Deep in the Mountains, Saigo

Deep in mountains

The moon to the mind

Shines brightly so

It’s Light mirrors all things,

Like an enlightened mind.

Saigyō, 1118-1190

Every great poet reads and is inspired by other great poets.

Saigyō

Satō Norikiyo (西行法師, Saigyō, 1118-1190) was born in Kyoto to a noble family. Emulating Siddhārtha, at age 22, he quit worldly life, becoming a monk. In his three score and a dozen years, he took many long, poetic journeys to the north of Japan.

And so, five hundred years later, … inspire Bashō and his Narrow Road to the Interior. And four hundred years later inspire me:

Lovely thought, I think,

Do you?

An enlightened mind

Original Japanese Characters

深き山に 心の月し すみぬれば

鏡に四方の 悟りをぞ見る

fukaki yama ni kokoro no tsuki shi suminureba

kagami ni yomo no satori o zo miru

Notes on Translation

心 is an ethereal concept encompassing many things including: heart, mind, thought, idea, intention, center, and core. One wonders if a single word can convey an image. One wonders if everything is changing, in a state of flux, so to speak, temporary and ephemeral. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus, 6th century BC.

Saigo, Basho, and you, gentle reader see the same sun rise each morning.

Enjoy the moment!

Stone upon stone

Saigo’s lovely thought was in turn based on a verse dialogue between Yuquan Shenxiu (玉泉神秀, 606?–706), Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, and Dàjiàn Huineng (大鑒惠能, 638-713) Tang Dynasty eminent monk. (638—713)唐代高僧。

Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we clean them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.

“Wisdom has no tree, no stand of a mirror bright. Since all is a void (everything is nothing), where can dust alight?” 

Basho took a different path, “Learn about the pine tree from the pine, about bamboo from bamboo.” meaning that Nature is diverse.

Upon the Shoulders of Giants

Inspired thought comes by standing on the shoulders of others, using their insights to further ours. The image can be traced to the 12th century philosopher, Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar English expression is”If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Isaac Newton, 1675. The idea is however ancient, Confucius also having said similar things.

From parent to child, from teacher to student, we are inspired, we inspire.

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.

Oku no Hosomichi – Introduction

Matsuo Basho’s introduction to Oku no Hosomichi is well-known and often quoted. And thus, often translated. Those translations changing a word here and there, and sometimes subtly altering the meaning. Here is my crack at it.*

It begins…

 

月日は百代の過客にして、行かふ年も又旅人也。舟の上に生涯をうかべ馬の口とらえて老をむかふる物は、日々旅にして、旅を栖とす。古人も多く旅に死せるあり。

The months and days are eternal travelers. The years that come and go are too. Those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tightly by the bridle, their journey is their life, their journey is their home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.

And I myself, moved by the wind driven clouds, am filled with a strong desire to wander.

To be continued…

予もいづれの年よりか、片雲の風にさそはれて、漂泊の思ひやまず、海浜にさすらへ、去年の秋江上の破屋に蜘の古巣をはらひて、やゝ年も暮、春立る霞の空に、白河の関こえんと、そヾろ神の物につきて心をくるはせ、道祖神のまねきにあひて取もの手につかず、もゝ引の破をつヾり、笠の緒付かえて、三里に灸すゆるより、松島の月先心にかゝりて、住る方は人に譲り、杉風が別墅に移るに

 

草の戸も住替る代ぞひなの家

面八句を庵の柱に懸置。

Notes on translation

* I confess to reading other translations. I do not confess to being the best, I do not claim to be entirely original. And should we disagree, then fine.

We all possess the same poetic license.

Matsuo Basho, perhaps, understood better than others the difficulty in conveying life’s experiences into language. His famous poem about the frog and the sound of water is a good example. Not everything has a linguistic expression. It is a Zen thing. Just experience the moment, like a sunset, or waves crashing on the rocks, a crow perched upon a withered branch, or a horse pissing on the ground next to where you are sleeping. To truly know what the moment was like, “You had to be there.”

Context is important too. “Summer grass and warriors dreams” makes more sense if one knows the fate of the Fujiwara clan. It is also interesting to note that Basho, fearing bandits upon the highways, had expected to meet his end upon the journey. The journey might be uncomfortable at times, but it was also full of interesting characters and wonderful surprises.

Then too, there is more than one way of looking at something. Take the first two characters of Basho’s introduction – 月日, literally month and day, but collectively time or figuratively, years.

Sadly, though we can approach some understanding of Basho’s haiku, we can not truly appreciate the beauty of the language which has to be rendered into English, loosing something thereby in translation.

Alas!

Autumn Nightfall – aki no kure

Along this way / no one goes, but I / autumn nightfall

Kono michi ya / yuku hito nashini / aki no kure

この道や     行く人なしに      秋のくれ

hike-boardwalk

The Way

“Master, what is the Way?” a student might ask of the enlightened. It is a discussion Matsuo Basho’s disciples might have had with him in Edo where Basho fame was established for all of Japan.

In the fall of 1689, Matsuo Basho was finishing up his epic journey to the north which would become a well known book. Most of the journey, he was accompanied by a companion Kawai Sora, who kept his own journal. Towards the end of their journey, the two separated and Basho was for a while, alone.

A poet writes and rewrites his poem a thousand times. The writing process is a lonely one. A reader may read a poem a hundred times, finding something new each time the poem is read.

More is the pity, there are many places I have been to but once, and all alone.

Notes on translation

Aki no kure  (秋のくれ) has several English meanings – autumn (秋), autumn twilight, autumn night fall, and depending upon context, autumn’s end. It is the subject of several Bashō haiku, suggesting many things including impending death. See Gabi Greve’s discussion in WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives.

Bashō composed the haiku during the fall of 1694, not long before his death.