Understanding Haiku

in the stillness—
sinking into the rocks,
is the cicadas’ cry 

Let us abandon the self. Let us enter the mind of Matsuo Basho for a moment.

From a distance we see him standing outside his small house in Fukagawa, underneath the famous banana tree given him by one of his students. The tree has grown over the years and now towers over our small group. It bears fruit. Let us now imagine that it is a summer’s day and the sky is blue except for the occasional cloud that shades the sun. Basho and his disciples are discussing the art of the haiku. From our lofty perch let us descend and enter the mind of Basho.

Matsuo Basho: “In Yamadera District there is a scenic temple that was founded almost a thousand years ago. It is located on a mountain top northeast of Yamagata City. Near the top, the way passes by the massive Mida Hora rock, which is shaped like Amida Buddha. I paused in the stillness and listened to the sound of the cicadas.”

Matsuo Basho: “Things, like humans, have qi, (). It is a life spirit, which can be felt. This is the universal force that makes up and binds all things together. It is paradoxically, both everything and nothing.”

Toho [Basho’s disciple]: “How do we learn of this spirit? How do we feel it?”

Matsuo Basho: “The mind merges with the object, which is taken in nature without obstruction. Detach from oneself, enter the object with the mind, feel the subtlety of the thing. Let the mind become the object.

Learn the pine from the pine, the bamboo from the bamboo.”

Toho would later recall this conversation in his red booklet, Akazoshi:

The master said: ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.’ What he meant was that the poet should detach the mind from his own self. Nevertheless, some people interpret the word ‘learn’ in their own ways and never really ‘learn’. ‘Learn’ means to enter into the object, perceive its delicate life, feel its feeling, whereupon a poem forms itself. Even a poem that lucidly describes an object could not attain a true poetic sentiment unless it contains the feelings that spontaneously emerged out of the object. In such a poem the object and the poet’s self remain forever separate, for it was composed by the poet’s personal self.

bamboo

In the morning calm

In the morning calm
Only the sound of the rock
And the voice of the cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

china-hungshan

Journey to the Deep North, Summer of 1689

The clouds were drifting along, and the wind stirred a wanderlust.

Thus it was that Matsuo Bashō decided in the spring of 1689 to journey to Japan’s north. By summer, Matsuo Bashō arrived at the Ryushakuji Buddhist temple on Yamadera (山寺 literally, Mountain Temple), northeast of Yamagata in Japan’s far north.

In his travel diary, Basho explains:

“In Yamagata province, there is a temple called Ryushakuji, founded by the great priest Jikaku. This temple is known for the absolute tranquility of its holy grounds…. The rocks on which the temple is built bear the color of eternity. They are covered with tender moss. The shrine doors are firmly barred and not a sound can be heard. As I move on hands and feet from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, the purifying power of this sanctuary pervades my being.”

Sibilance

One guesses, I suppose, that Matsuo Basho tries to imitate the cicada’s shrill sound through the technique of sibilance,  shizukasaya / iwa nishimiiru / semi no koe.

I will also propose paraphrased variations inspired by other translators (one example and another one). So, you can decide what works best for you. All of which proves to me, if not to you, that the no haiku is perfect.

In the utter silence
Of the temple grounds,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks

In the quiet
The shrill sound of cicadas
Seeps into the rocks

tree moss

Notes on translation

閑 kan, peace, calm
けさ kesa, this morning
や ya, and

岩 iwa, rock
み mi, only

蝉 semi, cicada
の no, of
声 koe, voice

yamadura mountain temple