BASHŌ OVERDOES IT

Yes, Bashō sometimes wrote hokku with too much “thinking” — verses classified here as soku.

Here is an example — a summer verse:

Inazumi ni satora-nu hito no tattosa yo
稲    妻    に  悟ら   ぬ    人  の   貴   さ よ
Lightning at satori -not person ‘s venerableness y0

This is very tricky to translate into English because of the apparently ironic use of the words satora-nu — which can mean both someone who has not attained satori —  enlightenment, and someone who does not talk like he has attained.  That is why I have translated it very loosely (but I think more accurately) as:

At the lightning,
How venerable the person
Who does not talk Zen.

What Bashō intended was praise of those who follow the dictum of the Daoist philospher Lao-zi:  “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”  He sees the person who does not pretend to spiritual wisdom in Zen Buddhism that he does not really have as venerable — worthy of honor and respect.

Why might someone start talking of Zen or Buddhist philosophy on seeing lightning?  To answer that, we need only look to the Diamond Sutra.  Here is a popular rendering of the relevant portion in verse:

So should you see all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

R.H. Blyth translates the verse without explanation, and one reading his translation might easily misunderstand what Bashō intended:

How admirable
He who thinks not “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning flash.

In that rendering, the interpretation becomes, “How admirable is the person who can see a flash of lightning without thinking how quickly life passes.”  Seen that way, the person is just in the moment — seeing the flash of lightning without adding his “thinking” to it — without adding the seeing of it as a symbol of human transience.

Oddly enough, though Blyth’s translation does not seem to reflect Bashō’s original intent, the person honored in it is more in keeping with the spirit of daoku:  he has experience without adding interpretation.  Nonetheless the verse as a whole still says too much — has too much thinking added by Bashō to be daoku, no matter which version one prefers.

In writing hokku in English — whether as daoku (objective hokku) or shinku (hokku with minimal thinking added) we must also know what not to do — and Bashō here offers a good example of what not to do.

 

David

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