Lightning

A flash of lightning in a September cloud, a Zen reflection on the impermanence of life, but to those don’t know, a precious thing to behold.

A flash of lightning
Yet unenlightened,
How noble!
稲妻にさとらぬ人の貴さよ
inazuma ni / satoranu hito no / tattosa yo

Matsuo Basho, 1690

Figuratively and Literally

Mid-September, 2022, crossing Kansas along US 160, coming home from Las Vegas, New Mexico. In the Gypsum Hills between Meade and Medicine Lodge, the route featured flat mesas, long canyons and arroyos, red rolling hills, and vast empty stretches with no living beings.

Gypsum Hills, Kansas

As day turned to evening, and evening to darkness, my wife and I were entertained by a show of lightning to the north.

Beautiful,” said my wife.

Inazuma (稲妻, a flash of lightning) ni (with); satora (さとら, enlightened, understanding, one realizes) nu (ぬ, not) hito (人, people, one person) no (の, possessive); tattosa (貴さ, noble and precious).

Yo (よ, yo, indicating certainty).

Spiritually

Matsuo Basho in 1690, at the age of 47 with but three years to live. He had completed his journey of northern Japan, Oku no Hosomichi — How noble and precious, he who doesn’t think, “life is fleeting,” when seeing a flash of lightning.

Our existence in this fleeting world:
A drop of dew in the morning, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, a dream…
Thus spoke Buddha.

Diamond Sutra, Chap. 32
稲妻, a flash of lightning

Ogaki

Ogaki, Japan, 1689

The final stop of Oku no Hosomichi, the Journey to the Northern Interior. Ogaki is in Gifu Prefecture (then Mino Province), west of Nagoya. If there is a historical reason for chosing this spot, it is this. On the 15th day of the 9th month, the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い) took place in western Mino Province. The victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually led to the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Edo Period.

Basho’s only hint as to why the journey ended here is in closing haiku — yuki aki zo, autumn is passing by. If one plays word games then consider this. Yuki may mean happiness, 幸 (yuki) or snow, 雪. Combined, 由 (yu) meaning “reason” with 貴 (ki), it can mean it a “good reason” to stop.

Oku no Hosomichi

From Basho’s notes: Ogaki

The 21st day of the 8th lunar month, arrived Ogaki. My followers gather to work.

On the 6th day of the 9th lunar month, Basho sets off by boat, “I am going to Ise to visit the Grand Shrine.”

When clams split in two, autumn is passing
hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

Oku no Hosomichi, last entry, Matsuo Basho, 1689

Note on Translation. Monjin, (), borrowed from the Chinese, meaning a disciple, follower, pupil, or student. Figuratively, one who waits at the gate.

Japanese

大垣

8月21日頃、大垣に到着。
門人たちが集い労わる。

9月6日 芭蕉は「伊勢の遷宮をおがまんと、また船に乗り」出発する。


蛤(はまぐり)の ふたみにわかれ行く 秋ぞ

Note on dates. The Japanese lunar month was about a month earlier than our modern calendar.

Hamaguri, 蛤(はまぐり), Clams

Remembering

Memory is fundamentally remembering what once mattered — Be it happy or sad. In some cases it can be a peaceful refuge, in the following cases a unending lonely nightmare.

Saiygo copied this one down from the Emperor Horikawa’s collection of poetry.

Where once we met,
The garden fence now lies in ruins.
Flowering there,
Only wild violets in the grass

mukashi mishi/ imo ga kakine wa/ arenikeri/ tsubana majiri no/ sumire nomi shite

100 Poems in Emperor Horikawa’s Collection, 11th c.

A similar but earlier poem by the poet Sōjō Henjō 僧正遍照,

The path to my hut is overgrown,
and all but disappeared,
still I wait,
but she no longer cares for me

我やとはみちもなきまてあれにけりつれなき人をまつとせしまに
Waga yado wa/ michi mo naki made/ arenikeri/ tsurenaki hito o/ matsu to seshi ma ni

Sōjō Henjō 僧正遍照, Japanese poet, Buddhist priest, 9th c.

The following poem would indicate that Saiygo joined in the conversation about long parted lovers.

through parted clouds
the discerning moonlight
didn’t visit —
from the sky
it did not appear
anybody was waiting?

Saiygo, Japanese poet, Buddhist priest, 12th c.


Unganji temple 雲岸寺

Zen humor times two — Basho and Buccho. A woodpecker can shake a tree but not Buccho’s hut. Buccho would gladly leave his hut, but it won’t stop raining. Rain or shine, there is always something to write about.

woodpeckers,
can’t shake this hut
in its summer grove

木啄も庵はやぶらず夏木立
kitsutsuki mo io wa yaburazu natsukodachi

Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, June 1689

Note. Kitsutsuki, 木啄も, woodpecker using kanji (Chinese) characters. Yaburazu, やぶらず, can’t shake, disturb, meaning to break Buccho’s meditation.

yaburazu, a woodpecker can’t shake the serenity of this place

June, 1689, Togachi prefecture

Leaving Kurobane, Basho and Sora walked seven miles into the mountains to visit Unganji temple, known for the practice of Zen meditation. The purpose of his visit was not the temple itself, but the abandoned hut of the poet Buccho. He was Basho’s Zen master and teacher from Edo.

With charcoal made from burnt pine, and with a touch of wry humor, Buccho had written about this about the hut:

My Grassy Hut,
Hardly more than five feet square,
Gladly, I’d quit,

If only it didn’t rain.

Basho’s notes:

… The priest Buccho used to live in isolation in the mountains behind the temple. He once told me that he had written the following poem on the rock of his hermitage with the charcoal he had made from pine.

雲岸寺
当国雲岸寺のおくに佛頂和尚山居跡あり。

竪横の五尺にたらぬ草の庵
むすぶもくやし雨なかりせば

と松の炭して岩に書付侍りと、いつぞや聞え給ふ。其跡みんと雲岸寺に杖を曳ば、人々すゝんで共にいざなひ、若き人おほく道のほど打さはぎて、おぼえず彼梺に到る。山はおくあるけしきにて谷道遥に、松杉黒く苔したゞりて、卯月の天今猶寒し。十景尽る所、橋をわたつて山門に入。

さてかの跡はいづくのほどにやと後の山によぢのぼれば、石上の小庵岩窟にむすびかけたり。妙禅師の死関、法雲法師の石室をみるがごとし。

木啄も庵はやぶらず夏木立

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.”

Sleet

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Becomes cold

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Is freezing

Hitobito wo
Shigureyo yado wa
Samuku tomo

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge, 1857

Winter of 1689

If this was (as I suppose it was) written in the winter of 1689 at a poetry gathering with Bashō’s disciples and friends in Ueno, Bashō’s hometown, then I suppose the general feeling was both warm and chilly as the winter sleet made even the inn where they had gathered cold. The timing of the gathering was the culmination of Basho’s celebrated Journey to the North. It was not a journey that Matsuo Bashō believed that he would survive, and no doubt the friends at the gathering were eager to hear the details.

So  much so that the sleet and the cold sharpened the tales that Bashō told.

Thoughts on English translation

Shigure 時雨 (しぐれ) may mean a driving rain, sleet. There is a thorough discussion on the World Kigo Database. The addition of the suffix yo is a nuanced “I say” or “you know”. The sleet, as you know, is so cold even the inns and houses feel it too.

Samuku tomo 寒くとも becomes cold, is freezing.

One is tempted to interpolate at this point. Shigure might also mean to figuratively shed tears at the coming together of the friends at the inn after Basho’s long journey to the north. One is also tempted to think of the symbolism of the quick winter rains as a metaphor for Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) expression that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Shiwasu – 師走の

雪と雪 今宵師走の 名月か

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there somewhere a bright moon?


Snowing
This winter’s night
So much for the full moon

Yuki to yuki/  Koyoi shiwasu no/  Meigetsu ya

Matsuo Basho, Wandering south towards Kyoto, Winter 1684
Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge

Winter’s Night, 1684

In the Japanese calendar, the Japanese refer to the 12th lunar month as shiwasu. At a renga party where poets compete to form haiku with complementing verses, not everyone has arrived. Meanwhile, the conversation centers on the snowy weather and who is late.

Should they start reciting haiku? After all, there is a lot to do before the Lunar New Year arrives.

Matsuo Bashō begins:

I run, you run, the days are brief, so we all run, shiwasu, even the priests run to complete their tasks.

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

Notes on English translation

Yuki to yuki (雪と雪) snow and more snow, snow upon snow, something approaching a blizzard.

Koyoi (今宵) tonight, this evening

Shiwasu (師走の), the 12th lunar month, December. Literally, it means “priests run”, implying that even Buddhist monks and Shinto priests also have to run around, as they are very busy for the yearend.  Shiwa (師走) may also refer to a teacher or master, meaning that Bashō is also running at this time of year.

Meigetsu (名月) often refers here to a bright moon or to a full moon, which according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, appeared on the fifteenth night of each month. This is similar to the Roman “ides”, marking the first appearance of the full moon.

Source

As always, there are many good translations of Basho’s haiku, a good translation is: Basho’s Haiku, Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho, no. 147.

evening snow at kanbara
Evening Snow at Kanbara

Smoke! kemuri kana

At the festival of the spirits
And even at the crematory
Smoke!

Tama matsuri/ kyō mo yakiba no/ kemuri kana

玉祭り    今日も焼場の    煙哉

fire

I am writing this post on Halloween, an American festival celebrated with costumes, masks, and candy for the trick or treaters. It has become popular in Japan, but it has no true Japanese equivalent, since its roots are in Christianity. Halloween being a corruption of Allhalloween or All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints Day.

Obun festival

A Japanese counter part could be Okuribi (送り火).

It is the culmination of the Obon festival (matsuri) on August 16. In Kyoto, five giant bonfires are lit on mountains surrounding the city giving off both light and smoke. The fires signify the moment when the spirits of deceased family members, who visit the real world during O-Bon, return to the spirit world—thus the name Okuribi, roughly meaning  “send-off fire”.

In some parts of Japan, smaller okuribi fires are lit before the home to send off the ancestors’ spirits. Smoke fills the air. Incense called senko is added to the mix of smoke and fire. Sky lanterns are also sent into the night sky.

Probably, not Matsuo Basho’s best work, but a nod to the crematories who do their work daily sending souls to the spirit world.

Notes on translation

Tama matsuri  (玉祭りTama (玉) Spirit. Soul. Particularly, a pure, lofty soul. Tama matsuri is a festival held to pray to, give thanks to, and appease the souls of the dead. Matsuru is the verb form meaning to celebrate.

 

chinese-lanterns

October 1, 1691

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō

Such things as cherished tears
color
the scattered red leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

The Autumn Years

It is near the beginning of the end.

Beginning in 1690, Bashō was gone from Edo, living in quiet retirement at the Genju-an (the Phantom Dwelling), what had been an abandoned hut with a rush door, near Lake Biwa. He spent his days working on the book that would make him famous, Narrow Road to the Deep North and making short trips to visit friends and former students. On the first day of October he called on the Priest Ryu, at the Myosho-ji Temple in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

This visit inspired the above haiku.

After calling on his friend, Bashō returned to Edo to a new house near the old one in Fukagawa, complete with five banana plants. For the next three years, he would work on another anthology of poetry before setting out once more in the spring of 1694 for his birthplace.

On the way, at Osaka, he took ill and died, age 50.

Notes on translation

Momijigari, 紅葉狩り –  Maple viewing, a Japanese autumn tradition of visiting where the maple leaves have turned red. From momiji (紅葉) meaning the “maple tree” as well as “red leaves” and  “color changing”; and kari (狩り) “hunting”.

Bashō, Spring 1678

The Captain-General too
Kneels before
His Imperial Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo 

Tsukubawakeri

According to Japanese legend, thousands of years ago a deity descended from the heavens and asked both Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba to offer themselves as a place to spend the night. Proud and arrogant Mount Fuji said that it was already at a peak of perfection and didn’t require any other blessings. Thus, it refused.

Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, thought of nothing but being a good host. So, it offered itself as a place of rest, giving the deity its trees as cover, its nuts and fruit as food, and streams as water. This is why, as the story goes, Mt. Fuji is cold and stark while Mount Tsukuba is always covered in beautiful foliage.

Spring 1678

Matsuo Basho’s poetry was an extension of the art form of haikai-no-renga. This is a group activity in which each participant displays wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the simpler the two verses, the more interesting the images, the more impressive the poet’s ability.

As a young man, Matsuo served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region where Basho was born. He attended the young Todo Yoshitada, who wrote verse in the renga style. Yoshitada died at the young age of 28 and Basho, now freed of his obligation, moved on, continuing his interest in poetry. Matsuo Bashō studied under the likes of Kigin Kitamura in Kyoto before moving to Edo in 1672. By the spring of 1678, he had moved up through literary circles, receiving instruction from Nishiyama Sōin, who founded the Danrin school (談林派, literally talkative forest).

Bashō became the tree that towered over the forest.

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

This haiku, that uses the Dutch Captain General as a subject, is perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to himself, Bashō paying due to those that came before him and taught him the art of haiku.

Two years later in 1680, Bashō would complete the break and move to Fukagawa on the forlorn eastern bank of the Sumida River. There he took on his well-known haigō, “Bashō” taken from the banana tree given to him by a student.

Notes on Japanese translation

甲比丹 kapitan, captain general, likely derived from the original Portuguese and later Dutch term for the head the head of a trading company in Japan
mo, also
kanji lord, ruler
haru, spring, springtime

君が春
kimi ga haru, I am not sure I am happy with my translation of “His Imperial Majesty in Spring”. There is some semblance with the Japanese word Kimigayo, which is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”. This is the former Japanese National Anthem based on a poem from the Heian Period (794–1185). The first lines of the poem (Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni) are roughly translated as “Thousands of years of happy reign be thine.”