall and keeps its silvery silhouette throughout the winter.
As the banana plant thrived, Basho’s cottage would become known as Basho’an.
I can think of three reasons why Matsuo would choose Basho as his pen name. First, he was then writing under the name Tosei, meaning an unripe peach. Matsuo had by this time mastered much of what there was to learn about haiku, so it was time to become something more substantial.
A banana plant is anything but substantial, and that is probably what Matsuo liked most about this plant. Its broad leaves blew in the wind, and in a storm, they were often torn. Moreover, this particular banana did not produce fruit. It was decorative.
An artist’s view of himself or herself in society.
Finally, I will add this — the banana originated in China, in Sichuan to be more precise. And Matsuo owed a debt to his Chinese counterparts, the poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Bai and Bai Juyi.
As Years Go By
Years later when the first Basho-an burned down, a second one was built. Basho brought to this new location a sprout from the original banana plant, then reflected:
What year did I come to nest here, planting a single Bashō tree? The climate must be good — around the first one new trunks have grown up, their leaves so thick they crowd out my garden and shade my house. People named my hut after this plant. Every year, old friends and students who like my tree take cuttings or divide the roots and carry them off to this place and that.
Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, 1683-84
Later that year Matsuo Basho left Basho-an on the first of four major wanderings.
The simplest gifts are the best gifts. The gifts that mean the most is the gift of family and friends.
Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
Simple Gifts, Shaker song, Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848
Of Jim and Della, it is said they were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he and she owned in order to buy a gift for the other. And discover the greatest gift is each other.
Being in Love, their gifts were Wise ones — the Gift of Each Other
O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi, 1905
Note. This post was written December 26, 2021, after all the gift giving has been done.
To the non-foodies: shichimi togarashi is a spicy blend of seven spices that goes well with everything.
青くても/ 有べきものを /唐辛子 aoku te mo / arubeki mono o / tōgarashi
It should have stayed in Its green attire – A chili pepper
Matsuo Basho, September, 5th year of Genroku. 1692
Not So Spicy
Autumn 1692, Matsuo Basho is back in Edo (Tokyo), living in his third Basho-an, the cottage by a banana tree, from which he took his name. Tired of traveling, tired of guests, he lives for the most part in seclusion with a nephew and a woman named Jutei, possible his nephew’s wife. She perhaps tended the garden. She maybe cooked the dinner using the popular tōgarashi (唐辛子), red chili peppers. Basho, who lived with a stomach ailment for most of his life, would have preferred something not so spicy.
The red chili pepper did the trick.
I liked this haiku because I planted some chili peppers in my garden this spring and watched the green pepper turn red in late fall. Basho, I suspect thought the chili pepper none too spicy, and therefore, it should have kept its green attire.
Notes on Translation
The subtleties of the Japanese language often befuddle me. What should be so simple gets complex the more I try to delve into the meaning of things. For instance, ても, te mo should mean “even though”, but that doesn’t work. And tōgarashi, 唐辛子, the red chili is red because we know it ripens to that color. It is a popular ingredient in Shichimi, where a little bit goes a long way.
I have of course clothed the chili pepper in green “attire” like the Jolly Green Giant. Others have too.
柴の戸に茶の木の葉掻く嵐かな shibanoto ni cha no konoha kaku arashi kana
Are those tea leaves Scratching at my brushwood door In this storm?
Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, 1680
Notes. Shibanato, 柴の戸 a brushwood gate. Arashi, 嵐 a storm or tempest. Tea leaves were used as a means of foretelling the future. Cha no ki, 茶の木, literally a tea tree, but I have chose to use the more familiar tea leaves.
Late in 1680, the poet who would become Matsuo Basho left behind the bustle and noise of Nihonbashi, the Edo’s theater district, where he had lived for nine years. His future was uncertain, for he was not yet named for the Banana tree (Basho) that would grow outside his new cottage. Seeking quiet, he moved to Fukagawa, a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed land beyond Edo, south of the Sumida River. The gift of a banana plant by a disciple would grow into a tree.
For now, Basho explained his move:
For nine springs and autumns, I lived austerely in the city. Now, I have moved to the banks of the Fukagawa River. Someone once said:
長安は古来名利の地、空手にして金なきものは行路難し “Chang’an, in ancient times, was a place to seek fame and fortune, so hard for a traveler empty-handed and penniless.” Is it because I’m poor myself that I understand this feeling?
Note. Chang’an was the capital of the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age. Its population exceeded one million souls.
Basho noted that his verse was close to a poem by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易,772 – 846)
Author’s Note. I have not come across such a poem. But I did find this — Late Spring, Yuan Zhen to Bai Juyi.
Late Spring Calm day outside my thin curtain, swallows quickly chattering Upon my steps, fighting sparrows kicking up dust. In the rising wind at dusk, a brushwood gate swings shut. The last flower petal drops and no one notices.
Yuan Zhen, (元稹, 779 – 831), to Bai Juyi
Not yet Basho, for he took the name Basho for the banana tree, frail and useless, that was planted outside his cottage.
In mid-December, when the last of the Chrysanthemums have turned brown in my garden, there is nothing but radishes. And some chard and parsley, practical and utilitarian, nothing pretty. By the winter of 1692, Matsuo Basho was home. Edo was now his home, or at least Fukagawa, the rural neighborhood just south of Edo across the Sumida River. His cottage, the Basho-an (Banana hut), which had burned down the previous winter was rebuilt. Basho was living with his nephew Toin and Jutei, possibly Toin’s wife but we cannot be sure.
Toin was ill, and would die in 1693. Toin’s illness may or may not have inspired this haiku.
菊の後 大根の外更 になし kiku no ato/ daikon no hoka/ sara ni nashi
After chrysanthemums All that’s outside are White radishes
Matsuo Basho, Winter, 1692, 4th year of Genroku
If one prefers a Zen-like translation,
After Chrysanthemums Beyond white radishes — Nothing
Matsuo Basho, on radishes, 1692
Matsuo Basho had returned to Edo in the Winter of 1691, close to the end of his life, late 1694. Kiku, 菊, chrysanthemums loose their bloom in late November and are symbolic of long life.
Daikon, 大根, is a Japanese white radish. Avid winter gardeners know that when the last flower has faded, the hardy radish and some chard will linger on. Radishes “purify” the stomach, helping remove toxins in the body when eaten. Basho, who suffered stomach ailments through out his life would have relished or, at least tolerated, eating them.
Ni nashi, になし, nothing. I am not an expert on the Japanese language, but the sound “shi” can have multiple meanings including poem and death. Note to self. Don’t give your wife or girl friend four roses as the character for four, 四, sounds like “shi”.
Oz, the author of this blog, is on I-35, driving north to Kansas City. Although it is December, there is a strong southerly wind. (Appropriately so, for Kansas is a Native American word meaning People of the South Wind.) Taking advantage of the wind, cars and trucks speed along on the turnpike like prairie schooners pushed west by the wind.
Strong winds are not unusual in Kansas. A south wind in December is.
the shaggy grass like a buffalo herd galloping along
Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021, the hills were once covered in buffalo
The Flint Hills cover north central Oklahoma and central Kansas. They are part of the prairie region of the United States that stretch from Texas to Canada. Because of the rocky soil and limited rainfall on the Flint Hills the prairie grass is shorter except along the rivers and creeks and the lowlands where the tall grass takes over. This area was once the favorite feeding grounds of the American Bison, which we call buffalo. From Spring to Winter, the buffalo roamed the plains, feeding on the massive herds which covered the hills for miles, and numbered in the tens of millions. The Native American Indians who survived on the buffalo, the Osage, the Kansas, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa and others, hunted the beast by horse back and on foot, and could not lessen the numbers of buffalo. Only the arrival of the White Man and the rifle and the railroad, and the farmer who claimed the grass destroyed the millions of buffalo that once roamed the Flint Hills.
The turnpike heads northeast where the deer and the antelope once played. The wolves that fed on the buffalo are gone. The antelope too. The deer remain in the woodlands.
Following a grey car on a gray windy day, flying along like an antelope
Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021
It is difficult if not impossible to capture the image grass waving in the wind, of the different grasses — Big bluestem, Indiangrass, Little bluestem, and Switchgrass, all of which grow on the Flint Hills. In December, the green chlorophyll has all faded away. What remains are a golden yellow and red. The hills are mostly treeless except along the creek beds. There the dark brown trees now shorn of leaves seem naked against the steel gray sky.
Shiwasu, 師走 is the Japanese word for the 12th lunar month.
The waving Indiangrass was golden red — Shiwasu
Bashō no yōna,
Listen to the wind — Nature’s voice
Bashō no yōna, December 2021, remembering Rachel Carson
In the Cretaceous era (145 to 66 million years ago), the central part of the United States was an inland sea.
The vast Flint Hills an inland sea of waving grass
Bashō no yōna, December 2021
Willa Cather gave the best descriptions of the Flint Hills in My Antonia.
The red prairie grass Like wine-stains On a golden cloth
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Years pass on the Flint Hills and not much changes. This past autumn, I drove through Red Cloud, Nebraska where Willa Cather grew up. It is a farming community and not much has changed since Willa lived there.
“The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another”
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Cather’s full text:
“The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.”
But I am not sure that all the changes are in harmony with Nature.
In his famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho spoke of the passing of time:
The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, introduction, 1689
Two poems about the Fuwa Barrier Gate, the first by Matsuo Basho, the second by the the 13th century poet and nun Abastsu.
秋風や薮も畠も不破の関 Aki-kaze ya / Yabu mo hatake mo / Fuwa no seki
an autumn wind and fields and thickets — Fuwa’s barriers
Nozarashi kikô, Matsuo Basho, 1684
Notes. Aki-kaze, 秋風, the autumn wind, is often bitterly cold. Seki, 関, a barrier gate to control traffic and goods (notice how the character looks like a gate with a crossing). Barrier Gates were shut at dark blocking the road. Travelers stayed in the attached house or found accommodations nearby.
So full of cracks The (unbreakable) barrier gatehouse of Fuwa How the rain and the moonlight Both break in
Izayoi Nikki, nun Abatsu, 1279-80
Note. Fuwa, 不破, also meaning “unbreakable.” Fuwa no Seki,不破の関, an unbreakable Barrier Gate. Seki is gate, but it would be understood to include the gatehouse where travelers waited overnight. In Abatsu’s day, local lords used the barriers to control traffic and exact tolls.
Abatsu (阿仏, c. 1222 – 1283), Japanese poet and nun, 尼. She served as lady-in-waiting to Princess Kuni-Naishinnō, sister to the Emperor Go-Horikawa. In addition to poetry, she kept a diary — Izayoi nikki (十六夜日記). Izayoi, 十六夜, meaning the 16th night, and nikki, 日記, meaning diary, that became the travelogue, Diary of the Waning Moon. A dispute over her son’s inheritance led her to make trip from Kyoto to Kamakura, near Edo.
Fuwa’s barrier gate/house was on the Nakasendo way, just west of Nagoya, near the post-town of Sekigahara. This one was totally abandoned by Basho’s time. Incidentally, Sekigahara was the site of the decisive battle in which Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated a coalition of Toyotomi loyalist clans, establishing the Tokugawa shogunate.
Basho’s inland journey took him along the Nakasendo way, where he crossed the Fuwa barrier. He also travelled the Tokaido coastal road, crossing the Hakone barrier gate, just south of Edo. Both routes connect Edo with Kyoto, the Imperial Capital. In Basho’s later travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, he mentioned the barrier gate at Shirakawa, which led to the northern interior.
Enough of the milling crowds who run about like rats, enough of the constant noise.
氷苦く偃鼠が喉をうるほせり kōri nigaku / enso ga nodo o / uruoseri
this ice tastes bitter – enough for a rat to wet his throat
Tosei, who would become one day Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Winter 1680
By the winter of 1680, the poet who would become known as Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) had had enough of Edo’s city life. Nine years is enough. Enough of Nihonbashi’s theater, its music and colorful sights, enough of rich food and fine drink, enough of comfort.
Who was this poet?
He was not yet known as Basho, meaning banana, named for the frail wind-blown banana tree that would grow up outside his cottage. After the death of his early patron Tōdō Yoshitada, known as Tōdō Sengin, Basho called himself JInshichiro and Jinshiro. By the time he reached Edo, he had taken the name of Tosei, meaning Green Peach, after the Chinese Tang poet Li Bai, whose name meant White Plum.
So, he took his meager belongings and moved from Edo to Fukagawa, 深川 just across the Sumida River. His new cottage was simple — a brushwood gate, a room or two with wooden floors covered by straw mats, a small stove for warmth and cooking. Basho, the banana plant was given to him as a housewarming gift.
In Fukagawa, he escaped the crowds, but everything was in short supply, including water.
On a winter’s day he was thirsty and stopped at a reservoir to drink, but the ice was thick. Breaking off a piece of ice, he found it brackish and bitter.
Enough to inspire the haiku above.
If Basho had in mind the ancient sayings of Zhuangzi he did not say, or did he?
Zhuangzi , 莊子 (late 4th century BC), Daoist philosopher. Post Lao Tzu and Confucius, contemporary of Mencius, author of the work, Zhuangzi. Compare him to a modern day Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, one who finds beauty and happiness in Nature. One who experiences life.
A rat drinks water at the river, but no more than it needs.
Zhuangzi (莊子, 4th century BC)
Everything in moderation including bitterness. For a little bit of bitterness may inspire a man to write a haiku.
Did not Zhuangzi also say this:
This is what [the world] finds bitter: a life without comfort, a mouth withoutrich food, a body without fine clothes, eyes without beautiful sights,and ears without sweet sounds. People who can’t get these things fret a great deal and are afraid— this is a stupid way to treat the body.
Zhuangzi, Chapter 18
Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.
Henry David Thoreau
O BITTER sprig! Confession sprig! In the bouquet I give you place also—I bind you in, …
Both the bitter and the sweet come from outside, the hard from within.
Walking in the woods one day, I come upon a bright green Juniper tree full of berries. Thirsty, I eat just one. Just enough to moisten the tongue.
the Juniper berry — dry, bitter and very small, it’s sweet to eat just one
Bashō no yōna, December 2021
And along the lake I see a mole swimming.
A mole who drinks water is thirsty, taking in the sweet and the bitter