Basho’s messages of Hope have not been translated because scholars with limited knowledge of his works believe he was “impersonal, detached ... at times, cold-hearted, inhuman... to have spent much of his time in a state of perpetual despondency.” To recognize these poems shining with Hope, as well as those of Joy and Fun (article D-2), and his hundreds of works about women and children, would render such judgements meaningless. We need to take Basho away from those who degrade his vision, to introduce him to ordinary folks searching for inspiration. So here are 17 gifts of Hope Basho left for us, in particular for women and children, though for three centuries the mail has not been delivered.
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow
We draw hope from nature's cycles - here from plant growth:
Schools commonly provide an eggplant seed with a cupful of dirt for small children to observe the miracle of life. Why not also give the haiku SPRING RAIN? Can there be a more perfect way to teach first graders reading along with science, as well as instil Hope in their tiny hearts?
A woman make herself beautiful before giving birth – as in this season Mother Earth puts on green make-up. 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. Both woman and Mother Earth adorn themselves with Hope.
Basho’s most feminine vision of hope may be these two renku stanzas he wrote in a single sequence in 1692 (#15 and #12); whether he saw a connection between them or did not, I have put them together to make a tanka:
This young peasant woman’s entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday exposure to dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. She emerges from fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. As the tiny mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within.
Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines. Basho gives hope to all the young girls in Asia who plant rice in the deep mud, hope that they too can someday realize their dreams, or at least the children they nurse will realize their dreams.
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement played only by women. If the mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now -- and also plays it through the months, years, decades of practice required to master the instrument. Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. He recognizes the transformation at age seven; this is not something only Basho saw. Many students of child development – in particular the Swiss psychologist and epistemologist Jean Piaget known for his pioneering work on the succession of developmental stages – note the onset of a new stage at age seven. Author Leonard Shlain says,
The Catholic Church considers seven to be the age of moral understanding and uses it at the milestone for when a child can receive first communion. Confucian followers believe seven is the age of the beginning of wisdom. Many other cultures have used this age at a dividing line between innocence and the beginnings of a mature mind.
We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her seven-year-old daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven-year-old fingers on the harp.
Rotsu begins and Basho follows:
Rotsu states reality: young village girls were sold to the brothel for a money loan – the system set up so she can never pay off the loan, and will remain in slavery till her death – which, with no defense against venereal diseases, might be soon. Basho gives her a message she wishes to send in a letter: and renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko notes that our appreciation for Basho’s stanza deepens if we imagine the letter is to her guy back in the village, the boy she knew since childhood and just began to love when she was taken away. She has no way to get her letter out without the brothel seeing it, so she asks the man who polishs her her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his employer).
The mirror in Japan has been for a thousand years associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Being round and shiny, a mirror was considered a ‘child of the sun.’ When the Sun Goddess sent her grandson down to Earth, she gave him her Sacred Mirror, and told him that whenever he looked into it, he would see Amaterasu. That Sacred Mirror, kept in the innermost and holiest sanctum of the Ise Shrine, is the absolute center of Shinto worship. Shinto teaches that sin is not original or ingrained. We are clear inside, but accumulate sins like dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, all we must do is wipe the dust from the mirror.
In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity – so the mirror polisher becomes a servant of the Sun Goddess, one who can be trusted with a woman’s private message.
Every time she looks into the mirror he polished, to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope. Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the female heart: “Can I trust you?” – the question women ask silently every day.
Alexander Pope said "Hope springs eternal in the human breast” and so we imagine Hope as water springing from Mother Earth
In the Noh play The Feather Mantle a celestial maiden caresses the world as the splendour never ceases. Seifu recreates her caressing the rock spring that never ceases to flow. Basho responds with an elegant female voice chanting the Lotus Sutra which for many East Asians contains the ultimate and complete teachings of Buddha, declaring that women need not reincarnate as men to reach Nirvana; rather they can do so from their female life. In both stanzas, the material and spiritual blend through the female.
Buddhism usually emphasizes the negative; that all things and all people must die and fade away – but the woman in Basho’s stanza reinvents Buddhism as a feminine religion, a religion of Hope springing from the rocks. She meditates not inside a temple, or inside her mind, but rather beside the window watching the world in sunshine. She chants not in the masculine tones of priests, but rather elegantly, as a celestial maiden caresses a spring of clear water. Hope rises on her beautiful voice chanting divine words.
Hope emerging from the women in Basho - woman breastfeeding, daughter playing koto, brothel slave lookking into her mirror, woman singing the Lotus Sutra - brings to mind Pandora, the first woman in Greek mythology, whose name means “All Giving.” In the original myth, she had a jug, round and curvaceous like her, containing all things good, including Hope, which she gave to humanity. Misogynists changed that to a "box" from which evil and sickness emerged, though they allowed Hope to come forth at the end.
So far we have seen Hope represented by plant growth, breast milk, music, a mirror, and water; for the next five Basho verses, Hope rides on sunlight.
At New Year’s rice fields are barren expanses of mud and frost with row after row of cut-off stubble; the Sun weak and cold yet shining with the promise of better things to come. She gives us Hope for warmth and growth to come, so we love Her.
In 1689 Basho and Sora visited the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko (“Sun-Light”) dedicated to Ieyasu as a manifestation of the Sun Goddess bringing Peace to Japan. Here Basho wrote this haibun:
The ‘light’ of Ieyasu now (in 1689) shines in the current Shogun Tsunayoshi, Ieyasu’s great-grandson, two years younger than Basho. The peace and social order established by Ieyasu has lasted for seven decades, so people feel hopeful that it will continue. Basho in his prose affirms his readers’ hopes for their personal, local, and national peace and prosperity.
The glory of photosynthesis in countless leaves all over the Earth. Tsunayoshi told his grand councillor to govern as “the sun that sends its light to even the most wretched corner of the land.” He inherited that idea from his great-grandfather Ieyasu who brought Peace to the land and is enshrined in a place called “Sunlight.”
Kyou mo mata /asahi o ogamu /ishi no ue
Through Basho poetry, we take back the Sun (Goddess).
In 1653 George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a contemporary of Basho, wrote:
Basho was only nine years old when George Fox wrote this on the other side of the world, yet he too “stood still in the Light” to conceive his poetry. Fox meant the Inner Light in our hearts, whereas Basho worships the Rising Sun, yet both tell us to find in Light the Way to Peace.
In the February cold and early morning cold of windy mountains, wild plum blossoms still smell sweet.
A bit of red appears on the horizon, then gradually swells, as in a musical crescendo, to a blazing red orb.
Even more Hope emerges from this haiku when we realize it was written to honor the one-year-old grand-daughter of Basho's childhood and lifelong friend Ensui who, when the baby was newborn, calls her a plum blossom still in the bud. See Letter's to Ensui: Basho's BFF or Daybreak to Sunrise
Kagerou no / gu tonoya tsukuru / hi no daiku
Yome ni yome saku / hyakunen no zoku
The air "shimmers" as light is refracted through moisture evaporating from the earth warmed by the sunshine; Basho sees these shimmers as the "Sun-Carpenter" - the Sun Goddess Amaterasu who builds many things, such as all plant life, with her light - building a mansion for the daimyo, a very important person who gets to live in such a magical house. The next poet makes her divine work even more splendid: brides creating life within themselves, The tiny eggs blossoming inside brides’ bellies are future brides who will carry life forward – the BRZ says “generation after generation, individual after individual, brides welcomed into households, descendants in prosperity” -- while Sun and Earth work together to produce edible grains, so in the storehouse we stockpile enough to feed all those children.
Tokoku, a wealthy rice dealer in Nagoya, got caught in some shady deal speculating on rice futures. His wealth was confiscated and he was sent into exile in a village at the end of a peninsula, a place so isolated only hawks come here. Basho and Etsujin went to visit him, and Basho wrote:
We visit Tokoku living in hardship at Cape Irago
Hawks fly high up in the sky, with no flapping of wings, floating for hours on the updrafts. There is nothing to catch up there. They are flying for the joy of it, and their flight brings us on the ground Hope. Basho gives Tokoku an image to focus on -- the soaring flight of hawks -- to inspire his friend. The verse had a clear distinct purpose – to reassure Tokoku, to give him hope and help him pull together his shattered life.
Japanese has words for “hope” – nozomi and kibou –however Hope does not “spring eternal” in the Japanese breast, and so the Governor of Tokyo, Koike Yuriko, said, “The thing which Japan lacks is Hope.” Japanese are more concerned with ephemerality, things passing away, how sad it is. Basho however is no ordinary Japanese – his genius transcends the negativity of his culture to discover something altogether new in Japanese literature: Lightness, an affirmation of ordinary Life going on and on for generations, another word for Hope. The next time you watch a hawk soar, you may recall this verse to lift your spirit – as I use it to lift mine.
The image of a young lord of noble birth at the hunting grounds has a long romantic tradition which Kikaku suggests in his stanza; in this context, “clouds” suggest sex. Basho makes the “young lord” the oldest son of the village headman. Our oldest daughter, our “first princess,” is marrying, or dreaming of marrying, the future head of the most prosperous family in this village. The word “nurtured” is well-chosen to express Basho’s good wishes for her future in her new family, wishes that everyone in the household will support her in her roles as wife and mother. Basho gives Hope to the young female that everyone in the family she marries into will “nurture” her throughout the decades to come. Throughout the world, women will understand this hope.
Western books on Japan emphasize the mother-in-law’s cruel oppression of the bride or yome who lived in misery until she could pass the misery onto a younger yome -- as if nowhere in Japan did in-laws get along with each other. People cannot be generalized in this way. In the film Ballad of Narayama directed by Shohei Imamura, the old woman, having reached age 70, will follow village custom by going to the mountain to die in the snow. Her final act before her son carries her into mountains is to show her son’s new wife a special place in the stream near their house where fish like to rest, so anytime she reaches in, she will find one – thus insuring that during famine her grandchildren will have something to eat. The love between the two women standing in the rushing stream, the hope for the future shared by old and young, is palpable. Certainly in reality, some Japanese mother-in-laws of old welcomed the future into their household.
For a moment
In the night sky clouds appear to form a bridge over the bright full moon. We can imagine our hopes carried by that bridge to reach fulfilment - then suddenly the “bridge” is gone and we have nothing. From that transient glimmer of celestial inspiration, Basho returns to earth with solid, substantial hope; the weight of rice on a man's shoulders through his body to his walking feet. Before rice is harvested, furious early autumn typhoons may destroy the crop in one night. Here is the satisfaction of man with his harvest safe on his back, knowing he will have food this winter.
In spring of 1690, Basho was asked to name a newborn baby girl; he wrote this haibun and tanka to express his hopes for his god-daughter’s longevity and prosperity
“Kasane,” not ordinarily a personal name, but rather a commonly used verb with one meaning in space, “to pile up in layers,” and one meaning in time “to occur again and again, in succession.”
The farmer and wife wanted a special name for their daughter, not just a name fashionable in the capital city. What were they thinking of when they linked her heritage and destiny to this lovely multi-faceted word?
Without being biological parent, Basho gets the magical opportunity to give life through a name, and through a poem. Basho named her Kasane and wrote this tanka of Hope to his god-daughter:
The repetition of "kasane" (kasane-gasane) emphasizes that double meaning – so as you read the verse, think back and forth between space and time: from the two layers of kimono fabric over an under robe to the succession of generations, and the passing of the kimono on the next generations; from the wrinkles in the fabric to wrinkles in her face -- alll overlapping 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 be given your first blossom-kimono. A formal kimono is a two layer silk robe meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the left side of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.
Basho has given newborn Kasane the Hope that someday she will wow everyone in her gorgeous kimono. (Remember, guys, this is a poem of Hope to a little girl – so while it may not register as Hope to you, it does to her.) 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. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you restore its silky smoothness for another year. – again hoping that there is no war, famine, fires, or death -- 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 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.
The verse offers Hope to the smallest females—Hope for a childhood without misfortune, hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. 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.
I know of one poem that compares to Basho’s verse in utter simplicity with profound expression of hope: it was written by a four-year-old Russian boy in 1928. In the 1960s when nuclear war between America and Russia seemed imminent, the little boy’s poem was set to music and became the refrain to a song. The lyrics never caught on in translation, but the refrain became an internationally known prayer for Peace:
Both the poems of 46-year-old Basho and 4-year-old Russian boy make a wish from destiny – not the wish for a million dollars or a movie star lover—but rather the wish for something infinitely more precious: that our current Peace will continue. The boy speaks only of hopes for the environment, mama, and himself, while Basho looks ahead to future layers of hope.