"The mountains in silence nurture the spirit;
The water with movement calms the emotions."
said Basho in Spring of 1690
In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. the ferryman Vasudeva guides Siddhartha to learn from the river:
The next two renku stanza-pairs express Basho’s worship of a divine female in flowing water:
Etsujin and Basho tell the history of spirituality on their islands: first humans communicating with trees and the wind, then a mountain goddess who dispersed in the rapids of time.
Basho writes two stanzas in succession about a sennyo – in Hiroaki Sato’s words, “a woman who has acquired magical powers, suggesting the legendary world of ancient China.”
First he focuses on her slender mature goddess body, then on her hands gracefully wringing out fabric soaked in the red dye akane, madder, into the swift current which carries away all traces of dye. Sato says Basho “painted with words a picture of a Chinese goddess that Utamaro – ukiyoe artist famous for sexual imagery -- might have drawn with a brush” -- yet Basho’s goddess at work can be of any race in any time. His worship of the female, like water, transcends all limitations.
On a break from summer hiking to sit with lower legs in the stream, refreshed by a cool breeze, surprised to feel eight legs and two pincers of a tiny hiker on wet flesh, looking at the orange crab shape crawling on leg through the water flowing by -- all is Sensation.
The verse is a question; Basho cannot see the yellow roses fall from their bush beside the stream, because his eyes are closed in meditation, as he listens for no-sound within the roar of the rapids.
Kamo no Chomei
Asking beside the cliff
“Will you yield to the hormonal desires urging you to produce more life?
A traveler has freedom to move about, refreshed with the sight of flowing water, to drink from the pool below the falls. Basho, in a remarkable twist, adds tension to the scene. The pool also attracts animals and hunter who aims to shoot one. Because once a human drinks her, no animals will come for some time, with his hand he warns the traveler away from the pools. Tension is between the traveler who loves freedom and is refreshed by nature, and the armed hunter who prohibits freedom and kills nature
The chilly weather of early spring past, the day warm and comfortable, the plant world green and alive. Basho recognizes that the “tranquility of a rock that never moves” is a drunken– or “stoned” if you prefer -- perception so he gives that perception a location: on a bridge looking down at the stream, focusing on one particular rock that stays still while all that water goes rushing by; he watches for a while, drinks (or tokes) and falls asleep, then wakes up to watch and drink some more.
Our boat is supposed to move quietly through the dark water so as not to frighten the tiny living lights, but the steersmen – and everyone else too – is tipsy and the boat careens about, so not one firefly is seen, but it really doesn’t matter since none of us can stop giggling.
Young Basho and his male-bonding group are out on a small boat in Edo Bay to drink and watch the full moon. The boat rocks about, as does the poet's mind. Much sake has spilled from the tiny cups, and the strong odor of rice wine mingles with the salty fishy odor of the sea. The rising moon is as round and white
as a porcelain sake cup being lifted from the dish water after the residue has been washed. If the moon is a sake cup, imagine how large is the woman doing the dishes.
Here are some waters Basho and Sora encountered on their journey to the Deep North:
In the beginning of these journey to the Deep North, Basho experienced:
And a month later the large fast Mogami River swelled by day after days of summer rains.
The rain that fell high in the mountains is now flowing in the river. The upper segment is a commonly used seasonal reference, and lower segment simply the name of the river. So the art of Basho is entirely in the middle segment. Here he combines a powerful verb atsumete, ‘gathering,’ with a powerful adjective hayashi, ‘fast.’ These two dynamic words pile up, “pressing forward” with the intensity of a raging mountain river swollen by day after days of heavy rain. To reproduce the power of Basho’s original, I keep the two words ‘gathering, rushing’ together in the middle segment.
SUMMER RAINS was the opening stanza to a renku sequence written by Basho, the guest of honor. The host follows with what appears to be a nature scene, but contains a personal message to Basho: “you could be flying down the river with the wind, but you “attach” here in my house, giving us your light for a while, until you too join the flow down river.”
When Basho followed the Mogami River down to Sakata on the Japan Sea coast, it was his first time on a western shore. His birthplace Iga is inland, as is Kyoto where he spent much of his youth; when he lived in Edo (now Tokyo) he was near an eastern shore, and if he climbed a mountain he could see the sun rise from the sea. In Sakata was the first time he could see it sink into the water. The next verse, written as he descended the Mogami, expresses the wonder of this first sight of a western sunset.
Both the river and the sun are pouring into the sea. While the scholars claim Basho was austere and detached, it is important to see how much activity and sensation he crams into one verse. His verses about flowing water are especially vigorous.
(from Sora’s Diary, entry for August 26, 1689)
That’s interesting, Sora. While the clothes were drying did Basho wear other clothes? Or just gambol about in his loincloth? Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn doing laundry in the river.
Henry David Thoreau
In May of 1691 Basho wrote about this two-week stay at the House of Fallen Persimmmons:
Basho tells of Sora coming to visit.
In a letter to Ensui on June 6, 1691, Basho says
Mount Arashi is just across the river, easily visible from where Basho stands. Mount Fuji is hundreds of miles away, but Basho looks across the water, seeking to transcend the barriers of space
In the next two pair, the co-poet has the vision of water linked with Basho’s image of the Sun
I climb onto a boulder to see the sun emerging from the horizon, and sit quietly, watching, absorbing her clear silent power. Rice which has been milled is coated with starch; before cooking, this must be washed away by moving about in a bowl of water, then pouring out the murky water, again and again until water pours clean. Water, purifies itself through movement and turmoil. The mind purifies itself by remaining still and silently worshipping the divine.
Leonardo Da Vinci
The sparkling drops of the waterfall fall from reality into a dream. From this watery vision of magical transformation, Basho shifts gears to an image of the sun rising behind the peak of Mount Fuji, so the magnificent orb seems to emerge from inside the volcano – in the realm of magic. The Sun has a female face, and She bumps her forehead on the jagged peak.
Human consciousness can be “interested” in the ever-changing, always-the-same ripples, but does a baby spotted-bill duck have enough brains in that tiny head to feel “intentness, concern, and curiosity” for a phenomena which is not maternal, edible, or dangerous,? What is the nature of interest, how a phenomenon such as ripples attracts attention. Basho continues observing water, but opts for a different focus, one that transcends time from present to the future. Apparently this is Lake Biwa, and tonight will be a lakeside festival. As Basho looks into the daylit ripples, he transcends time but remains in space to see this water sparkle under lantern light – but can a baby duck envision the future. So we compare the consciousness of two species: duck and human.
Bullhead are fish, about ten inches long, who live in rivers in mountain valleys, hiding under pebbles. The fire burning on the boat attracts the fish, while its light refracted through the water shows the fish before the fisherman grabs it with a net. The fish is already choking while still underwater; choking with fear of what is to come. Can a fish understand the nature of future time, of coming death?
Taro in Japan reach maturity in September so they nourish the peasants – 80% of the population – through the winter. Here the village women (onna domo, plural) have gathered small various-shaped taro in baskets and taken them down to the river to wash off the dirt while they chat to each other. The round corms fit easily into their small hands as they dip them into flowing water. Either the famous 12th century poet Saigyo sings to the women, or they sing to him, the song “Washing Taro” in which women at home wonder what their absent husbands are doing.
The reflection of the vast mountain moves about with the coming and going of the waves. Basho gives this perception a location, on a beach at low-tide where pools of water remain and also sea creatures lie about waiting to be gathered, and also connections to humanity. The squid is soaked in vinegar -- like the mountain soaking in the waves -- to make ika namasu, picked squid. We invite our friends over to share the food and also the double visions of Mount Fuji in the water and in the air.
Basho enjoyed his final spring, of 1694, at home in Fukagawa near the wide Sumida River with numerous tributaries and canals.
Friends living in different places along the Sumida, are connected by the water, and tonight by the Moon,
for all of us, wherever we are, watch the harvest moon. Willows like water around their roots, so they thrive on river banks, and their interlacing roots hold the banks firm against erosion.
Ki no Tsurayuki wrote this charming watery verse:
This spring was Basho was especially draw to willows, writing six haiku about them in three months, and this part of the lower Sumida River is famous for willows lining the banks.
Kon says, “Spring still shallow, grasses and trees the withered color of desolation, on an old river bank, only the buds of willow trees have opened.” In Japanese “eye” and “bud” have the same pronunciation, so the two meanings occur together in the verse. The way a girl opens her eyes when she is charming a man – such as her father -- is how willow leaf buds open on their branch tips. Of all Basho haiku, this is the most charming.
The Moon pulls the waters on Earth in a 12 hour cycle; the sea level rises over several hours to flood the river delta, then falls over several hours to reveal the mud. The Sun also pulls the waters, and when Sun, Moon, and Earth line up at New or Full Moon the combination of solar and lunar gravity produces extra low tides followed by extra highs. The Japanese celebrate the lowest tide of the year (in 1694 March 28) when the entire delta is a vast plain of wet mud and stranded shell life. (Even today on large rivers near the sea at low tide you will see many Japanese in rubber boots gathering free food.
A willow tree on the riverbank has some branches ending underwater, but now at low tide, these reach into the mud – however in the supernatural legend Green Willow told by Lafcadio Hearn in his collection Kwaidan, this is the name of a slender maiden: she bends down to gather shells and other edibles from the mud.
We are on our way to see cherry blossoms at some special place, but the boat moves so slowly, the day is so pleasant and tranquil, the willows on the bank so green and leafy, that no one in hurry to get there. Calmly the pole pushes against the river bottom to keep the boat moving slowly and peacefully. The tranquility in the verse is especially poignant because this is Basho’s farewell to the Sumida River system where he has lived for two decades..
In summer of 1694, Basho took his grandnephew Jirobei on a journey west to Iga, Zeze, and Kyoto.
Before leaving, he described to his Edo followers his new poetic ideal of Lightness:
They arrive in Shimada on the east bank of the Oi, the largest river that must be crossed on the road between Edo and Kyoto. There is no bridge, no ferry, and it is illegal to keep any sort of boat at this crossing – because the shogunate does not want an invading force to steal those boats and use them. There is however a river crossing service offering four ways to go: in a covered palanquin carried on the shoulders of four men, on a simple platform carried the same way, on horseback, or carried piggyback by a strong man. Fees vary accordingly. In a letter to Sora, dated July 13:
An important daimyo from the Matsudaira clan, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s paternal family – along with his entourage of a thousand samurai plus servants and others -- is on their way to Edo for their biennual “attendance” on the Shogun, and have filled all the inns in Kanaya on the west bank.
Magobei’s people know how to rig a horse so the saddle will not slip off the wet back. In addition to the usual chest and girth straps there is one extra, under the tail (which I am told does not interfere with defecation.) From Shimada Basho and Jirobei traveled to Nagoya, Iga, Zeze and on to Kyorai’s cottage in Saga. Here beside the River a he saw the the purity of moonlight on flowing water:
From Saga Basho went to Zeze on the shore of Lake Biwa:
He went on traveling until mid-November when his chronic bowel disorder brought him to his deathbed. About midnight of November 24th: Basho awoke from sleep to dictate a haiku about dreams wandering on a withered field, an expression of that desolate loneliness favored by literary scholars. Basho then spoke to Shiko:
Basho fell asleep. When he woke the next day, as Shiko tells it:
Basho told Shiko to revise that verse to the following which was actually Basho’s final haiku:
The pine needles fall into the rushing water, swirl about, and rush away leaving no traces of their existence, no possibility of ever being seen gain. The flow never returns and what is gone is gone forever. So Basho’s final poem of Basho was NOT the famous verse about dreams wandering about a withered field, but rather this ode to flowing water and living green activity .