One Basho haiku on war, SUMMER GRASSES, is among his most famous, yet many more Basho visions of war and peace appear in his renku. May these 23 works become resources in the struggle for Peace.
Before the paddies receive rice-seedlings, the farmer with horse or ox pulling the plow 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.
Koeki’s stanza is magnificent by itself, but equally stunning is the way each element – the wind, the sunset, the “long drawn-out cries” – feeds energy into Basho’s ode to Fate. Basho completes and fulfils Koeki’s vision. In the link between the stanzas is the horror and cruelty of war. Each time I read this pair, I am again astonished by the direction Basho chose. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into that great question of existence which can never be answered:
Are the future and death ordained? Or are they random?
Basho’s stanza is pacifist because of what it does NOT say. If it read something like “foretell which side will win” or “foretell who will kill the most enemy” then it would it would be masculine, competitive, war-mongering. The way Basho wrote it, FORETELL THE HEADS TO FALL contains no sense that our side is better than theirs, no competition, no concern for winning; all who die are equal in tragedy.
Chichi no ikusa o /oki fusa no yume
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, finally having reached age 18, in the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality.
The Japanese does not indicate the child’s gender; Miyawaki, assuming this teenager is male, says,
“For a boy, his father is his model to learn from by observation, his goal in life. Having reached the age when now he can go to war, to see a dream of father in battle is the same as being on the battlefield himself. His regrets for his father can never be forgotten. The bond between father and son is well expressed.”
Written in 1687, can this stanza-pair reach the heart of one – girl or boy -- whose parent died in war or terrorism. I encourage teenagers who have lost a parent to explore this verse, especially as you approach eighteen. Also I hope adults who counsel bereaved teenagers will show it to them. The clear, straight-forward expression of personal feeling may be consoling.
The bird fights against containment while the farmer does not care what the bird wants and is just doing his job. We hear his annoyed and ungrammatical shout or grumble about tomorrow when the real violence occurs and this bird will go silent. Basho responds with the silent glory of the moon over another scene which could become violent tomorrow: a military encampment, warriors here to do battle, but under a temporary truce, they wait. While they wait, they have to eat, so a market has sprung up to supply their needs. Here the farmer brought the goose in a straw bag. Tomorrow who will die? The bird? The one who kills the bird? The warriors who eat that goose for their final meal? Thousands of warriors? The moon is so bright it takes your breath away. My daughter Jean says, the two stanzas “make each other shine.”
(A grammatical particle is missing in Basho's stanza, but whatever this was, the meaning is clear.) In Shinto purification rituals, a priest or female shaman waves the nusa, wooden wands with white paper streamers; left and right to absorb unclean energy. Death being the most defiling occurrence, at a funeral, many ritual wands are used and defiled, so must be burned. To the Japanese, the dove is the messenger of Hachiman, the god of war, and patron saint of the Genji warrior clan; and white is the color of that clan, so the spirit of a white dove rising from the red flames of burning wands suggests the funeral of a warrior. Basho continues the opposition of red and white: mirror represents the pure soul of the deceased; his blood shed in war stains the mirror so no reflection.
Her husband goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morning they can go into battle. If he dies, she can only survive as a nun. She looks at him, searching to see into the future: the division in the road tomorrow will bring, either the world with him alive, or him dead. The double verb occurs in the original as in the translation, at the very end of the verse, William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style, tells us to “place the emphatic words at the end.” Mia notes that the comma between ‘looks’ and ‘searching’ “makes the reader pause on line, placing the woman’s stillness in contrast to the movement of her leaving husband.” The woman is still, yet active (she looks) and conscious (searching). So Basho focuses on the woman’s humanity.
Bishamon, one of the Seven Lucky Deities, god of fortune in war, patron of warriors, wears armor and a helmet, and holds a spear in his right hand to fight against evil spirits. The poet seems to have blended Bishamon with the husband-and-wife gods Izanagi and Izanami who created the Japanese islands by stirring the void with the point of a jeweled spear; as the spear was lifted back up, a drop fell from it, creating Awaji, the first island of Japan. The droplets from Bishamon’s spear turn into the tinted leaves and colorful fruits of koku no aki, “autumn in this nation.”
Basho replies with a stanza certain to evoke controversy. From 1597 to 1639, the Japanese cut off the heads of hundreds of Christians for their faith. The BRZ explains that gedou means “demons who disturb or hinder Buddhism; heretics; it is the role of Bishamon to exterminate them.” Moonset represents mourning for the dead, however without condemnation of the killers.
You may enjoy looking back over the four past stanza-pairs ; in each pair, Basho writes the following stanza, and each time he uses an image of the moon to complete and fulfil the previous stanza. Such is his genius.
Let’s switch from the moon to the stars
“That fateful night” – in Japanese, “the 28th of the month -- refers to a famous incident in 1193 immortalized in myriad media. The Soga brothers were five and three years old when their father was killed. Their mother trained them to avenge his death when they grew up. After spending their entire lives planning, they succeeded on the 28th night of the Fifth Moon. One brother died in the fighting, the other was executed.
If something is “written in the stars,” it is destined to happen – so when the stars are hidden by clouds, we feel no sense of what lies ahead. Numerous Basho stanzas approach that question “What is fate?” – as IN THE COLD WIND. Here he asks “Does fate determine the victor of the battle?” His answer is that victory is determined by which side has been provided enough nutritious food. Remembering that these people had no wheeled vehicles, no electricity, no refrigeration, no plastics, we realize that providing an army with decent food was a logistical nightmare, and the army that didn’t get enough to eat is the army that lost.
The emperor has ordered troops to subjugate the rebels; the samurai gather, and when morning comes, leave camp with strict, solemn military precision. Meanwhile, the commander of the rebels (Han Solo) has spent the night in a brothel, and when morning comes makes a hasty departure so he can prepare his army. Before he leaves, since he is not likely to need cash ever again, he gives all he has to his partner in “one night’s vow.” Here is a courtesan who got lucky: now, instead of living out her days until her nightly sex with a different customer brings on syphilis and she dies -- she can purchase her freedom and return to her village, a hero because she saved her family from ruin, marry and have children. After her one night with him, we feel her joy when she realizes what he has given her, and also her grief knowing why he is giving away all his cash.
For the first morning in their lives, the villagers heard no sound from the local temple, so they realized. A temple bell is far too heavy for one or two people to carry; many have no work together. When a nation-state has been defeated, before the conqueror takes control, there is bound to be vandalism. Not only has the border guard disappeared, but also the border itself lost all meaning.
These samurai, instead of fighting to the death, giving all for glory and honor, they are able to go home and support their wives and children. The road is long, two inglorious days in depressing weather, yet at least they are alive.
In the Battle of Ichinotani, in 1184 on the beach at Suma (western Kobe), the Genji forces led by Yoshitsune, overwhelmed the Heike clan who had possession of the infant Emperor. Yoshitsune with 30 samurai on horseback climbed the cliff and hung their troop-bell from a pine tree at an overlook. The Genji attacked from two sides and Yoshitsune’s warriors dashed down the cliff, setting fires. The surviving Heike panicked and ran for their boats to escape. Basho, 500 years later, describes the scene:
Notice the remarkably well-organized structure:
an introductory section of four lines,
seven vivid photographic images each with one or more lively active verbs,
and a two-line closing statement.
The only power the Heike still have is possession of the Emperor, so they hold him close. The Empress Dowager, Kiyomori’s widow, carries her six-year-old grandson, the royal Infant, a living descendant of the Sun Goddess. Her daughter has more mundane problems. The feeling of confusion piles up with each of the seven images, then releases in “sound of the waves breaking.”
The amazing thing about this passage is the absence of men. In the actual battle, there were thousands of men here, killing each other or dying horrible deaths, yet Basho has eyes only for the women and what they are doing to survive and continue their commitment to their clan in this madness created by men. By focusing on the women trying to save their lovely noble possessions, Basho may be suggesting that they are more heroic than the so-called “heroes.”
One “hero” who died in the battle of Ichinotani was 18 year old Taira Atsumori, known from a young age for his talent on the bamboo flute. His clan ruled Japan for some years, but in 1182 were driven from Kyoto to Suma. The night before the enemy attacked, they had a party to enjoy themselves while they could. Atsumori played his flute, touching the hearts of all who heard. In the morning the attackers overwhelmed them. The Taira fled to cabin boats they had waiting on the beach. In the chaos and confusion, teenage Atsumori forgot his flute. He went back to get it and returned to the shore where he was cut down by an enemy warrior.
Basho is at the temple near the battle place where the actual flute of Atsumori is kept:
In summer the multitude of green leaves blocks out the sunlight, so there is a shade, a sort of darkness, under the trees – and also ‘shade’ suggests the presence of a ghost. In this place where Atsumori played his flute five centuries ago, Basho feels the vibrations (the ghost) from that performance still lingering in the earth and stones. He seeks to ‘see’ what is no longer present, and to ‘hear’ the sound of long ago, remaining in “traces.”
Five years later, on a hill in northern Japan, Yoshitsune met his end, killing his wife and infant daughter and committing ritual suicide before the enemy could get to them
Since that epic tragedy came to pass, the grass on the hill has grown green and thick, then withered in the frost, for 500 cycles. Nothing remains of all those men killing each other, however Basho sees in spirit what is hidden in Time, the ‘traces of their dreams’ lingering among the grass.
I was surprised to see that haiku scholar William Higginson thought that the verse SUMMER GRASSES “glorifies war” and assumed that his readers would see it that way too. In thirty years of knowing this verse, I never considered such an interpretation. The whole point of the verse, as I see it, is to highlight the vanity of war—the vanity of male achievements in comparison to the fertility of the Earth and the power of natural forces
Vanity, vanity, vanity. Men, chasing after self-importance, running into conflicts , dragging women and children along with them.
“Dew” is the forces of time and weather that wear out and decay all things - - so “dew” is all that remains where the coffin and father inside were. The coffin bearers carried it away so quickly, and never again will it be seen. How do other poets follow Basho’s lead? The country where the battle took place does not destroy the old, damaged armor, and has no reason to keep it, so they send it to the country of the deceased.
After coming home from the disastrous Japanese invasion of Korea which continued from 1592 to 1598, a surviving warrior makes his living growing and selling vegetables. This soldier whose armor was not torn apart, lives in peace until he too disappears in a coffin.
Basho wrote both of these stanzas in succession:
All the men, even bald monks and grandpas, were conscripted into the armies. No one was able to grow much food so there was famine. Without enough rice, people mixed in dirt with glutinous mochi to make the sacred rice-cake offerings to the divine spirits -- who will be dissatisfied and continue to send us this endless war. For what? So some man somewhere can feel he is top dog.
Prints left in the snow by a man pulling firewood on a sled suggest the hard life of this man in winter. He is a warrior from spring to autumn, but must survive winter so he can back to his real occupation. In this mountain village one member of every house is a warrior, all waiting for spring when, like a vast area of snow melting from the mountains to flood the valleys, they can march to war. All that battle energy frozen and contained in Basho’s stanza, waits to flow freely in the vast waste of humanity that is war.
Tomorrow is the great battle and we are outnumbered – so our heads will be cut off, wrapped in cloth, and sent to them. The warrior Kosanda is my retainer – Basho gives him an identity -- and in gratitude for the years he has served, in recognition for our common vow to die for each other and our side, I hand him my cup to hold while I sing one song, my final song in this life.
Finally, early in the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu put an end to the centuries of civil war, so by Basho’s time, travel on the roads was safe, money or packages could be transported, people were more prosperous, spent more money, published and read more books. On his journey in 1689, Basho visited the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko (“Sun-Light”) dedicated to Ieyasu, considered an avatar of the Sun Goddess. Here Basho wrote,
The peace and social order established by Ieyasu has now in 1689 lasted for eight decades, so people feel reassured that it will continue. The Shogun in Basho’s time, Ieyasu’s great-grandson Tsunayoshi, told his grand councillor that those who govern should be like “the sun that sends its light to even the most wretched corner of the land.” He inherited this idea from his great-grandfather Ieyasu who brought Peace to the land and is enshrined in a place called “Sunlight.”
Here is the glory of photosynthesis occurring in countless young leaves all over a nation at Peace.
George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), was a contemporary of Basho .
In 1653 he wrote
By “Light,” Fox means the Inner Light in our hearts, whereas Basho worships light of the Sun,
yet both say in Light is the way to Peace.
At New Years the Sun is weak and cold while the rice fields are barren expanses of withered rice stubble in the frost, still She shines with the promise of warmer light to come – and so Basho loves her. Only in a time of Peace can people appreciate such a moment; when there is war, we are too worried about major problems to focus on such an ordinary moment
This is not an actual apprentice monk, but rather an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close – a bald head being less work for mother. “Daikon gathering” in Japanese tradition suggests a happy family excursion, so I have added in the word “their” – we feel not this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family. Pre-eminent Basho haiku scholar Kon Eizo explains ON THE SADDLE in this way:
‘There is nothing to fear and all is calm and mild. Here is a candid photograph of peaceful daikon gathering in a simple farm village, its focal point, the little boy. A fine example of Lightness.”
Notice Kon‘s words: “nothing to fear…calm and mild…peaceful… simple farm village…little boy.”
Such is the material for Lightness.
From Kon’s commentary, I define ‘Lightness’ as ‘a peaceful feeling of wholeness.’ At times Basho sought to be like poets 500 years before who lived during those years of turmoil, and could only find peace by separating from ‘the world.’ Basho has known the sabi of classical Japanese poetry, the desolation of a lonely soul meeting the vast impersonal universe, but sails into uncharted waters, extending his poetic vision beyond sabi to the Lightness in the ordinary activities of his neighbors. Lightness, peaceful family life, the hope of women and children everywhere.
In 1690 asked to name a newborn baby girl, Basho chose Kasane, and wrote this tanka blessing his goddaughter
Newborn Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you will be laughing and playing in the sunshine, so long as no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness and final ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom-kimono, an elegant robe to be worn once year at your family’s blossom-viewing picnic, then folded away till next year’s celebration. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in your impeccably layered kimono. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate robe of an older woman.
Kasane, may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth 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 your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.