Another Rainy Day

Edo, Autumn, 1678, Matsuo Basho, then called Tosei, age 35.


雨の日 や世間の秋を 堺町

ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

A rainy day, in Autumn the world awakens in Sakai-cho

Sakai-cho, Edo’s Kabuki Theater District, Utagawa Hiroshige

Leaving Edo

He has not yet become Bashō, 芭蕉, the poet who compares himself to the fragile and useless Banana plant. That is yet to come when, two autumns later, Matsuo Basho would take the somewhat surprising step of leaving Edo and crossing the Sumida River to Fukagawa to live in a cottage beside a Banana plant, 芭蕉.

For now, Basho enjoys Kabuki Theater. Rain doesn’t matter. Perhaps it heightens the surreal quality of the plays.

Kechi, Kansas, Autumn, 2021

More than three centuries have gone by since Matsuo Basho wrote his haiku.

Today, in 2021, pubs and micro-breweries have become the gathering place for friends and couples who want to talk about the day’s events, about the World.

It is another rainy day in Middle America. It is early September; the summer’s heat has given way to cooler days and nights. The author of this blog takes a trip to Kechi, a small Kansas town outside Wichita. He is accompanied by his wife and dog, Lucy, a small dog, a mix, mostly Blue Heeler. The three of us sit on the patio under trees strung with lights, sample the beers, listen to music, and forget our worrries.

Suddenly, it starts to storm. Lucy runs inside and shakes off the rain. Bashō no yōna, the author of this blog, and modern day Basho disciple, says this:

A dog knows
To Stay out of the Rain
And Sakai-cho

Beer stops Pouring
When it starts Raining

At the Old School House in Kechi

Notes on Translation

Before becoming Basho, Matsuo Basho took the pen name Tosei, 桃青, meaning “green peach” inferring that he was not quite ripe.

世間, Seken, literally the World, Society, as opposed to the individual. According to the Buddha, there are two worlds, the internal world and external world. Through meditation, one understands one’s thoughts and feelings, and finds one’s ‘inner world’.

境町, Sakai-chō, literally border town. It is somewhat unclear whether 境町, Sakai-chō is a place within Tokyo’s Nihonbashi District, or it merely borders it, a special district where Kabuki Theaters were allowed. Often these theaters began in Tokyo where prostitutes plied their trade. Other worldly in this sense takes on a sexual connotation. Though frowned upon by the ruling authorities, such districts were allowed. William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men similarly had to obtain a royal license to perform.

Gabi Greve has given us a thorough discussion of Nihonbashi in her thoroughly wonderfully blog.

Previously translated as Rainy Day and Seken no Aki.

Historical Context

England 1678, John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress, an other worldly allegory of man’s journey through life. Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and culturally isolated from Western societies.

The Sound of Cicada

cicada clinging to a tree

One can travel by train today from Tokyo to Yamadera in less than five hours.

In 1689, Matsuo Basho made the journey by foot in four or five months, give or take a day or a week. Basho left behind the comforts of his thatched cottage in Fukagawa, his friends, and his students for an uncertain journey with his companion Sora. They arrived in Yamadera in late August. There, Basho and Sora climb the rocky steps to the mountain temple called Yamadera (山寺, lit. “Mountain Temple”), shedding each step of the way their human worries and cares, until even the wind had ceased and all was silent.

Beholding the beauty of the scene, all Basho heard was the sound of the cicada.

ah, the silence
sinking into the rocks
the voice of the cicada

閑かさや
岩にしみ入る
蝉の声

shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimi-iru
semi no koe

Basho’s haiku is inspired by my own experience with cicadas in Kansas and elsewhere. It is a common experience shared by anyone who has heard the incessant high pitched cry. What they are saying and to whom is a mystery. Perhaps, spending 16 out of 17 years underground, they are happy to be set free, learning too soon that it is time to die.

Perhaps, I wonder is it the heat?

ah, in the heat of August,
from each and every tree
comes the cry the cicada

Notes on Translation

Shizukasa could also be “such silence”, the feeling of awe that comes across the traveler when the wind dies completely and one is left alone with the beauty of Nature.

Shimi-iru is literally “penetrating,” giving one the sense the cicadas have burrowed into the rocks to escape the heat. “Sinking” is more sublime, and suggestive of a Buddhist stage of meditation.

Semi no koe, at its simplest, is the voice of the cicada, but that doesn’t stop translators from adding a little spice with verbs like “shrill of the cicada” or “cry of the cicada”.

love and hate in the garden

we planted the bashō
now I hate
silvergrass

ばしょう植ゑてまづ憎む荻の二葉哉

bashō uete mazu nikumu   ogi no futaba kana

Spring 1681

A new house, a house warming gift, a banana pup, the first sprouts, becoming Basho, ばし.

In late 1680, the 36 year old Matsuo Basho withdrew from Edo’s bustling Nihonbashi District, and moved across the Sumida River to Fukagawa, where he took up residence in a simple hut. A disciple (Rika, 李下) gave him a banana pup, which he planted beside the hut and, in time, Basho came to associate himself with the purely decorative banana, which produced no edible fruit. The hut became Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Banana Plant”), and the poet became Matsuo Basho (まつお ばしょう).

What should we make of this simple haiku? It is not a simple love story. If it were, then the banana plant would be the beginning, middle and end of the poem. No, hate intercedes, with the sprouting silvergrass, miscanthus, to use the technical term. Here in the States, Pampas Grass is a more familiar term. Hardy Pampas Grass with its Fall blooming white plumed flowers and many stalks.

The academician and the graduate student are all too inclined to make too much of Basho’s brief dissertation on the banana plant. Is he comparing his solitary lifestyle with that of busy Edo, the banana pup and the crowded clump of grass? Is this a yinyang tit-for-tat where love and hate must cancel each other, and balance achieved?

Or is Basho, like any new gardener, worried that grass will deprive his darling plant of sustenance?

Bashō no yōna replies, “me think one hath parsed the plant too much.”

Basho might have replied in renku fashion, “The meaning is lost in translation.”

A Crow Upon a Withered Branch

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

Kareeda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ Aki no kure

枯枝に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

detail of image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Autumn 1680

Matsuo Bashō has by the autumn of 1680 now achieved fame. Moreover, he has just moved from Edo across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa neighborhood where he lives in a simple hut with a new banana tree, a gift from a student. A bridge had yet to be built across the river.

At the age of 36 Bashō was experiencing what we would call a Mid-Life crisis, he was cut off, dissatisfied, and lonely. In a couple of years he would begin his epic journey to the North. But for now, he took up the practice of Zen meditation, but it seems not to have calmed his mind.

This haiku has more than 30 published and hundreds of online translations. Why so many variations? Why so many attempts?

Zen

The answer, I suppose, lies in Zen’s ineffability. For Zen’s essence is to understand directly Life’s Meaning, without being misled by language. Life is what we view directly, no more, no less.

Bashō sees a crow perched upon a withered branch. It is autumn, more precisely, an autumn evening as the dusk settles in and darkness descends. The air is still or perhaps there is a gentle breeze. Then a crow stops upon a withered branch. Its crow and tree become one color against the ever deepening blue of the evening sky.

Bashō, like the crow, stops for a moment. And in that suspended moment this haiku is formed.

The Crow, , Karasu

Do I need to say that the crow is a bad omen? In Japan, there is a belief that if a crow settles on the roof of a house and begins cawing, a funeral will soon follow. Did the gloomy Bashō foresee his own death? Did Basho in his own unique way presage Yates who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” Is there not a little of Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven to be heard tapping at one’s door?

A melancholy thought, for which I have little to add other than that I love the repetition of the “k” throughout the haiku which must bring to mind the cawing that Bashō must have heard.

Notes

  1. I see that I watched this crow stopping on his withered branch before, September 19, 2019.
  2. For the semantically punctilious, much depends on the translation of とまりけり, tomarikeri. Perched, alighted, arrested are all possibilities. “Stopped” seems best to me.
  3. For an academic discussion of various English translations, see A CROW ON A BARE BRANCH: A COMPARISON OF MATSUO BASHŌ’S HAIKU “KARE-EDA-NI…” AND ITS ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, by Elin Sütiste of Tartu University in Estonia.

I must take to the road again

Shall I call this an end or simply a repose.

It is now November. The sky is gray, the trees are bare, there is a cold wind that chills, leaves once red and gold, now yellow and brown, flutter in the air then gather for they know Winter is near.

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks, Futami

September 1689, Ogaki

In September 1689, Matsuo Basho has completed his Journey to the North, ending in Ogaki on horseback. His friend Rotsu accompanied him, Sora, his companion on much of the journey, rejoined him. Basho continues, “we all went to the house of Joko, where I enjoyed a reunion with Zensen, Keiko and his sons, and many other old friends who came to see me by day or night.

On the 6th of September, it was time to part and take to the road again. Life moves on, and so, he left for the Ise Shrine, for he wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine (Futamiokitama Shrine). As he stepped into the boat that would take him across Ise Bay he wrote:

As clams
Divide into Two
(Separate in Futami)
In Autumn

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

So too, I take to the road again. Not a farewell my friends, a repose.

Previously posted September 26, 2019.

Matsuo Basho Halloween

Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) lived in the later half of the 17th century when Japan was isolated from Western culture and there was, of course, no Halloween, no Trick or Treat, no masked children laughing and singing, “Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.” Masks were however used in the ceremonies of Shinto religion (Tengu, 天狗), the plays of Noh theater, and as part of the Samurai military costume.

Noh mask, 3 faces, Wikipedia

Basho’s Halloween Costume

Had he worn one, surely a banana , his self-given moniker, the very meaning of Basho (芭 蕉) and the plant which grew over his hut on the outskirts of Edo. Otherwise, a Noh mask, for Basho loved to attend the plays Lastly as an old and aged frog about to make a splash, for that was the poem that made him famous.

Old pond, frog jumping into water, sound

Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと

Why is Basho’s frog haiku famous

Water makes many sounds, it ripples on the rocks, splatters as rain falling upon the roof, as the roar of the ocean waves, even the gurgle of water in a drain. But the very best has to be surprise when a frog disturbs the stillness of a pond and we hear kerplop!

Shoda Koho, Frog on Lotus Leaf, detail stylized, source ukiyo-e.org

The Autumn Wind

“Ignore the faults of others and be ignorant of your own virtues.”

Should I to say a word
My lips turn cold
In the autumn wind.

mono   ieba / kuchibirusa   samushi  / aki  no  kaze

物いへば唇寒し龝の風

Autumn 1691

On his return to Edo in the autumn of 1691, Bashō took up the task of editing his journal that was to become The Narrow Road to the Interior (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi), which was published in 1694. He had a great many visitors and wrote to a friend, “I have no peace of mind.”

Silence is golden!

Scattered Leaves

leaves,
some the wind scatters on the ground;
so too the race of men.

– Iliad vi.146

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, paraphrasing the Illiad, vi146, in his Meditations, 10.34.

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

Matsuo Basho on Scattered Leaves

Let the universe be your companion, bearing in mind the true nature of things—mountains and rivers, trees and grass, and humanity – and enjoy the falling blossoms and scattered leaves. Matsuo Basho

Humanity, Basho observed, enjoys the true nature of things. Autumn leaves, falling leaves of red and gold, scattered leaves outside my window, written about in song and poem, a last hurrah, a winsome remembrance, before winter’s wind comes along.

Such things as these cherished tears
coloring
scattered maple leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Matsuo Basho on Autumn Leaves.

October 1, 1691, shortly before Basho, age 48, returned to Edo. Basho’s greeting to the priest Ryu at Menshooji temple 明照寺, (Meishōji), near Lake Biwa, in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture. WKD Matsuo Basho Archives

Menshooj Temple, original image Wikipedia

Moon over the Mountains, Basho

Let us write poetry!
the moon over the mountains
is rarely seen in Edo

Hiroshige’s Moon over Mountain, 1835

Moon Viewing

Matsuo Basho is 33.

He has been living for four years in Edo’s fashionable and artsy Nihonbashi neighborhood. It is noisy, it is dirty, the lights obscure the moon. A autumn trip to his birthplace in Iga, Ueno provides an opportunity to see the harvest moon.

The last line, 山の月 yama no tsuki, moon over the mountain. This refers to the Japanese custom of holding parties to see a full moon, called moon viewing. The most popular viewing is the harvest moon in mid-autumn, celebrated as Tsukimi.

This post relies on WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives by Gabi Greve.

Notes on Translation

読む nagamuru, “reading out loud”. One can of course silently experience the beauty of a full moon. Sharing an experience is better.

稀な marena, rare or uncommon.

Japanese and Rōmaji 

詠むるや江戸には稀な山の月

nagamuru ya Edo ni wa marena yama no tsuki

Saru o Kiku Hito

You who hears the monkey cry…

kids-glasses

 

From “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field” –  Matsuo Basho left Edo with man named Chiri as a companion and aide, on a trip in the eighth month of 1684. He had barely begun his journey, when, crossing the Fuji River, he heard the wail of a small child.

“I was walking along the Fuji River when I saw an abandoned child (捨子, sutego, foundling), barely two, pitifully weeping. Had his parents been unable to endure this floating world, wave-tossed as these rapids, and so left him here to wait out a life, brief as the dew? He seemed like a bush clover in autumn’s wind (秋の風, aki no kase, autumn wind)that might scatter in the evening or wither in the morning.

I tossed him some food from my sleeve and said in passing:

Hearing the monkey’s howl,
Or an abandoned child’s crying in the autumn wind
– Which is worse?

You, who listens to the monkey’s cry,
What of the abandoned child
Weeping in the Autumn Wind?

Basho consoles himself we these words:

Why did this happen? Were you hated by your father, neglected by your mother? Your father did not hate you, your mother did not neglect you. This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.

Not a flattering picture.

To me, Basho comes across as uncaring, but what is a poet to do? Especially one who follows the tenets of Buddhism. But then, did not Buddha say, “However many holy words you read or speak, what good do they do if you do not act on upon them?” (A paraphrase of verses 19 and 20 from the Dhammapada.)

Pinyin and Japanese

saru o kiku hito sutego ni aki no kaze ika ni

猿を聞く人 捨子に秋の風いかに