ひさに経て 我が後の世を 問へよ松 跡しのぶべき 人も無き身ぞ Hisa ni tate waga ato no yo o toieyo Matsu ato shinobubeki hito mo naki mi zo
After a long time, everlasting pine, will the world ask after me?
Saiygo, on looking at an ancient pine tree at the site of Kobo Daishi’s birth
Will You Remember Me
A literal translation of Saiygo’s poem goes like this: Long living pine, covering my corpse, mourning for me, I ask,are we everlasting, is there one to remember me when I am gone? Translations may vary, but the essence of the poem is the universal question — Will you remember me?
Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師), 9th century Buddhist monk, calligrapher, and poet. The Grand Master who helped to spread Buddhism throughout Japan. SaigyōHōshi (西行法師), was a 12th century poet and author, a Samurai warrior who became a Buddhist monk, took to wandering, and writing travelogues to accompany his poetry. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), 17th century haiku master on which this blog is based.
Kobo Daishi was to Saiygo, what Saiygo was to Basho, what Basho is to us. A voice from the distant past. A hope, I think, that our voice lives on. That we will be remembered?
Young or old, it is not a question of years — one is young or old from birth to death, it all depends on how and what one feels and thinks.
Bashō no yōna, 2022
Yoshida Kenko, 兼好, early 14th century Buddhist monk, poet and essayist, remarked, quoting someone else, that if you have not learned an art by the time you are 50 you should give it up. There is not time enough left in one’s life to make the pursuit worthwhile.
Kenko himself retired from public life and became a hermit. His attitude was that it was painful to see men over 50 mixing with society. Rather, one should retire to a leisure life. For those who are still young, ask if you wish to know. But once having grasped the facts clearly enough to understand, pursue the question no further. The ideal in the first place is not to desire to know.
Matsuo Basho, 松尾 芭蕉, 17th century poet, born in 1644, died in November of 1694, having lived 49 full years. Basho had begun to withdraw from society. First, moving from the bustling city center of Edo, the capital, to the more remote Fukagawa district, and his simple cottage. Then, to begin his various wanderings over the Japanese landscape. Basho was poet and artist, and he continued to write and draw up until the time of his death.
On the subject of Yoshida Kenko, Basho wrote this:
秋の色糠味噌壷もなかりけり aki no iro/ nukamiso tsubo mo/ nakari keri not even a bowl in autumn colors for fermented miso
Matsuo Basho, Autumn, 1691
Notes on Translation
Nukamiso, Nukazuke. Fermented miso. Boiled or steamed vegetables, pickles, cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, eggplants, etc., placed in a miso sauce, then fermented in vinegar and sake. Aki no iro, autumn colors of the vegetables. Tsubo, a simple wooden bowl. As a devout Buddhist monk, Kenko had few possessions, typically only one bowl in which to beg for his daily meal. Nakari keri, saying something does not exist. Thus, the overall meaning of the haiku is that in autumn colors, his wooden bowl does not match the colorful pickled vegetables.
Basho, who suffered from stomach ailments throughout his life, ate pickled vegetables for relief.
The begging bowl used by Buddhist monks has a long association with the Buddha himself. According to one legend, when he began meditating beneath the Bodhi Tree, a young woman presented him a golden bowl filled with rice, believing he was the divinity of the tree. The rice he divided into 49 portions, one for each day until he would be enlightened. The precious bowl he threw into the river.
The author, Bashō no yōna, does not agree with Kenko on the subject of aging, as for some, life begins at retirement.
Summer, 1689. The Mogami River tumbles into a mountain valley in northern Yamagata Prefecture. There one finds peaceful Obanazawa, 尾花沢, meaning Marsh of Irises. Matsuo Basho, and his companion Sora, are staying with Seifu, a well-to-do safflower merchant and haiku poet.
涼しさを我宿にしてねまる也 suzushisa o waga yado ni shite nemaru nari
making coolness my lodging for a while, I may rest
這出よかひやが下のひきの声 Haideyo kaiya ga shita no hiki no koe
Crawl and creep From under this shed You loud mouth frog
Note. Hai, the first character in this haiku has several meanings. Creep and crawl is the intended meaning, but as homophone, it means to bow reverentially. Another meaning is “to give up.” Kaiya, the shed where the silkworms are kept. Kiki. A Bullfrog. Frogs and toads eat caterpillars. Kaiya, also a Japanese feminine name meaning “Forgiveness.”
まゆはきを俤にして紅粉の花 mayuhaki o omokage ni shite beni no hana
recalling to mind an eyebrow brush benihana (Safflower blossoms)
Oku no Hosomichi, Obanazawa, Summer 1684, Matsuo Basho
Note. Mayu, まゆ the first two characters, means eyebrow. Its homophone, 繭 a silkworm cocoon. Beni no hana, 紅粉の花, literally red powder flower. Safflowers produce yellow and red dyes which range from light yellow through pink, rose and crimson. For this reason, they are popular in cosmetics.
Basho’s annotation from the travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi:
“I visited Seifu in Obanazawa. He is a rich merchant of a truly poetic turn of mind. He has a deep understanding of the hardships of being on the road, for he himself had often traveled to the capital city. He invited me to stay at his place as long as I wished, trying to make me comfortable in every way he could.”
蠶飼する人は古代のすがた哉 kogai suru hito wa kodai no sugata kana
those tending silkworms keep their ancient appearances
Note. Kogai, 蠶飼. Silkworms are the larval form of the silk moth. The caterpillar spins a cocoon out of silk fibers for its metamorphosis into a moth. Silkworms have been domesticated since at least 3500 BC.
In the stillness of summer, deep within the rocks of Yamadera, comes the cry of a cicada.
In the quiet, penetrating the rock, the cry of a cicada 閑さや岩にしみ入蝉の声 shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi no koe
Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, July 1689
Note. Of course, various translations exist. Many of them can be found on Haiku Topics by Dr. Gabi Greve. 閑, Kan means ‘quiet’ but conveys the idea of ‘Emptiness’ in Taoism and Buddhism. 岩, Yán, rock signifies the idea of permanence, and 蝉, Chán, the cicada, a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, all combined in one memorable haiku.
After visiting Seifu in Obanazawa, Basho detoured south to Yamadera, 山寺, the popular name for the Buddhist temple Risshakuji, 立石寺. It is located on the steep slopes of Mt. Hoju, in northern Yamagata Prefecture.
It was there, that Basho composed his well known haiku on the cicada.
In Chinese and Japanese lore, cicadas are high status creatures one seeks to emulate. They are considered pure because they subsist on dew and sap. Lofty because of they perch in trees. In summer, their call is loud and long.
By crawling around, Basho showed respect and emulated the cicada. Perhaps, he hoped, his words could penetrate even the stone itself.
As they have.
From Oku no Hosomichi: Risshakuji Temple
In Yamagata province is Ryushakuji Temple. Founded by the great teacher JikakuDaishi, this temple is known for the quiet tranquility of its grounds. Told by everyone to see it, I left Obanazawa. Reaching it in the late afternoon, the sun still lingering. I arranged to stay at the foot of the mountain with the temple priests. I then climbed to the temple itself near the summit.
The mountain consists of boulder upon boulder covered with ancient pines and oaks. The stony ground in the color of eternity, covered in velvety moss. The shrine’s doors were barred and no sound could be heard.
I crawled on all fours from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, feeling the purifying power of this holy place filling my being.
Departing Sakata, on Japan’s northwestern coast, clouds gathered along the Hokuriku Road. My heart was heavy when I heard it was a 130 li (Japanese miles, two and one half miles to the li, making it a distance of 325 US miles) to the capital of Kaga province.
Traveling south along the coast, I arrived at Echigo province (north-central coast) through the barrier-gate of Nezu, and then on to Etchu province through the barrier-gate of Ichiburi. During the nine days of this journey, I wrote little, what with the heat and humidity. My old complaint bothering me immeasurably.
Fuzuki (July) the 6th is not an ordinary night Tomorrow — The Weaver meets her lover
文月や六日も常の夜には似ず fumizuki ya muika mo tsune no yo ni wa nizu
The stormy sea and Sado Island Swelling before The Heavenly River
荒海や佐渡によこたふ天河 araumi ya sado ni yokotau amanogawa
Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, July 1689
Note. Tanabata, the Star Festival, on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month, based upon an older Chinese celebration. In the Japanese version, the two stars Altair and Vega, representing a cowherd and a weaver girl, though separated by the vast distance of the Milky Way, are allowed to meet once a year. From Ichiburi, Basho was looking out across the Sea of Japan to distant Sado Island. The rough waves and the reflection of the Milky Way (天河, Chinese for Tianhe, Heavenly River) making a path for the two lovers to return to earth for one night.
Matsushima, Matsuo Basho says, is the most beautiful place in all of Japan. It means “pine island,” so named because the many islands, tall and small, are covered with pine trees. Its name also has an obvious connection to Matsuo. It lies in a bay in northern Miyagi Prefecture.
Poets, authors, and painters, all come to Matsushima to take in its loveliness, to try and capture the feeling. The site they come to see are the hundreds of islands, like shattered shards of a mirror in the sparkling summer water. Each island covered in pine trees.
A true artist recognizes that his or her artistry can never replace Nature’s beauty. Basho says so, “Each single pine, flourishing, so pretty, gorgeous, beyond words.” This sentiment explains the following haiku:
Matsushima ya, aa Matsushima ya, Matsushima ya Matsushima, Ah! Matsushima! Matsushima!
We, who are skeptics, must pause. For some say the haiku is apocryphal, Basho is not the author, and that may be true, but the sentiment is apropos, making it nevertheless delightful.
[“Words, words, words.” Basho’s purported haiku reminds me of Shakespeare’s Hamlet responding to Polonius asking him what he is reading, “Words, words, words,” suggesting that words are meaningless, a medium for thought. Repetition can have the opposite effect as in this ditty I remember from childhood. “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, You and I, oh, how happy we’ll be.“]*
It is also said, Basho wrote another haiku about Matsushima. It goes like this:
Shimajima, chiji ni kudakete, natsu no omi island upon island, shattered in a thousand pieces, on a summer sea
This haiku too, we must be skeptical of.
Basho in his journal did write this, “The moon rose, glittering over the dark sea. The wind roared and the clouds flew by. In this strange world, Sora wrote a haiku,
松嶋や鶴に身をかれほとゝぎす Matsushima ya, tsuru ni mi o kare , hotogisu Matsushima, oh! borrow the wings of a crane to fly to little cuckoo
Matsushima, Sora, Summer, 1689
The English sense of Sora’s haiku may be:
“That I may fly to Matsushima,” the little cuckoo cried to the lovely crane, “Oh, may I borrow your elegant wings.”
Wordless in Matsushima
Basho himself, gave up trying to write of such beauty and went to bed, but couldn’t sleep.
Instead, he took from his backpack Soda’s poem on Matsushima and waka on Matsu ga Urashima by Hara Anteki, along with haiku by Sanpu and Jokushi.
Wordless, speechless, aghast and tongue-tied, nevertheless Basho managed to write the following. From Oku no Hosomichi: