TAKING OFF THE WORLD

I have mentioned previously the simple, elegant — one might even say “clean” feeling one gets from the hokku of Onitsura.  It is unfortunate that he had no reliable students to carry on his kind of verse.  Because of that, people tend to think of Bashō as the “founder” of our kind of hokku.  But he was only one of two, and we should never forget Onitsura.

Regular readers here will know that there are different kinds of hokku.  There is the “standard” hokku that we use in beginning teaching, a very common kind consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action.  There are “question” hokku that leave the reader with an unanswered question.  There are “occasion” hokku that are written for a special occasion and have two completely different levels of meaning.  And there are other kinds, including the “statement” hokku.

A statement hokku, you may recall, is simply making a simple, non-controversial, factual statement about something.  That is what we find in the following hokku by Onitsura.  But before we look at that verse, we need to understand its subject.

As you know, in Japan there were fixed subjects for certain times of the year, and in old hokku (unlike modern hokku in English), these took the form of definite season words.  When one read a verse with such a word, one automatically knew the season in which it was written.  This was a helpful shortcut in the beginning and in a limited environment, but over time the system of season words became unwieldy and impractical, which is why today we simply mark each hokku written with its season.

The seasonal indicator in this hokku is the “change of clothes,” that time of year when one (in fact when everyone, in the old days in Japan) changed from the heavier cold weather clothing to the lighter clothing of warmer days.   This is traditionally considered a “summer” topic, but in many parts of the world (as in mine), it is more likely to be a topic for the latter part of spring.

Here is Onitsura’s “statement” hokku:

Ware wa made    ukiyo wo nugade    koromogae
I          wa still-not      floating-world wo remove  change-of-clothes

The “floating world” is the world of desires and illusions, meaning the everyday world in which we live.  It is also the world that is, like its pleasures, only temporary and transient.  In English we would call it the “material” life or the “worldly” life as opposed to a life of deeper spiritual understanding.

Onitsura, then, is taking stock of his life at this time of the year when one formally changes clothing.  And his conclusion is:

Not yet
Have I removed the floating world;
The change of clothes.

An English writer might put it this way:

Having not yet
Removed the garments of worldliness,
The change of clothes.

Or one could put it like this:

My worldliness
Still not removed;
The change of clothes.

One suspects that Onitsura, while being honest, was also a little hard on himself, because his verses tend to be far less “worldly” than those of other writers.

Onitsura, however, is simply and clearly recognizing the truth that was also seen by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

Onitsura recognized that at the time of the formal changing of clothes, it was far more important to be concerned with one’s “spiritual” clothing.  He knew that to judge a man by his outward appearance and not by the condition of his spirit was a very superficial judgment indeed.

But more important, Onitsura recognized that the condition of his “spiritual” clothes was his responsibility, and that merely changing his outward garments from heavy to light clothes was not the change that one really needs to make.

David


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