New Beginnings

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Quoting Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi, 奥の細道).

Station 2 – Departure

Early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh I took to the road. Darkness lingered in the sky. The moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. Mount Fuji’s faint shadow and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka bid me a last farewell. My friends had gathered the night before, coming with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles. When we got off the boat at Senju, however, the thought of a journey of three thousand miles suddenly seized my heart, and neither the houses of the town nor the faces of my friends could be seen except as a tearful vision in my eyes.

Spring is passing!
Birds are singing, fish weeping
With tearful eyes.

With this verse to commemorate my departure, I began my journey, but lingering thoughts made my steps heavy. Watching friends standing side by side, waving good-bye as long as they could see my back.

Yuku haruya

Spring is passing! Yuku haruya!

The wonderful thing about poetry in verse is that one can read and reread the same poem or the same verse. It is, in a sense a new beginning. It is a chance to start over, although it is on a familiar path, and even so, change directions. Maybe it is a journey into a better lifestyle, with daily exercise and healthier eating.

That new beginning always starts today.

Spring, in verse, in poem,

Perpetually Passing

And yet, it begins anew

Bashō no yōna

Senju

Basho began his journey in the late spring of 1689. His wanderlust lasting over five months — 156 days and nights, to be precise.

The first leg of the journey was by boat from the Fukagawa District where Basho was then living, along the Sumida River, to Senju, today’s Adachi fish market, in the northern part of Edo (Tokyo). From there it was a short walk to the Arakawa River and the bridge that lead north.

Surrounded by the fish mongers and the birds dancing around looking for scraps to eat, Basho began his journey with tearful eyes. He was not quite alone, for Kawai Sora, his neighbor in Fukagawa, would be his companion.

Original Japanese

行く春や 

鳥啼き魚の

目は泪

Yuku haruya

tori naki uo no me

wa namida

Acknowledgements

I do not claim to be original in my translations. Others have come before me. Their translations are equally good or better. Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa is a good source containing the entire journey and notes. The original Japanese is online. Read Yuasa’s translation in an ongoing single account. See also, Matsuo Basho – WKD Archives, @MatsuoBashoWkdArchives, a Facebook account that contains background information. 

Fried Pies

Deep in the Arbuckle Mountains

Sharing a Fried Coconut Pie

At Turner Falls

My wife and I were driving from Wichita to Dallas for a Mother’s Day Weekend with our daughter. A little more than half way, past Davis, where one enters the Arbuckle Mountains, we stopped to let the dog stretch her legs beside the clear creek. Then, as we were about to leave my wife spotted the sign saying Fried Mountain Pies at a rustic drive up cafe. A half dozen cars and a couple of men carrying brown paper bags told us all that we needed to know.

One was enough for two she said. Sharing is caring I thought.

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 Flies Away

A crow flies away in the setting sun
It is Winter,
A tree is shaking, I wonder

烏飛んで夕日に動く冬木かな

Haiku lives!

Haiku lives on. A good example is this poem by Natsume Soseki (夏目 漱石, 1867-1916), Japanese novelist and haiku poet.

He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, and Wagahai wa Neko dearu (I Am a Cat). But here he gives us a good follow up to Matsuo Basho’s autumn crow on a withered branch — a picture of man, a portent of doom. Basho and Crows. Soseki’s take is different.

It is winter, the crow has departed, the tree is shaking, Soseki wonders.

Do you get it, I wonder?

Dammit, Zen moments shouldn’t and can’t be explained.

Spring Farewells

of sweetfish / seeing off salty fish / farewell

ayu no ko no / shirauo okuru / wakare kana

鮎の子の 白魚送る 別れ哉

Ayu school, detail of image from Wikipedia

Wakare, Farewell

There is not much to this poem. There need not be. Or is there?

Parting is such sweet sorrow Juliet said. Or as the Buddha says, ‘Au wa wakare no hajimari.’ ‘Meeting is the beginning of parting‘.

A parting begins a journey

Inspired by a warm breeze and a passing cloud, in the late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho sold his few possession, closed the door to his cottage, and, along with Sora his traveling companion, headed north on what would become a journey of nine months. This trip would eventually become a book that would make Basho famous, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道, meaning “Narrow road to the interior” or “Pathways to the Interior” or something similar. But since , Oku can also imply one’s heart, it implies an inner search for meaning, a spiritual quest to find one’s true feelings. But that lay ahead.

Basho was dressed in a peasant’s bamboo hat, as protection from the sun and rain. He wore white breeches that came to mid-calf, a blue tunic, and leather sandals, that he would later decorate with spring flowers. Basho, it is said, rode on a small horse, for he is pictured as such, but it is more likely he walked. The horse was a pack horse or a donkey, the kind we associate with prospectors. It carried Basho’s few provisions, a raincoat, a sleeping bag, some money, although, Basho hoped to live off the kindness of those he met along the way for his fame was now well known throughout Japan. Sora walked beside him.

Their trip began with farewells and the chatter of neighborhood children who were no doubt envious of the adventurous travelers. Perhaps, Basho was thinking partings are beginnings, new meetings, new friends.

Of sweet fish and salty fish

For this haiku, Basho chose the Ayu, 鮎 for the children. The Ayu, the small Sweetfish, we might liken to Silverfish, who swim about in schools when the sun appears or large predator fish chase them. Basho and Sora are the old fish, Sakana, 魚, or white fish, quite common. Basho, having had some reservations about the dangers of the trip, perhaps alluded to his becoming bait for bandits.

Sakana is a generic Japanese word for fish, usually salted and served with sake.

As I said, there is not much to this haiku, or is there? “A parting is not an ending but a beginning,” says Bashō no yōna, to those who look forward and not backwards.

別れは終わりではなく始まりです
Wakare wa owaride wanaku hajimaridesu

The Dutch make a Pilgrimage

The Captain-General too
Makes a pilgrimage to
His Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo  tsukuba wakeri    kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

View of Mt. Tsukuba from the Sumida River, Keisai Eisen (渓斎 英泉, 1790–1848)

Edo, Japan 1678

In Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had brought about an end to the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch who sought independence from King Charles. Protestants from France and Jews from Spain fueled a Dutch Golden Age. Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes philosophized, John Milton wrote, Kepler and Galileo looked to the heavens. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 –1694) would know little about these events for the Tokugawa shogunate had made Japan Sakoku (鎖国, “a closed country” beginning in 1633 and completing the process by 1639. Under the terms of various edicts, Japanese were forbidden to leave Japan, and only the Dutch were allowed to trade at Nagasaki, and then only if the Dutch traders remained on a small enclave in the harbor.

Matsuo Basho did not seem to concern himself much with world events. And there is but one haiku written about the Dutch. In one of his earlier haiku, while he still lived in Edo, working at a government job, before taking on the pseudonym Basho he wrote the above haiku.

Should we attempt to match Matsuo Basho up with one of his European counterparts, the likelihood is Christiaan Huygens, who in the vein of Descartes and Spinoza wrote:

“…nous n’atteignons pas le certain mais feulement le vraifemblable.”

“Nothing, we know certainly, but howl the likelihood.” Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens

The Legend of Mt. Tsukuba

Tsukuba has a well-known history in Japan.

Each year the Japanese make a pilgrimage to Mt. Tsukuba and its centuries-old Shinto shrine which represents a source of blessing for the Japanese people. There is also a legend that accompanies the mountain. Thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked Mt. Fuji for a place to spend the night. Mt. Fuji refused, believing it did not need the deity’s blessings. The deity turned then to Mt. Tsukuba, which, humbly welcomed its guest, offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji though beautiful, it is cold and lonely. Mt. Tsukuba, covered in vegetation, changes colors with the seasons.

Another legend has it that the Japanese people descend from ancient deities who lived here.

Other Notes on Translation

Only Dutch merchants as foreigners were allowed to trade in Japan and only if they remained on an islet named Dejima in Nagasaki. Once each year they were obliged to make a voyage from Nagasaki to Edo to call on Shogun to pay respect.

Kimi ga haru. The master in Spring. Kimi can mean “you,” but also “master,” the Shogun, in this sense.

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 Renku

Gentler readers, unencumbered, we shall fly about, but not like crows, coming and going, from tree to tree, but as travelers from time and place, from poet to poet. Such is the mystery and beauty of poetry.

Natsume Sōseki

Today’s guest poet is Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916). His literary career did not begin until 1903 when he began to publish haiku and renku. He quickly went on to novels for which he is better known. That he was exploring the joy of haiku before 1906 comes from this haiku, written in 1896, probably while in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu .


a crow flies off
leaving
the winter tree shaking

からすとんでゆうひにうごくふゆきかな

Coming and Going

Surely, in composing his verse Soseki recalled to mind Matsuo Basho’s haiku, where a crow comes to perch. Soseki has the crow leaving, completing the renku.


on a bare branch
a crow has perched
in the autumn evening

kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

枯朶に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

Having listened to both haiku, Bashō no yōna, tries to keep the renku going, adding:

from countless karasu
upon a withered tree –
a caw-caw-phony

Notes on Translation

Renku, 連句, “linked verses,” a Japanese form of collaborative linked verse poetry. Basho would often attend such party gatherings. Renku can also be informal and spontaneous.

Basho uses for crow. Soseki uses からす, karasu, から (kara, “caw”, imitating the crow’s caw, plus su. “bird”). Both mean crow.

Does Your Roof Leak

Spring rain –
running down a wasp’s nest
from a roof that leaks

春雨や 蜂の巣つたふ 屋根の漏り

harusame ya     hachinosu tsutau      yane no mori

Wasp Nest, Kono Bairei, 1844-1895

More rain

Yesterday, it rained. Today, it rains again. Tomorrow, it is suppose to rain again. I should look around the house to see if the roof leaks. Is it not a fundamental principle of life, Basho asks, that a roof shall leak?

For Matsuo Basho the steady drip of the rain from a wasp’s nest became the subject of this haiku. Does this not remind you, Gentle Reader, of the premise of the television show Seinfeld — “a show about nothing” and everything. Observational comedy like haiku poetry are based on everyday phenomenon rarely noticed. Have you ever noticed? — a wasp nest shouldn’t leak.

Cosmic principles

To make the point, Basho ends this simple haiku with the Japanese character り, Ri, which in Confucian philosophy attempts to identify an underlying principle of the cosmos — a roof shouldn’t leak, but it sometimes does, but not in a wasp nest.

Notes on Translation

Harusame, 春雨 is Basho’s oft repeated Spring Rain. Hachinosu, 蜂の巣, a wasp nest or beehive. Also, a colloquialism for something full of holes, like Swiss cheese, a knit scarf, and Basho’s roof. Yane no mori, 屋根の漏り, a roof that leaks.

Spring Rain

Spring rain
If it is rains today
It is Spring rain

(Harusame – noodles)

春の雨 今日の雨なら 春雨じゃ

Spring Rain at Tsuchiyama, 1834–35, Utagawa Hiroshige, image The Met*

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday, I found myself sing along to Phil Collins’ I Wish It Would Rain. Today, it rains, rains, rains. In the Midwest, a spring rain (春の雨, haru no ame) is always welcome except when it rains too much, which is what it is now doing.

Even the worms do not like too much rain, for coming to the surface, Robins find them and feast. For farmers, when it rains too much, it floods, and the seeds of the spring wheat are washed away. That is why most wheat grown in Kansas and the Midwest is Winter wheat.

Sometimes, summer rains sometimes come not at all.

What do we make of Matsuo Basho’s little ditty? Is Basho saying “it is raining cats and dogs”? Is he saying rain is a gift from above? 春雨 being a figurative statement for a “gift from above,” an idea Kansas farmers fully understand. Is that gift from above, “harusame”? Hausame being noodles that look like worms.

Could it simply be, that today 今日, because it rains, Basho is served harusame?

Basho’s disciple, Bashō no yōna, is thinking along a different line of thought, of the birds, of the fishermen.

Spring rain
A gift from above, a gift from below
Earth worms

When it doesn’t rain enough

Because it doesn’t always rain, here’s one I like from Taniguchi Buson (1715-1783):

Harusame ya kawazu no hara no mada nurezu

Spring rain —
not enough yet to wet
a frog’s belly.

Notes

Spring Rain. It is explained to me that haru no ame, 春の雨) is the general category of rain that falls in spring (from late February to March) and thus it may be a cold rain that chills the bones and frightens the birds, while harusame, 春雨 is the light but steady rain portrayed by Utagawa Hiroshige above, a gentle rain, a drizzle, the kind one experiences in Seattle or Portland, and along Japan’s eastern coast in spring.

Tsuchiyama—a travelers’ station on the Tōkaidō route connecting Edo and Kyoto, in the mountains just before the road ends at Kyoto, known for its gentle rain, and familiar to Basho who traveled this route often.