The Gift

A gift becomes his name — 松尾 芭蕉, Matsuo Basho.

ばしょう植ゑてまづ憎む荻の二葉哉
bashō uete / mazu nikumu/ ogi no futaba kana

Planting this banana,
Now I hate
Sprouting Silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Basho-an, Spring 1681
Silvergrass, Ogi, Miscanthus

[Previously translated]

A Simple Gift

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.

Becoming Basho

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.

The Basho plant, ばしょう

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.

Simple Gifts

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.

poinsettia

love and hate in the garden

A new house, a house warming gift, a banana pup competes with sprouts of silvergrass, … becoming Basho, ばし.

ばしょう植ゑてまづ憎む荻の二葉哉
bashō uete/ mazu nikumu/   ogi no futaba kana

I plant the bashō
now I hate
silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Spring 1681

Note. Bashō, ばしょう (芭蕉) means banana plant. Nikumu, 憎む to hate or detest. Ogi, 荻 a Japanese plume grass that grows in marshy areas.

Spring 1681

In late 1680, the 36 year old Matsuo Basho left Edo. He crossed the Sumida River, for a simpler life in the isolated Fukagawa District. His home, a simple hut. A disciple (Rika, 李下) gave him a banana pup, which he planted beside the hut. (We may assume, replacing the tall silver grass.) In time, the hut became Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Banana Plant”), and the poet Matsuo Basho (まつお ばしょう).

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.”

No Politics, Please

Matsuo Basho, Japan’s renown haiku master of the 17th century had nothing to say of politics. Yes, nothing at all.

This may seem surprising for Basho was born in Iga Province which was known for its Ninja traditions. And, it is said, because of their Samurai background, and the family name, Matsuo, the family was accorded a farm.

Matsuo had brothers and sisters. We may guess the farm was not so large, for Matsuo (he was not Basho yet) left the ox and the plow and served Yoshitada Todo whose father was Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region. Matsuo’s master, Yoshitada had an affinity for poetry, and perhaps that is how Matsuo got his start. But Yoshitada died and Matsuo went to Kyoto to study.

By the age of 28, Matsuo compiled a book of haiku verse called Kai Oi (Shell Matching), which he dedicated to the Ueno Tenjingu Shinto Shrine. Soon after he left for Edo, capital to the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna . Like a child in a candy store, he immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Nihonbashi District, with its theater, music, performers, and exotic food stalls. In time he gathered students who came to him for instruction.

Enough, he said. And so he moved to the quieter Fukagawa District, across the Sumida River to a simple hut where he was given a banana as a housewarming gift. In time the banana grew to a tree. Battered by the wind, its leaves sometimes tattered, this otherwise useless tree provided some shade.

Fame follows Matsuo. Haiku are written, students gather. In time the banana plant becomes a tree. The banana tree is like me, Matsuo said. And that is how he became Matsuo Basho, “Matsuo the Banana”, or as he himself would say, a useless banana, blown to and fro by the wind, good for little, but to give shade.

How less political can one be.

Let me be an observer of life, he said. Let me listen and see what I hear. Haiku has its roots in  Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It is an art form which attempts to express ideas in a simple verse form consisting of seventeen syllables. No more, no less, though sometimes Basho would stretch or break this rule.

This would inspire what is perhaps Basho’s greatest haiku.

An old pond, a from jumps in, the sound of water, Aha!

古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音

This is not to say that Basho did not speak of distant politics and war. He admired loyalty. He admired lost cause, but he found melancholy in such loss. Thus, when thinking of General Sanemori who died in battle in 1183, he wrote the following haiku.

How piteous! Beneath the warrior’s helmet A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす

muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu

One almost wonders, if Basho thought, what is the point? What is the point of politics, to those who are born on a farm, to those who put down their swords, and take up the pen to write a poem?

Notes

This post was written in January of 2012 in the midst of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The author expresses no opinion on the current political situation.

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

Why I am called Bashō

Autumn 1692

A banana leaf
Hanging on the pillar
And the moon over my hut

芭蕉葉   を柱に懸けん  庵の月     bashō ba o / hashira ni kaken / io no tsuki

banana-leaves

Why I am called Matsuo Bashō

“[T]he bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly followed the bark with his brush to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the bashō leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Bashō, 芭蕉, in English, is the banana tree, not the yellow fruited kind we are familiar with, but of similar stature, tall and leafy. “Useless,”  Bashō called the tree, its flower plain, its stalk thick, but one no axe-man cares to fell.

A banana tree grows in Fukagawa

By 1680, Matsuo Bashō, having achieved some fame,  moved from Edo’s bustling city center across the Sumida River to the quiet and rural Fukagawa district. A disciple brought Bashō a banana plant as a gift and it thrived, growing tall and strong, sprouting other saplings. Bashō admired its resilience in the wind and the rain.

In time disciples took saplings to plant as a sign of respect.

In the spring of 1689, Matsuo Bashō tired of Edo and decided to take a journey north which would eventually become a book which would further enhance his fame. He sold his hut wrote a well-known haiku on his departure and left.

Bashō returned to Edo in the autumn of 1689. His disciples then built him a simple hut of three rooms near where the old one had been. It had a simple bamboo gate, a reed fence and a view of Mt. Fuji.  Pillars of Japanese conifer stood guard at the entrance. A single banana leaf was attached to one of the pillars.

New banana saplings were planted in the garden.

His disciples had take a bashō leaf and written eight haiku on its backside. This was then placed on the pillar at the entrance to the hut. Overjoyed by the gift and the thought, Bashō imagined watching the autumn moon through the swaying leaves of the newly planted bashō trees.

“What year did I come to nest in this area? … My new thatched roof hut, near my first one, fits me well with its three small rooms… I’ve transplanted five banana (bashō) samplings so that the moon when seen through the leaves will be beautiful and moving. The bashō’s leaves are over seven feet in length. When the wind rips the leaf to the leaf-spine, it is as painful as seeing a phoenix with a broken tail, as pitiful as a torn green fan…

Like the ancient mountain trees, the bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly brushed the bark to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Sources

Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, selected haibun, page 135

 

Autumn Gales

Banana tree in a fierce autumn gale
I wonder if I can hear
Rain in the tub, tonight!

Bashō nowaki shite
Tarai ni ame o
Kiku yo kana

芭蕉  野分   して盥に雨を聞く夜哉

Autumn 1681

In the winter of 1680 Bashō moved  from central Edo across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa district. His patrons and disciples had prepared a cottage with a thatched roof for him in the midst of a grove of banana trees. In the spring of 1681, one disciple gave him a house warming gift, a new banana plant (Bashō, hence the name Bashō-an).

Away from the distractions of Edo, Bashō had more time to collect his thoughts and compose haiku.

Summer came, and then fall, and with fall the fierce storms and typhoons that strike Japan every year.

Bashō’s Explanation

A sleepless Basho composed the above haiku. Alone, he was wondering if he could withstand the night. Bashō’s explanatory notes provide some insight:

Sleeping alone in a thatched hut

The elder Du (Fu) wrote a poem about a thatched hut blowing (tearing) in the wind. Then the old man Su Shi wrote verse about a leaking cottage. Now I listen to their rain pounding my banana leaves, lying alone in my thatched cottage.

Du Fu is a poet of the Tang dynasty, much admired by Basho. The poem he refers to is Song of My Cottage Unroofed By an Autumn Gale. Du Fu’s poem is much longer, and more involved, but it begins much like Basho’s haiku:

“In the eighth month, autumn’s fierce winds angrily howl,
And sweep three layers of thatch from off my home.
The straw flies over the river, and scatters,
Some hangs high up in the tree,
Some floats down and sinks in the ditch…”

Some three centuries later, Su Shi of the Song dynasty composed a poem with a similar thought, “My thatched roof torn by the autumn wind…”

banana-trees