What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

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East West 東西 higashi nishi

East or west
Just one melancholy thing –
Autumn wind.

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi / aware sa hitotsu / aki no kaze

japanese-couple

Explanation of Basho’s haiku

East and west, it is all the same sorrow when one so young dies so soon.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, Edo (the East Capital), and his disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来 in Kyoto (the West Capital). In the summer of 1686, Kyorai and his younger sister Chine went on a journey to the Ise shrine.

They kept a journal, the Ise Journal* that begins:

“The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.”

Chine replied:

“Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese.”

Chine died two years later at the young age of 25 on the 15th day of the 5th lunar month.

She wrote a final haiku:

Easily glows and easily goes a firefly
もえやすく又消やすき蛍哉
moe yasuku mata kie yasuki hotaru kana

In tribute, Basho wrote his haiku in the eighth lunar month.

Notes on translation

あはれさひとつ aware sa hitotsu could also be translated as “our sorrow is the same”

East or west / our sorrow’s the same / an autumn wind

An autumn wind (秋の風 aki no kaze) is understandably melancholy, summer is over and winter near. In another haiku, Basho references the Autumn Wind – Shake even the grave, My wailing is the autumn wind, 塚も動け我が泣聲は 秋の風, tsuka mo ugoke waga naku koe wa aki no kaze.

Americans and Japanese of the World War II generation are, no doubt familiar with the term Kamikaze, 神風, “divine wind” or “spirit wind”. The historically ancient term Kamikase refers to the 13th century wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion.

*Kyorai’s Ise Journal, Ise Kiko. See also the well-written post The Life and Death of Chine, by Writers in Kyoto .