Albert Schweitzer made Reverence for Life the basic tenet of the ethical philosophy which he developed in his hospital in Africa. Basho also explored this reverence for what is alive.
"Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting, and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil… we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect, that we wish for ourselves."
"Reverence for life” to Basho may differ from Schweitzer’s concept. The little I have read of Schweitzer is more wordy and philosophical than I can follow; I prefer the fewer and more concrete words of Basho’s version of Reverence for Life. He said,
The drab brown seed contains the genetic information to producea stalk with large green purple-veined leaves, bright purple flowers,and dark purple eggplants full of seeds. Early in spring these are returned to the Earth under a half inch of soil. Spring rains fallsgently and continuously to soak the tiny plant emerging from theseed. The two infant leaves reach out to the side like hands welcoming the rain.
Basho scholar Kon Eizo elaborates: “Planting this sapling, with fondness for its loveable name, we handle it with the care we would our own child.”Basho proposes that we treat both young plants and baby humans with tenderness and sensitivity.
Fawns conceived in the autumn mating season now are born,18 inches from head to tail, and weighing 13 pounds. The doe licksher baby all over to activate sensory processes in the newborn brain and the baby stands up on spindly legs within 15 minutes. No matter how Japanese classical literature may dwell on the Buddha’s message of sadness in this transitory world, Basho sees within Buddhism the Light of eternal creation.
Rice fields, now at New Years, in early February, are barren expanses of mud and frost with row after row of rice stubble. The Sun (Goddess) is weak and cold, yet contains the promise of better things to come – and so Basho loves her. Nothing in this verse ties it to Basho’s time; anyone on Earth can see it any New Year’s Day.
Before transplanting rice to the paddy, water from irrigation ditches floods the paddy. With horse or ox pulling the plow, the farmer goes up one row and down the next, breaking up the clumps of earth and raking the mud smooth. Would that each man forego ambition leading to war, and instead ‘plow a SMALL field’ so the women and children may go and return in peace.
The lovely infant rice plants look like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia.We watch Basho’s mind go from rice sprouting to a woman giving birth to the child she loves, then return to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billions of plants.
Recovering from a long near-fatal illness, with my help she sits up. Lying down, she could not comb her hair, but now sitting she runs the comb down her long black locks, absorbing their power into her body. Also lying down she could not stroke her beloved pet, but now with the cat in her lap, she passes her fingers through the soft fur. Watching her caress pet this small furry living thing – just after she was so close to death -- makes me love her all the more. If only there was a way to keep the young and tender from growing old and bitter. From Basho to Yaba and back to Basho went the thoughts of reverence of life, of “maintaining, assisting and enhancing life”
Someone has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to soothe away the pain.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and hangs on a line to dry; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls. The flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other,complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together. Basho, the poet of joie de vivre, the reverent joy of life.
You have gone your way and I have gone mine. Our paths intersect at this cherry tree in full bloom as it has blossomed and withered each of these twenty years. The tree having “lived between our two lives” is Basho’s expression of that mysterious connection between friends transcending physical separation. Through poetry Basho presents a philosophy of friendship.
Reverence for photosynthesis.
Asked in 1690 to name a newborn girl, Basho wrote this tanka to his goddaughter he named Kasane:
The double and triple meanings – layers of kimono, of years, of generations; wrinkles in the kimono and in her face -- overlap to form a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall begiven your first blossom-kimono. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, the next “layer” of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman.
So may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longersmooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and yourgranddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono. In his few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children—the conditions of Peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. The poem in five short lines encapsulates the existence of one woman from newborn to old age. It transcends the boundaries of literature to become something greater, an ode to Life.
Her husband has died; the baby they together created is a memento of him. She has placed his old padded jacket on the sleeping baby, and tucked it in for warmth, so the jacket has the form of a living body, reminding her of him. The two kinds of sleep – nightly and eternal – blend in our consciousness of Basho’s stanza. Putting the child down, reasonably certain to awake in a number of hours, but wondering if in sleep baby will travel to that other world where father is and not return.
Basho begins with a human experience of old age, but this is too brief to be a poem. We need; the next poet to enlarge that experience. Each year at the blossom-viewing picnic, the years shall increase while the old friends decrease
Every year in this season she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
Basho's Reverence for Life has so many facets.
Japanese monkeys, the only ones in the world whose native habitat is so far north, live in packs of about ten in mountain forests. Inautumn they eat all the fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, insects, and crabs they can find, so they grow fat with the thick fur needed tosurvive winter in a mountain forest.
When it starts to rain, Basho hurriedly puts on his mino, a cape woven of straw and waterproofed with persimmon juice. He then sees a monkey shivering beside the road and simply presents his immediate child-like reverent thought – reverence expressed in that word “too”. Adults do not think so simply – unless they are adults who think like children. Adult thoughts are more complicated and knowledgeable. Basho always thinks the simple way. This is what he teaches us – to go back to the beginnings of thought, the thoughts in childhood that begin the development of Reverence for Life.
Basho viewed the famous cormorant fishing on the Nagara River. The birds dive to catch fish, but an iron ring around the gullet stops the fish from going down and men steal it from the hungry bird’s mouth. (Talk about exploitation!). Basho wrote this haiku
The sadness he at first did not feel, but later did. A month later he wrote in a letter to Ensui that he had gone vegan.
Basho wrote the following haiku on a sketch he drew of three clam shells (with the living clam inside) on a leaf of duckweed:
Clam soup is a traditional favorite at New Years, so, to a merchant clams are only worthwhile dead. Basho says “Wrong.” Life itself is worthwhile. The end of the year is a good time to be conscious of what is worthwhile and what is not; a good time for reverence.
The passage of autumn is compared to the tearing of a clam from its shell – a most intimate and sensory image, tearing life from the clam.
The traps are laid out in the evening; an octopus crawls in, thinking it a fine place to rest –then when the brief summer night becomes morning, the octopus cannot get out, and someone comes to make sushi out of the little fellow. Octopuses are highly intelligent,possibly more so than any other order of invertebrates. Maze and problem-solving experiments have shown evidence of a memory system that can store both short- and long-term memory. Does an octopus dream? Can an octopus who is alive and comfortable realize its life is soon to end? Can we?
In 1688 Chine, the younger sister of Basho’s follower Kyorai, died of illness at age 28.
Her jisei no ku or “farewell to life” poem was:
Kyorai responded to his sister’s poem with:
Simple words to express Chine’s humility and Kyorai’s grief.
Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” Basho cannot be with Kyorai’s family in their grief, but he sends them an image which transcends the distance between Gifu and Kyoto. One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, is being kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently dispersing in the warm breeze. Each verse conveys some aspect of reverence for life.
Two weeks before he died, Basho and followers gathered at the home of Madame Sonome where he wrote this verse praising her:
He told Shiko:
Because I knew that today’s one meeting
would be the remnant of a lifetime,
I thought to watch for a vision in this hour."
He concentrates his attention on the woman before his eyes -- for this will be his final chance to see her. Basho’s reverence is greatest for female life.
Three and a half days before the end, Basho spoke:
As the years passed by to half a century.
asleep I hovered among morning clouds
and evening dusk, awake I was astonished
at voices of mountain streams and wild birds
“Astonished at the voices of mountain streams and wild birds” — here we have the essence of Basho: a little child, astonished at sensations in nature, feeling reverence for all life.