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"If I think more about death than some other people, it is probably because I love life more than they do." Angelina Jolie. Basho also loved life and explored death; here are 20 haiku and renku.
The title of this topic refers to people who have died as well as those approaching their death, and also those who are young and alive but close to someone who died. Basho wrote many verses about death,
but here are only those in which a woman is dead, close to death, or affected by someone’s death.
As Basho teaches us about death, he also teaches us about life.
The first word of the Japanese is onna, “woman,” so here Basho specifies the female. Although there is no wind or rain, the low pressure zone around a storm sends a shiver through the curtains hung around a space to keep it a bit warmer in the frigid winter. Basho makes this quiver in fabric the spirit, or “ghost” of a
woman The word ato, “traces,” is very common in Basho poetry:Basho always looks to “see” traces of the past lingering in the present.
In the summer of 1688 Kyorai’s younger sister Chine, age 28, passed away. Chine’s jisei no ku or “farewell to life” poem was:
Kyorai responded to his sister’s verse with:
Simple words to express Chine’s humility and Kyorai’s grief.
Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently
dispersing in the warm breeze.
Basho and Etsujin traveling through the Kiso Mountains in 1688, went to Mount Obasute (“Throw Away Old Women”), considered the supreme place in Japan to view the harvest moon, being so remote few people could get here. Before there were trains and planes and ski resorts, this area was notoriously poor.
In areas such as this, in times of famine, to preserve food for children, families abandoned old women to die in the mountains
Some legends tell of villages where ALL people when they reached 70 were abandoned. From these legends came the film The Ballad of Narayama which won a Grand Prix at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival: Orin is healthy but insists on following the custom. Her son Takuhei carries her on his back high into the
mountains to a place where there are many human skeletons and many lively vigorous crows. She hugs her son with much affection, but when he clings to her for too long, she slaps his face; they stare into each other eyes, and she pushes him away. Orin sits in seiza, proper sitting position on her heels, to wait for the end. Just then it starts to snow, which shows that the Gods have accepted her; as he walks away,we see her sitting with great dignity with snow falling on her.
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.
He climbs the mountain for a spiritual purpose, and travels light, at night resting his head on the straw bag he carried on his back. In the bad was a memento of his mother to dedicate to the gods, something that represented her hotoke, or Buddha nature, after death. He entrusts her soul to the Gods for as long as he stays up here on Mount Fuji.
Do you see the link? Basho’s verse suggests someone who has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of physically caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to
soothe away the pain. The link is nowhere stated, but is there, hidden between the two stanzas, as well as hidden in your own heart.
For O-bon, lanterns in windows, on the ground, hanging from ropes, on rafts floating, represent the spirits of the dead, and also light the way for spirits crossing the boundary. A woman cries for one who has died, whose spirit is among those who came back, while the wind penetrates to the depths of her heart.
Basho’s mom died in 1683 while he was in Fukagawa. The next year he returned to Iga to visit her grave and spend some time with his older brother Hanzaemon and youngest sister Oyoshi. Hanzaemon hands him a lock of her hair, and says:
In autumn, frost forms only in early 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.
Ten years later, in his final autumn, Basho visited his native place to experience the Festival of Souls with his family.
The dead are buried in family plots near the ancestral home. On the first day of the O-Bon Festival, people go to the cemetery and with lanterns and torches escort the spirits home. The middle segment
sums up the nature of growing old: white hair and osteoporosis.
The woman later known as Jutei was the “wife” of Basho’s nephew Toin and mother of Basho’s grandnephew and two grandnieces. Some believe Jutei was Basho’s lover in Iga before he left town at age 28; some that she was his maidservant when he first lived in Edo, and as a “maid” may have provided sex. There is also the possibility that she was both: first Basho’s maid/lover and later his nephew’s common-law wife. Her ordinary name is unknown; she only became a nun with the Buddhist name Jutei after Toin died from tuberculosis in 1693. She caught the disease from him, and passed away in 1694, four months before Basho died from his chronic bowel disorder.
Also in his final O-bon season, Basho wrote
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.” As one who created three human lives, and cared for them to
teenage, certainly she was of account.
Keeping up the bamboo screens” is an expression for keeping the entire house neat and new-looking. Everything costs money, every job requires time and energy; without her husband’s strength and the income he provided, as the widow approaches her own death, it becomes more and more difficult to stop things in the house from showing their age. Basho enhances the sadness of the first stanza with an image of her siting close to the wooden fire box with a metal container for coals; her tears fall on the wooden surface while more tears evaporate from the handkerchief she holds out to the heat.
The falcon bred for hunting is a masculine image, yet in old age his life force diminishes. Basho leaps to the human female world of widows in old houses they can no longer maintain. I think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations with her torn stocking
The miko (female shaman) twanged her bow of catalpa wood with one hemp string to – in the words of Carmen Blacker “emit a resonance which reaches into the world of spirits, enabling the miko, or female 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.
Rika was one of Basho’s friends and followers in Edo:
(Headnote) The grief of Rika for his wife:
The alliteration of ‘h’ sounds contains the feeling of huddling, lying curled up on one side, holding in the warmth around the chest and abdomen. 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.
In 1691 Basho visited his follower Kyorai in his rustic cottage in Saga, an area west of Kyoto famous for vast and towering groves of bamboos, and went to see the grave of Lady Kogo, a woman who died a tragic death from male oppression in the tumultuous 12th century.
The nodes along hollow stems of bamboo form solid disks through the hollow tube. Life moves along smoothly but every so often come to a solid mass of sorrow. Kon speaks of Lady Kogo “tossed
about in the world, finally to be buried in a bamboo grove where she changed into bamboo shoots, the end of her road so pathetically sad.”
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. (Many would assume that "I" am a boy, but the original assigns no gender, and girls who lost their father deserve this verse as much as boys do.) Now eighteen, able to give life myself, I look back over those years of dreams constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality.
In 1684 Yasui begins and Basho follows:
“Making tofu” – washing soybeans, soaking, grinding in water, filtering, boiling, coagulating with
gypsum or nigari salts to form curds, and pressing into cakes – may, in tofu shops, be done by men,
but at home a woman makes tofu. This person whose mother died can remember many occasions of
her making bean curd, so doing this work now brings back memories of her. The Japanese mourn
the dead for 49 days. Tofu is vegan, so complies with the Buddha’s prohibition of animal products
and is important source of protein in temple meals. Soybeans and tofu contains isoflavones,
estrogen-like chemicals which “convey benefits (increasing bone density, heart protection, reducing
hot flashes) to post-menopausal women without increasing the risk of breast cancer, so might be a
good choice for women around menopause, and probably contribute to the longevity of Japanese
women. Some men believe soy products will make them feminine. Yasui combines typically
female activity and vegan food favored by women with Buddhism and death of a woman.
The priest Gensei, born in 1623 in Kyoto, at age 25 entered the Nichiren sect. He is famous for his
devotion to his mother. In January of 1687, when she was 78 years old, at her request, he carried
her to a mountain to die. After seeing her off, he mourned for the required 49 days, then, on March
20, 1688, he himself died. Basho was at this time about 24, and spent time in Kyoto studying, so
he must have known the story of Gensei. Two and a half decades later, when Yasui presented an
image of mourning for mother, Basho fulfilled that image with Gensei mourning so intensely that, as
he brought his hands to his eyes, tears soaked and ruined the sleeves of his robe. He enriches the
sadness of Yasui’s stanza with historical detail and strenuous activity.
The renku master Basho taught his followers to
as in the previous stanza. Here, the “heart’s connection” in each stanza is the feeling we have for our mother’s death. Both “making tofu” and the story of Saint Gensei lead to that feminine heart’s connection.
At the memorial for a follower’s mother: Entering the temple grounds, at a rock basin with spring water, we put our hands together and pray to Buddha; this is called “offering water.” Rice is cooked then dried to a powder for travelers who add water to make a meal. Basho suggests that the temple water added to the
dried rice powder will nourish Fuboku’s mother on her long journey.
Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for a woman’s hair contains her life force.“Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. She looked in the mirror so often it retains a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that their faces came to resemble each other.
Both her beauty and her suffering go into the notes she plays on the harp, and both go into the letter she writes. Each year in cherry blossom season, she comes here to climb the hill ofher grief.
The mother of Kikaku, Basho’s friend and follower for 15 years, has passed away. At the memorial service, Basho begins then , Kikaku and Ransetsu follow.
The many petaled white blossoms of the deutzia tree appear in the abundance of May. Kon interprets Basho’s 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.
Kikaku follows with his feeling for his mother, and Ransetsu concludes with an image of the vastness and transience of sky.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion are,
I believe, the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material,
to edit and improve the presentation, to receive all royalties from sales,
to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations
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The Three Thirds of Basho