In grief for a priest who died:
Falling to Earth / close to their roots / blossoms part.
Blossoms live their brief lives on the twigs, then fall and return to their roots, while the priest re-connects with his roots in the earth, to be recycled into new life.
We consider Basho’s poems on this sad topic in eight categories:
1) Death in War
2) of a father/husband
3) of a mother/wife
4) of oneself
5) of one’s own child
6) Death of Toin and Jutei
7) Death of animals
8) Basho’s own death
Her husband goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morn they can go into battle. If he dies, the only way she can survive is as a nun. Looking deeply into his eyes at the moment they part, in the moonlight she sees the division in the road that tomorrow will bring, either with him alive or him dead.
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, 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.
That great question of existence which can never be answered: Is death ordained? Or random?
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.” Ready to die in the next few hours, he gives all his money to the woman who gave him her body and heart in the past few hours.
In Shinto purification rituals; a priest or miko (female shaman) waves the wand with paper streams left and right to absorb unclean energy. The most defiling event, according to Shinto, is death, so at a funeral, many ritual wands are used and defiled, so must be burned. The dove, messenger of Hachiman, the god of war, and patron saint of the Genji warrior clan, and white, the color of that clan, reveal this to be the funeral of a warrior . The mirror represents his pure soul but his blood shed in war stains the mirror to occlude the moonlight.
The bird fights against containment, while the farmer does not care what the bird wants and is just doing his job. He shouts or grumbles about tomorrow when the real violence occurs and this bird will go silent. The moon shines over a military encampment, where warriors under a temporary truce wait. While they wait, they have to eat, so a market has sprung up to supply their needs. This is where the farmer brought the goose in a straw bag. Tomorrow who will die? The moon is so bright it takes your breath away.
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. Te 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.”
The night before the great battle we are certain to lose, I have my retainer Kosanda hold the sake flask while I sing my final song, so he can pour for me when I am done.
“Dew” is the forces of time and weather that wear out and decay all things - - so “dew” is all that remains where the coffin was. The coffin bearers carried it away so quickly, and never again will it be seen. The country where the battle took place and the coffins were buried 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 invasion of Korea, a soldier whose armor was not torn apart, lives in peace until he too disappears in a coffin.
Once a year, when cherry blossoms are in bloom, she comes here, to climb the hill of her grief.
At the memorial service for his follower Isshou had died:
Her husband has died; the baby is a memento of him. She has placed her husband’s old padded jacket on the sleeping baby for warmth, so the babe reminds her of him asleep. The two kinds of sleep – nightly and eternal – blend in our consciousness. Putting the child down, reasonably certain to awake in a number of hours, but wondering if in in sleep baby will go to that other world where the other parent is.
A man has cut a fine stalk of bamboo to make a hunting bow, and wipes off the morning dew. The child weeps because father is going to kill an innocent animal -- but can speak no word of this. In Japan and other Asian cultures, white is associated with death, and the deceased is wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a coffin in a sitting position. The coffin was carried on a litter to the buriel place, accompanied by a procession of mourning relatives and priests intoning sutras. The child in silent tears watches the coffin and its contents pass away, as the father’s spirit also departs from the child’s heart.
She boiled the rice, but only in a daydream, so it cannot be eaten for dinner. Without caring for others one is not really living, living only in a daydream, so just to waiting to die.
Basho friend Ranran, in his forties, died in 1693. In his essay, Grieving for Ranran, Basho says
Ranran’s younger brother Ranchiku notified Basho in a letter, and Basho replied:.
Ranran died on September 27th under a waning crescent moon; Basho and Ranchiku visited his grave seven days later, the new moon a waxing crescent.
Ranran, these seven nights since you died, have you watched the moon disappear then resurrect as this new moon? Are you watching with me now?
The miko or female shaman twanged her bow of catalpa wood with one hemp string to, “emit a resonance which reaches into the world of spirits, enabling the shaman who manipulates it to communicate with that world.”
On the 49th and final day of mourning, a widow listens to a miko channel her husband’s spirit. Never again to make herself beautiful, no longer will she need a mirror.
O-bon is also called the Festival of Lanterns. These are everywhere; in people’s windows, on the ground, hanging from ropes, on rafts floating in the river. The lanterns represent the spirits of the dead; also they light the way for the spirits crossing the boundary. A woman cries for someone who has died, whose spirit is among those who have come back, while the wind more slender than her long hair penetrates into the depths of her heart,
The spectrum appears when sunlight refracts through water in the air so our eyes to see colors not really there. Optical illusion blend with cold hard rock, yet no hint of humanity – then Basho blends earth and sky in an expression of the glory of human life. He begins with a vivid physical image of a bond being broken, then reveals that the bond is between mother or nurse and baby, a bond which lasts till one of them dies. At the moment of death, the spirit parts from the body -- as the colorful kite leaves earth. Life, like bright colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear.
Getting between the heavy quilts, shivering till my old blood warms the space so I can go to sleep. All alone where she used to lie nearby. The nights are long and bitter, and the sun brings no warmth till late morning. With these few words, Basho captures the experience of Rika, or anyone who has lost a spouse in winter.
The mother of Kikaku, Basho’s friend and follower for the past 15 years, has passed away. At the memorial service, Basho wrote
The many petaled white blossoms of the deutzia tree appear in the abundance of May. Kon interprets the verse:
Having lost mother familiar with these flowers for so long a time, at her memorial service, they seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of the flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.”
This is why I love Kon-sensei’s commentaries: he always brings into focus the warm, positive feelings in Basho’s vision. He notes that after the service, Basho, Kikaku, and Ransetsu made a trio beginning with Basho’s opening verse. Kikaku followed with:
then Ransetsu concluded:.
Basho’s mom died in 1683 while he was in Fukagawa. The next year he returned to Iga to visit her grave and spend time with others “from the same belly.”
The young boy Taro of Urashima village (no connection to the tuber taro) was carried down by a sea turtle to the palace of a sea-goddess and stayed there for a while. Before he returned to his home, she gave him a jeweled box which (as usual in these stories) she told him to never look inside. Back on land he discovered that decades had passed and everyone he knew was dead. In despair he opened the box and a whiff of smoke arose, turning him into an old man with white hair.
In autumn, frost forms only early in the morning; a harbinger of winter to come. Basho weaves together human emotion and seasonal awareness in a ‘sketch’ of a few strands of white hair on his palm.
The dead are buried in family plots near the ancestral home. On the first day of the O-Bon Festival, the whole family goes to the cemetery and with lanterns and torches escorts the spirits home.
When father died in 1656 we were all young and healthy. Then mother passed away in 1683. Now we all are showing the years as we go to visit the graves. How soon will we come here to stay and be escorted home in future O-bons? The middle segment sums up the nature of growing old: white hair and osteoporosis.
Without trains and planes and ski resorts, mountainous areas were notoriously poor, so, in times of famine, to preserve food for children, families abandoned old women to die in the mountains
When she felt her own time coming to an end, she wanted to die in the divine light rather than go through another winter in a dark unheated room where children are crying, eating food that those children need. If she dies as “friends with the moon,” its light will guide her spirit in the other world.
In the summer of 1678, the mother of Basho’s follower Fuboku passed away. At the memorial service, Basho wrote:
Entering the temple grounds, at a rock basin with spring water, we put our hands together and pray to Buddha; this custom is called “offering water.” Rice is cooked then dried to a powder, for travelers to carry on journeys; adding water makes a meal. Basho suggests that the temple water added to the dried rice powder will nourish Fuboku’s mother on her long journey.
Although there is no wind or rain, the low pressue zone around a storm sends a shiver through the curtains hung around a space to keep it a bit warmer in the winter. Basho makes this quiver in the fabric the spirit or ghost of a woman who came here and has now returned to the land of the dead, leaving awesome “traces” of her being.
Watching the moon, and realizing that it, as well as this love-affair, will sink, so sadly. Maybe it will end when I die, or maybe before I die. “Dew disappearring” means “my life ending” as in the death poem of the character Mursasaki in the Tale of Genji
Basho’s final line is entirely physical, speaking of “chest” and “pain.” Whether this line means the “pain” in my heart from the loss of love, or the pain in my chest from tuberculosis or some other fatal disease, is unclear. So the moon, my love, my life, and my pain are all subject to transience. We search for the connections between the moon and the love-affair ending, between the love ending and life ending, between life ending and “in my chest such pain.”
The temple provides braziers for mourners to warm their hands during the service. The tears fall on the embers -- glowing coals covered by ashes -- to extinguish that bit of fire, while they boil for an instant before turning to steam. The repetition of ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds, especially in the final “sizzling sound,” may convey the grief of parents for their child.
In the Noh play Snow on the Bamboos by Zeami, a stepmother sent a little boy outside in his shirt sleeves to clear snow off the bamboos, then locked the gate so he could not come inside. His mother and sister searching for the boy, swept away the snow under the bamboos to find his corpse. In 1666, Basho, age 22, wrote
The delusion is that life will be fair or kind to us. Milk still forms in her breasts which she squeezes out to throw away, while she dreams of the baby this milk is produced for, such is the bitterness in her heart. A stupa is a pagoda-shaped wooden tablet set up by a tomb, on which phrases from a sutra are written for the repose of the dead's soul. This, unlike her baby, will remain. At this time relatives of the deceased remained in a mourning hut all night and read sutras. Daybreak is so cold that someone has built a fire so the mourners can warm their hands – however subjectively and symbolically, this “shadow figure” is the spirit of the dead child who has returned for a moment to warm and console mother with the gift of fire. Later in life, whenever she builds a fire, she will feel her child’s presence.
The term "consumption" for tuberculosis came about due to the weight loss: the infection consumes the body, although the memories continue in a fading physique.
The flow of images -make this one of Basho’s most heart-rendering verses. He begins with a single word of speech or thought to open the mind The second and third lines provide the specific physical actions which evoke memories: taking the doll down from a shelf and looking at the face. The fourth line adds deep and reoccuring emotion, and the fifth provides the sad context for the entire scene: tuberculosis.
A woman dying of tuberculosis remembers the doll she played with long ago; looking at the doll’s face recalls her own young healthy face; she cries for her life ending; she hears and feels herself cough. Or a mother whose daughter is dying looks at the doll she played with long ago; the doll’s face reminds her of the child’s face; she weeps for her daughter lingering on. Or the daughter has died, but mother must linger on with memories of that hacking cough.
Basho’s nephew Toin grew up in Basho’s house, like a 17 year younger brother. At the end of 1692, he came down with tuberculosis, and Basho took him into his hut to nurse him
From Letter to Kyoroku, end of April, 1693
Letter to Keiko dated June 2, 1693
Sampu and Sora, the two followers in Edo who truly saw into Basho’s heart, realized that their master needed the challenge of writing a haiku to a theme they set, to get over his depression.
The haiku is a sort of spiritual riddle; find the similarities among
1) the white mist spreading sideways over the water,
2) the sound hototogisu spreading out over the water
3) the spirit of Toin spreading out into infinity.
The call of the “time-bird” comes from deep inside the forest where it cannot be seen or located — like a voice from the dead. The white mist spreads apart, drifting lazily. If the mist is spreading sideways it must be cold mist (since warm mist would rise). Cold, like death.How does sound spread over water differently from the way it spreads over land? Over water sound seems to drift, as if coming from far, far away.
Toin’s “wife” (probably common law) caught tuberculosis from him; in summer of 1694 Basho took her son Jirobei on a journey while she and her two daughters moved into Basho’s hut. Basho’s neighbor Ihei, a man who takes care of neighbors, sent a letter to Basho in Kyoto notifying him of her death. Basho replied as follows:
There is no information as to who Rihei was.
.At Jutei’s Hatsu-bon, the first Festival of the Dead after she died.
The KBZ says Basho’s meaning is:
“Even a trivial being such as yourself who has become small by living in a corner, you need not be so self-effacing. You too can become a splendid Buddha. In this Festival of Souls, I pray for the repose of your soul.”
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?
The arrow penetrates the flesh and the baby screams in agony while the mother screams, like a storm battering the trees, in grief and rage at her inability to help her child. Basho crams so much life and activity in a stanza.
First, the dejected cry of someone in a stage play whose happiness has vanished. Next, the moron in the audience who reacts noisily. Finally Basho gets REAL with the actual cry of a life being snuffed out.
The altogether ungentle wild boar produces a baby so small and round that it has a cute name of its own, urabou, separate from the adult inoshishi. The mother gathers dirt, grass and twigs to build a mound where she sleeps with and nurses her baby.
This haiku, the final words in Basho’s travel journal, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, compares the passage of autumn to the body of a clam torn from its shell – a most intimate and physical image of animal death Furthermore, Basho suggests that the relationship formed between author and reader will now be torn apart.
Basho on his death-bed wrote two farewell-to-life poems:
The 12th century warrior Kiso Yoshinaka is buried on the grounds of Gichuji Temple in Zeze beside Lake Biwa. Ordinarily Basho would have been buried in Iga with his family, however here he makes a special request for burial at Gichuji. Iga is far from the main road between Edo and Kyoto, while Zeze is right alongside that major road – and so at the end Basho thinks of his friends’ and followers’ convenience.
from the Diary of Shiko, November 28, 1694
Basho maintains Lightness to the very end. The flies “sure” (-rame) “enjoy” (yorokobu) “having” (yadosu) him the way you “have” or “keep” a pet. Basho is the flies’ pet, and they enjoy flying around in the smell of his infection and diarrhea. Even in his final words Basho uses lively specific verbs to create humor. His comment is so light and playful, and he is smiling, that his attendants assume he is not about to give up the ghost at this particular moment, so they continue swinging bamboo swords at flies. And that’s when he slips away, the ninja from Iga.