AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

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LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Though the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

COMPOSING HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF AUTUMN

Now that we have entered the season of autumn — which by the old calendar extends from Lammas to Halloween — we will look at how the old writers expressed the season.

Not all old hokku were equally effective, and many do not make good models.  We will look at those that do, and perhaps also at some that do not, because it is helpful to see why some succeed while others are weak.

Here is a hokku by Issa:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale blue sky —
Autumn mountains.

That is a very simple hokku — in fact rather reminiscent of the later Shiki, in that the sensory impression is primarily visual.  But of course we are to feel autumn in the air, and the waning of the Yang energies.  There is harmony between the autumn season and the evening.

In the original, Issa does not say “pale blue sky,” he just says asagi — which in earlier Japanese literature meant a kind of pale yellow color, but later came to be considered primarily a pale to turquoise blue.  Notice how the hokku changes if we were to use the more literary meaning of the word:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow —
Autumn mountains.

In English we would want to make it more clear to avoid confusion:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow sky —
Autumn mountains.

Blyth treats “clear” as a verb in his rendering:

Clearing up in the evening;
In the pale blue sky.
Row upon row of autumn mountains.

That makes for a rather overly-long verse (in keeping with Blyth’s tendency toward explanatory translations).

We could simplify it to:

A clear evening;
Rows of mountains
Against the pale blue sky.

Again, it is primarily a visual hokku, but it gives a pleasant picture of evening mountains seen against the sky.

We can see in these various renderings the same principles we apply when writing new hokku — look for the essentials of an experience, and simplify, cutting out words not necessary for meaning.  But we do not cut so much that the verse becomes unclear.  That is why “sky” is added above, even though it is not in the original — for clarity.  We do not want to leave a reader wondering what is meant, because that obstructs the immediate experiencing of the verse.

Here is another primarily visual autumn hokku by Ryōta:

August;
At every house,
The  morning glory blooms.

The blooming of morning glories is a sign of the beginning of autumn, so in this verse, we see autumn in the flowers that twine and bloom at every house — autumn’s beginning is seen everywhere.

The original actually uses a rather poetic term for August — hazuki (ha-tsuki) “leaf-moon/leaf-month,” but of course that does not work in English.

We could also write a verse like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We could have phrased it like this —

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

That changes how we experience the verse.  If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house
The morning glory blooms.

— we see the houses first, then the morning glories blooming at them.

If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

— then we see first the blooming morning glories, then all the houses at which they bloom.

We could also write it like this;

At every house
The morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

We could also put it like this:

August begins;
At every house,
Blooming morning glories.

However, the repetition of the -ing sound in blooming morning glories is not quite smooth, so instead we could say —

August begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We know that Lammas — August 1st — is the beginning of autumn, so even though the month is mentioned rather than the season, we know it is the beginning of autumn.  Still, it is not quite as effective as

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

As you see, there are lots of options — even more than given here.  It all depends on what we wish to emphasize, and how we want the reader to experience the verse.

For practice, think of indicators you see or have seen that signify the beginning of autumn — and remember that in the hokku calendar, autumn does not just begin with falling leaves, but with any sign of the seasonal change — including even the sensing of the change “in the air,” as in this verse by Kyoroku:

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

There is also the similar verse of Chora, which again has morning glories as a signifier of summer’s end — the beginning of autumn:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

Try to use one or more indicators you notice in your area (in separate hokku if more than one) to express the beginning of autumn.

 

David

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.

SEEN THROUGH A HOLE

R. H. Blyth wrote that in autumn the Milky Way is most clearly seen and felt.  Sadly that is no longer true in many places.  The reason is the pollution of the night sky by uncontrolled artificial lighting.  These days, a city dweller is fortunate to see even a few stars at night.  We have lost touch with our place among the stars.

Issa wrote:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

To understand that, one must know that a shōji is a door or window that is a light wooden frame covered with white paper.  It allows light to penetrate, but of course one cannot see through it unless there is an accident — a hole poked or torn in the shōji.

So in this hokku, Issa is in the darkened interior of a poor house where holes in the shōji paper are not quickly mended.  He notices that through the hole, he can see the dark night sky outside; and slanting across it, the faint brightness of the Milky Way, which Japanese call the River of Heaven.  Among Native Americans it was commonly known as the Spirit Road or Spirit Path — the path followed by spirits to the afterlife.

Neither Issa nor nor Native Americans knew that the Milky Way is actually what we see when we look toward the center of a galaxy in which our planet is less than a dust mote.  We live on our tiny planet about halfway between the center and the outer edge of a cosmic whirlpool composed of untold billions of stars.  And our galaxy is just one of many billions of galaxies in the universe.

 

WHAT ZEN IN HOKKU REALLY MEANS

I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.

 

David

BLYTH AS SNAIL

If you happen to see the book of selections from R. H. Blyth titled Essentially Oriental, you will find this verse, written by Blyth in Japanese, given in the introduction:

葉がくれに 青い夢見る かたつむり

Hagakure ni  aoi yume miru  katatsumuri

And the translation given there is:

Behind a leaf
Dreaming a blue dream
A snail.

I would translate it differently:

In the leaf shadows,
Dreaming a green dream —
The snail.

While in modern Japanese aoi can mean blue, in its older use it meant green; it uses a borrowed Chinese character (青/qīng), which could mean blue-green, but in relation to leaves, it would commonly be understood as signifying the color green.

So this is how I understand Blyth’s verse:

A snail is in the leafy shadows, seeing only shades of green, and at that moment,  this is its unthinking life — a green dream.

I strongly suspect that Blyth’s inspiration for this verse was the English poem “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell — specifically the last two lines of this stanza:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

Looked at in the cold light of science, can a snail even see colors?  Well, many say no, but there is some evidence that they can make distinctions, though whether this would be seeing color as we do is yet another question.  Of course if Blyth were to read this, he would probably give a sniff of derision, because his attitude is that of Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu, who, on seeing fish swimming about in the river, commented to his companion that they were happy.  His companion then told him, “You are not a fish.  How do you know they are happy?”  Zhuangzi replied, “You are not I.  How do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”

So basically, in this verse Blyth was writing like Issa, putting himself into the snail.  And that is what we see here: Blyth as snail, dreaming a green dream in the green shade of the leaves.

David