Whether or not the statements and parables in the ancient Chinese text Chuang Tzu were written by a man named Chuang Tzu, they had a profound effect on Basho 20 centuries later. We examine four areas in which Basho followed Chuang Tzu:
Chuang Tzu’s most famous parable tells of waking up from dreaming he was a butterfly to wonder whether if actually he was a butterfly dreaming of being Chuang-Tzu. Basho rearranged Chuang Tzu’s butterfly parable in many ways, for example, the next three haiku:
The Japanese here is child-like: innocent, simple, and profound. The small child wants a playmate、and speaks to a butterfly motionless on a rock -- who then becomes Chuang Tzu.
Basho calls out for a butterfly to teleport through 2000 years and ask Chuang Tzu about poetry, and bring his answers back to Basho. The butterfly needs no time machine; it can travel through dreams.
Basho shared with Dosui, a young samurai in Zeze, an enthusiasm for the ancient sage.
On May 18, 1690 Basho writes to him:
“Delay, shame, or fear” – a summary of the barriers we set up between us and living fully.
The “Great Way of Nature” means the Taoism of Chuang Tzu. In the letter appears this haiku:
]This poem does not simply stand alone. Stephen J. Wolfe in his article Using the Usless: Chuang Tzu’s Influence on Basho notes that “if the reader is not familiar with the butterfly passage in Chuang Tzu…the poem makes little sense.” This is true, but we must go further: only if we know the context of the letter, the relationship between Basho and Dosui, can we understand the full meaning of this haiku in Basho’s thought. Kon Eizo, preeminent authority on both Basho haiku and Basho letters, sees Basho’s personal message to Dosui in this haiku:
“You and I are one in our attraction to Chuang Tzu.
We can give up all notions of distinction between us.”
For two years, from winter of 1689 to autumn of 1691, Basho stayed in the Kansai region, and spent much time in Zeze (Otsu) on the shore of Lake Biwa where the samurai widow Chigetsu lived. On June 21, 1692, seven months after he left Zeze to return to Edo, Basho writes in a letter to her:
In this time old age is said to begin at 40. Young people still think this. Basho suggests: “The time since we parted has been been either reality or a dream, I cannot tell which. We are both close to death, and that too can be either dream or reality.”
In 1693, after learning that his long-time friend Ranran had died, Basho wrote to Ranran’s brother:
Behind every one of these thoughts about life, death, dream and reality we see Chuang Tzu.
When a pilgrim, who travels to approach the divine, dies on the road, the spirit rises to heaven in “shimmers.” Such shimmers appear when moisture evaporates through air, causing refractions of light so things behind seem to waver and shift – a fine illustration of how transient is our existence. The butterfly, without a care in the world, unaware that soon it too will be dead (the typical butterfly lives for just two weeks) flutters about the corpse lying on the road, mingling with the shimmers of the deceased being.
We, as did Chuang Tzu, keep on shifting back and forth between dream mode and reality mode.
In the following haiku Basho transfers the question of reality vs. dreams to a somewhat different creature: the bush warbler, known as the Japanese nightingale; the bird sings throughout spring when willows have fresh new leaves.
The bird calling somewhere in the thicket of willow branches, the soul of a woman somewhere in the thicket of her long hair, either may fly off in reality, or in a dream..
In a haibun, Basho refers to another Chuang Tzu story in which the medium for transport is neither butterfly nor bird, but rather a human skull the sage found lying beside the road.
In renku or linked verse, we find Basho’s most Chuang Tzuian visions:
Kikaku teases Basho for his obsession with Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream, the point beginning that Basho is too clumsy to catch the insect midair. Maybe he could hit one in his dreams, but dreams are not reality. Basho responds that Kikaku’s stanza is so “rotten” that a dog, who will eat garbage or shit, passes on this one.
Basho’s follower Yaba records Basho spoken words:
Children in play leap across the boundaries of space and time to change reality however they please – as Chuang Tzu does in shifting between reality and dream, as the renku poet does from one realm to another.
“Give up your single sold reality; enter another reality, another identity, another location or time, just like that.”
In 1681, when Basho was studying with the Zen Priest Butcho, Kikaku begins and Basho follows:
Kikaku begins the show with three mammals. The mouse and ox are given to the care of the tiger; does that mean the third and most vicious of these is going to kill and eat the other two? Or will the animals live in harmony? Nonsense! These three animals are the first three signs of the Oriental zodiac, and usually represent two-hour periods of the Oriental clock. The Hour of the Mouse is from 11:00 pm to 1:00 a.m., the Ox from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00, and the Tiger 3:00 to 5:00. So this story of three mammals occurs between 11:00 pm and 5:00 am, the time when most people are asleep, and the whole mini-drama occurs in a dream. The stanza is a metaphor – a weird one for sure – for the passage of time; each passing hour absorbs the one before, like the serpent eating its tail, in a 24 hour repeating cycle.
From Kikaku’s trip – maybe a dream, maybe nonsense –through deep night time, Basho flies off into an acid trip of cosmology: the primal origins of life as conceived by Chuang Tzu after his wife died. Someone criticized him for not crying at the funeral. Chuang Tzu replied,
Some translators have Chuang-Tzu speaking of the origins of the woman who became his wife, while I take it to be the origins of life itself billions of years ago. Not either, both.
So, within this, what does Basho’s stanza mean?
Basho plays with the first two steps in Chuang- Tzu’s vision of creation -- Chaos and Energy– and adds a new element, “Green,” the primal invigorating force of Spring and plant life which “Chaos” rides on while playing with “Energy.” Since all Energy comes from the Sun, if “Green” is the vehicle for playing with Energy, can we say that “Green” is chlorophyll?
So we have a spectacular metaphor for the glory of photosynthesis all over Earth. The first photosynthesis occured more than 3 billion years ago in microscopic cyano-bacteria (often called blue-green algae, although not algae at all) which lived in a world without oxygen, getting their energy from sunlight. Too tiny to be seen, and able to reproduce forever without dying. we might say they had no Form and no Life. Millions upon millions of years of photosynthesis by the “green” in these bacteria produced oxygen which enabled larger, multi-cellular oxygen-breathing forms of life to evolve. Life dependant on oxygen must eventually burn out, so we come to the final stage in Chuang Tzu’s cosmology.
Kikaku’s stanza THE MOUSE AND THE OX concerns the passage of time, and Basho follows with the nature of Creation from Chaos through Energy to Form. Scientists tell us the key to evolution is Time, millions of years for successful stepping stones to be selected. Chaos plays with Energy through Time.
“Playing with the Energy” is sorcery, or magical thinking -- the ability imagine your imagination becoming real. Magical thinking is normal in children aged 2 to 7. Susan A. Miller, Ed D. says, “the most amazing part of magical thinking for young children is their belief that they can make life be anything they want it to be.”
Basho’s very first renku stanza, #1 of 1700 stanzas, written in 1665 portrays magical thinking. The previous two stanzas are about a little girl holding onto a worn out doll until the annual Doll’s Festival, obviously the highlight of the year for a doll. Basho writes and another poet follows:
The peach tree is sacred to Taoism; the word “peach” suggests Chuang Tzu’s favorite goddess, The Queen Mother of the West, who served Peaches of Immortality to her guests, making them immortal. À world where the crescent moon becomes a ladle serving us sweet wine would be a world of “magical thinking,” a world in which when we want something, we magically call it forth – as a little girl gives her dolls thoughts and feelings, and even has one doll interact with another – manipulating the Force, like Yoda lifting the space shuttle from the swamp, so it cannot be surpassed.
Again in 1681:
There is no sorcerer here; the magic is in the nature of the place, not in a person. The sparkling droplets of the cascade fall from reality into a dream. Basho switches from this vision of magical transformation to another vision of transformation: the sun rising behind the peak of Mount Fuji, so the golden orb magically appears to emerge from inside the volcano.The Sun has a female face, and She bumps her forehead on the jagged peak: Ouch!
Wolfe says, “Throughout Chuang Tzu, the quality of ‘uselessness’ is revered and set as a cherished goal.” Chuang Tzu tells of someone complaining about an enormous but useless tree so gnarled and bumpy, with branches so twisted and bent, “carpenters do not so much as glance at it.” Chuang Tzu defends the honor of the tree:
In the autumn of 1684, Basho visited Taima Temple near Nara:
Chuang Tzu also wrote of a tree big enough to cover an ox. The tree owes its long life to having no use for any purpose -- thus proving the usefulness of uselessness.” In an essay Basho wrote of his useless occupation:
A bicycle underwater.
Wolfe points out that the pen-name Basho which the poet chose for himself is an expression of Chuang Tzu’s uselessness. The basho, or banana plant, in the tropics produces edible bananas, however in temperate Japan, only enormous flabby useless seven-foot-tall leaves which are torn by the early autumn typhoons leaving the plant looking like hell –just a ragged mess no good for any purpose. Both basho plant and Basho man are altogether useless.
Wolfe tells us
“The text of Chuang Tzu is riddled with brazen, bombastic, shocking, argumentative, enigmatic, intentionally confusing, and paradoxical assertions and parables…Chuang Tzu screeches, screams, and squeals, ‘Me, me, me!” Chuang Tzu tore up involvements with people, so he could follow his own inner nature.
In the winter of 1680, Basho followed the ancient sage by parting from involvements with ordinary society, moving to a hut in rural Fukagawa across the Sumida River from downtown Edo to become a hermit-poet. A few minutes away by foot, an eminent Zen priest Butcho was staying while he petitioned the Shogunate for a land grant to his temple in Chiba. For the next 18 months, until Butcho left the area in summer, 1682, Basho probably studied with him – but what did they study?
Kon notes that Zen priests introduced the teachings of Chuang Tzu to Japan, and books on Zen contain much of Chuang Tzu -- so the Priest Butcho was also an authority on Chuang Tzu. Zen contains both the self-discipline of Zen meditation and the free-thinking philosophy of Chuang Tzu. Because Basho speaks so often of that ancient sage in his works, and because at no time in his life does Basho show any sustained self-discipline, it is likely that Basho studied with the Zen Priest Butcho not to learn the discipline of Zen, but rather the non-discipline of Chuang Tzu.
In the winter of 1692 Basho’s nephew Toin came down with tuberculosis, and Basho took him into his hut to nurse him until he died in spring. Basho describes in two letters how devastated he was by this experience. That summer of 1693 was oppressively hot and Basho suffered. At the end of summer, he went into seclusion for one full month, not going outside and allowing no one to visit him. In his “Explanation for Closing the Gate” he explains:
So for this one month at the end of summer,1693, Basho did “tear up involvements”—closing his gate to all visitors and refusing to go out -- and yet after that one-month period ended, Basho returned to his involvements with the world. “Tearing up involvements” was only a phase he passed through. “Tearing up involvement” is one side of the coin; on the next two pages is the other side of the same coin.
“Autumn nightfall” is that cold miserable time at the end of autumn when we both darkness and cold loom ahead. Like a Russian nesting doll, this haiku can be appreciated on many layers. Basho could be speaking to the monk in the picture, requesting that he turn toward Basho, so they can share stories and console each other in old age – however the poem does not limit us to the world of Basho and Unchiku’s picture.
Anybody can be speaking to another person whose back is turned. Turn this way, Connect with me. Together we can face the darkness and cold.
Chuang Tzu screeches, screams, and squeals, “Me, me, me!” -- but has little to say about you and me, while the following haiku shows Basho’s interpersonal concerns.
Basho’s follower, 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. In 1687 Basho and Etsujin went to visit him, and Basho wrote:
Hawks fly high up, 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. We can rely on hawks, though not on butterflies flittering about. Basho gives Tokoku an image to focus on -- the soaring flight of hawks often seen on Cape Irago -- 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. Basho does more than “screech, scream, and squeal, ‘Me, me, me!” He cares for people, and offers us hope.
This person experienced boiling the rice, but only in a dream, so it provides no nourishment. “No concern for life” could be no concern even for one’s own life, so merely living life away in a daydream. Renku scholar Shimasue Kiyoshi says it means “no concern for others, devoid of altruism” – and with this meaning, Basho is saying that living without concern for others is merely boiling rice in a daydream; not really living, but living in unreality, merely waiting to die.
At the very end of his journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands are four words which express Basho's ideal for humanity: katsu yorokobi katsu itawaru
Basho writes about caring for people in many ways: for instance in a letter to Kyoroku, he tells of caring for his dying nephew Toin.
Thank you, Basho, for your compassion.
Dozens of Basho poems of caring for others appear in the article D-4 COMPASSION. Here are one stanza pair which reveals his consciousness of women as caregivers:
The old nun tells, with enthusiams, a story of long ago, of a moment when human feeling overrode her Buddhist detachment, and she reached out to rescue an abandoned child from the cold night.
Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for hair contains the life force. “Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. “In the mirror” is another world which is not quite real, more like a dream. She looked in the mirror so often it holds a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that part of her remains in his face – and here we recall Chuang Tzu crying just after his wife died, then coming to terms with her death.