Where Matsuo Basho walks that lonesome road for the very last time.
この道や行く人なしに秋の暮 kono michi ya / yuku hito nashi ni / aki no kure
This road! No one is going my Way This autumn evening
Matsuo Basho, Autumn 1694
Basho’s title for this poem is Shoshi, Thought. And one can expand on this thought. Was Basho going a different direction? Was he at the end of his road, so to speak?
The concept of man as a solitary individual in this world is a familiar one in literature and religion. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a Christian allegory by John Bunyan is a Western example. So to is the old spiritual You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley.
Basho left little cottage in Edo’s Fukagawa District for the very last time in the summer of 1694. He died on November 28, 1694.
Notes on Translation
Kono, this; michi, road or way. The Way (道, Tao or Dao) referring to Laozi’s Tao de Ching. Ya, for emphasis.
Yuku, to go; hito, a man; yuku-hito, a man who is going. Nashi ni, no one.
Aki no kure, Autumn evening, a frequent topic for Basho.
hackberries falling, fluttering wings of grey starlings, a brisk morning wind
榎の実散る椋の羽音や朝嵐 e no mi chiru muku no haoto ya asa arashi
Matsuo Basho, date unknown
While hackberries don’t make much of a splash, starlings can create a stunning spectacle, first with their loud morning chattering and then when they all rise at once.
Notes on Translation
e, enoki 榎, the (Asian) hackberry tree; chiru散る, fall, scatter
muku椋, grey starling; haoto羽音, the sound of wings, fluttering wings
asa arashi 朝嵐, literally morning storm, referring in this case to a windstorm
The hackberry tree is a native Kansas species, a tough cookie that can survive prairie fires, It has small tough berries that are a source of food for birds. Several websites including earththplanet.org say “All “hackberry berries are edible and highly nutritious.” The taste, to me, is bland, and better left for the birds. Pioneers in Kansas ate them in a pinch. And hackberries were found in the tomb of Peking Man, dated to be 500,000 years old!
This haiku is like a hackberry, without much meat, unless I am missing something.
At the conclusion of his trip into Japan’s northern interior (Oku no hosomichi), Matsuo Basho rested for awhile in Ōtsu, on Lake Biwa. Places to visit include Ishiyama (Stone Mountain) whose temple, Ishiyamadera, is built on a massive formation of white stone called wollasonite. (Basho is buried in nearby Gichu-ji temple, also in Ōtsu.)
石山の石より白し秋の風 ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze
whiter than stone of Ishiyama — autumn wind
Matsuo Basho, Oku no hosomichi, Autumn 1689
Shiroshi, white. In Buddhism, the transience of human life was so associated with the dew carried by the autumn wind in the early morning is called white dew — Shiratsuyu. White is also associated with purity. Ishiyamadera, the temple, is where Murasaki Shikibu began writing The Tale of Genji on the night of the full moon, August 1004.
The following year, Basho returned and lived within the grounds of Chikatsuo Shrine (adjacent to Ishiyama) in what he called Genju-an (the Unreal Dwelling). Thinking of his own mortality and because hail (arare 霰) is white, he composed this haiku.
石山の石にたばしる霰かな Ishiyama no / ishi ni tabashiru / arare kana
showering stones on Ishiyama — hailstones
Matsuo Basho, Winter 1690
Matsuo Basho had four more summers and three winters to live.
It rained last night in Dallas. A hard rain with thunder and lightning, the kind of rain that makes my two dogs crawl underneath the covers, curl up, and hide. Today is no different. One might say it is raining cats and dogs or buckets, but that makes no sense to the dogs who are sadly staring out the window wondering.
It’s Thanksgiving, happy Thanksgiving, a good day to stay at home and cook, then to gather with friends and family, say a prayer and eat.
A rainy day in November
Dogs at the window
A hang-dog look
Our thoughts turn to what to do when it is raining so hard all one can say is, “Oh my God!”
It rained all night, it rained all day. It rained, then stopped, and rained again. It rained like someone pounding at my door. The windows rattled, as did I. It rained so much, I screamed, Enough!
Is it Her fault that She chose Thanksgiving as the day for us to stay home and ponder life’s mysteries.
The candy’s gone. A little sadness, some melancholy, descends on one the day after Halloween night. A beautiful moonlit evening, houses decorated gaily, neighbors wondering if they have enough candy, kids in costumes, smiling, politely asking for candy.
“Trick or treat.”
But night turns into day
The parents safely tucked the younger children in bed by eight. The older children walked the streets til late. Now, they are back in school, or they slept in, suffering from a tummy ache.
The falling leaves, a moonlit night, costumed kids, all so polite, “trick or treat” its so much fun, until the candy’s gone — Halloween
Bashō no yōna, 2022
The 12th century poet Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師) wrote this short poem after a fruitless day of cherry blossom viewing and hazy night and moon watching. In the best Buddhist tradition, turning a negative thought into one that is positive. Teaching us that on the morning after Halloween, sadness can be sweet.
花散らで月は曇らぬ世なりせば物を思はぬわが身ならまし hana chirade / tsuki wa kumoran / yo nariseba / mono o omowan / waga mi naramashi
Were it not for falling blossoms and a cloudy moon, in such a world I could not feel this sadness
Eine Welt ohne Zerstreuen von Blüten und ohne Bewölken des Mondes, würde mich meiner Melancholie berauben
le monde sans fleurs qui tombent et une lune assombrie vole moi ma mélancolie
At a renga party. One hundred verses, the last haiku. How do get rid of the last annoying guest? With sleepy eyes, your host appears, your hat and summer coat in hand.
time to say farewell — your hat and summer coat in hand 別れ端や笠手に提げて夏羽織 wakareba ya kasa te ni sagete natsu-haori
Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Summer 1684
I have invented a renga party as the occasion for the farewell and this haiku.
By the summer of 1684, Matsuo Basho was living in Fukagawa in the Basho-an (his simple cottage shaded by a banana, a.k.a, basho, tree), adored by his students and disciples. Basho’s mother had died the year before. He was restless.
As summer became autumn, it was time to go home, to say goodbye.
Notes on Translation
Renga (連歌, linked haiku), usually of 36 or even 100 verses. Wow! That’s long.
Those crazy Japanese poets!
One person writes the first hokku (haiku), identifying a single subject (i.e cherry blossoms, the autumn moon, goodbyes and farewells), each person adding to the chain, but delivering a creative twist. Now, the party has gone on too long, too late. The guests have drunk too much and most have left. Saki cups and paper haiku litter the floor.
Wakareba (別れ端や) I get it, I understand, after some difficulty. Farewell!
Kasa (笠) hat. Haori (はおり), a thigh-length jacket with short sleeves, generally used for cold evenings. Basho describes it as a summer (natsu, 夏) garment, suggesting that the season is changing.
Fukagawa. By the age of 36, Matsuo Basho had achieved some success in Edo, the capital of Japan. He had refined the haiku as an art form, and the renga as a convivial setting for its connected verse. He had a group of devoted students and disciples who referred to him as Tosei, the unripe peach. Matsuo wanted more, and departed Edo in 1680 for the more rural Fukagawa district, where, beside his small cottage, he planted a banana tree (basho), saying farewell to Tosei, eventually becoming Basho.
Spider, spider, speak again! what’s that you cry — the autumn wind. 蜘蛛何と音をなにと鳴く秋の風 くもなにとねをなにとなくあきのかぜ kumo nani to / ne o nani to naku / aki no kaze
Matsuo Basho, Edo, Autumn 1680
After a night of rain in the ninth month, the morning sun shines fresh. …On bamboo fences and criss-crossed hedges I saw spider webs all in tatters; and on the broken threads raindrops hung like strings of white pearls.
The Pillow Book, Sei Shionagon, 10th c.
Most spiders make no sounds at all, but a few can produce noises. I am no expert on Japanese spiders. The common Jumping spider is cute, but it makes no sound. The giant Joro spider is as big as your palm, again no sound unless it is “squish” when you step on it.
Basho’s haiku was inspired by the female poet Sei Shonagon and her delightful diary of court life, The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi). Basho substitutes spiders for bagworms. Sei generally speaks of insects as creepy crawly things to be feared, but here she sees the beauty in the web they’ve spun. Another poem speaks of minomushi, the bagworm that makes a sound chichi-yo, chichi-yo, which sounds like “father, father.”
[Note. Chichi-ue (父上 — ちちうえ), an archaic word for ‘honored father’ in Japanese. Compare: 父母のしきりに恋し雉の声 chichi haha no shikiri ni koishi kiji no koe I long for my dead parents]
Next year, Basho would muse about the bagworm, composing a haiku for his housewarming on the occasion of moving to Fukagawa into his new “humble” home, Basho-an. This would also be the occasion of Matsuo becoming Basho. Like the bagworm, and its insignificant sound, coming into the world.
Come listen to the sound a bagworm coming into the world — in my grass hut
蓑虫の音を聞きに来よ草の庵 minomushi no ne o kiki ni koyo kusa no io
Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Basho-an, 1681?
Nani to naku, in the first haiku, sounding like the word nothing — なに と なく.
Unless you have been to a music concert or sporting event, or at a Black Friday event at your favorite store, and waiting patiently for the doors to be unlocked and the gates open, you may not get Basho’s anticipation of getting into the Floating Hall on Lake Biwa during the lantern festival that begins in August of each year.
open the gates let the moon shine in – Ukimodo (Floating Hall)
Matsuo Basho, August 1691 or 1690
August 1690, 1691, Ukimodo Temple
Ten years have passed since Matsuo Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa. Beside his hut grew a banana plant, a gift, form which he took the name Basho, meaning banana, a frail useless plant blown by the winds. His hut has burned down twice. He has taken many trips, including the Oku no Hosomichi, Journey to the Northern Interior, which is not yet published. His needs are few and financially he seems not to worry.
He continues to journey including this trip to Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto, where he had spent his student days.
Ukimido Temple, beside Lake Biwa in Ōtsu, Buddhist, founded in 995. The official name is Mangetsu-ji (満月寺) Full Moon Temple. It is entered through the “Dragon Gate”. It is called Ukimido, Floating Hall because it appears to float on Lake Biwa as one approaches Otsu.
Here’s a foolish notion — The spirit world is like An autumn evening
愚案ずるに冥土もかくや秋の暮 guanzuru ni meido mo kaku ya aki no kure
Matsuo Tōsei (Basho), Autumn 1680
By 1680, Matsuo Basho was teaching twenty disciples, living in Edo, but contemplating a move out of the city. He was not yet Basho, but Tōsei, a peach that has yet to ripen.
Translating, as usual, is not so easy.
Guanzuru ni, 愚案 may be both a foolish notion and a humble opinion. On a cool autumn evening listening to the birds, feeling the breeze, watching the setting sun, perhaps with a glass of wine, Matsuo Basho comes up with the notion that the netherworld, that of the spirits where the dead go (meido, 冥土), can be described as (kaku, かく) something like this.
Not to be feared, shadowy for sure, but on the whole, quite nice.
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.