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Basho - ERN

by David Barnhill last modified Apr 03, 2011 07:51 AM

Published in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Ed. Bron Taylor. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005.

Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), a Japanese writer, is generally considered to be the greatest haiku poet. He was also a significant writer of literary travel journals and poetic prose (haibun), and his poetics continue to be central to Japanese aesthetic theory. In the West, he is probably the most famous and influential literary figure from pre-modern Asia. He spent much of the last ten years of his life traveling through Japan, and his writings and poetics are filled with references to the natural world. Part of the richness of his view of nature comes from the multiplicity of traditions he drew from: Buddhism (both elite and popular), Daoism, Neo-Confucianism, Shinto, the Chinese literary tradition, and Japanese literature and art. As a result, his writings manifest a complex view of nature that differs from those found in the West.

Bashō’s view of nature was dominated by the notion of change. One type of change is found in the “Creative” (Japanese: zōka; Chinese: zaohua), an idea he adopted from the Chinese. Zōka is sometimes translated as “nature,” but it refers not to nature as scenery or as individual beings but rather the creativity that brings them forth and leads them through ongoing transformations. It is also sometimes translated as the “Creator,” but zōka is not a being separate from nature. Rather it is nature’s own spontaneous and wondrous skill at creating and reshaping beauty. We can translate zōka as “the Creative,” which makes what we call nature a continuously renewing work of art within which we live.

Another form of change is the turning of the seasons. Japanese literature, especially haiku, involves sensitive attunement to the particular season and to the process of seasonal change. We never experience “nature,” but always nature in and of a particular season. Thus all haiku poems are supposed to have a “season word” that indicates the time of year. While zōka involves creative and unpredictable change, this seasonal change is an ordered pattern, a yearly recurrence that can be anticipated and even conventionalized in “season words,” poetic words that indicate the season of the poem.

A third type of change found in Bashō’s writings was heavily influenced by Buddhism. Mujō, “impermanence,” suggests the inevitable passing away of things. Mujō–kan, the “feeling of impermanence,” was sorrowful but at the same time tranquil, because it resulted from a realization and acceptance of the nature of the universe. It was a condition all things shared and so we all are wayfarers through life. His great travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, begins, “Months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, the years too, going and coming, are wanderers. For those who drift life away on a boat, for those who meet age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey, the journey itself home” (Imoto et al, 341).

For Bashō, nature is vitalistic. Just as the natural world as a whole is characterized by change, individual things are alive with qi (the Chinese notion of the vitality of things) and have “feelings.” We too have qi and feelings, and this enables us to experience a union with the natural world. Part of the poet’s task is to lose the sense of a separate self and become intimate with the object to be written about. In The Red Booklet, written by his disciple Tohō (1657-1730), Bashō is quoted as saying, “the mind’s movements merge with the object. . . . [which] is taken in its nature, without obstruction. . . . Learn of the pine from the pine, learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.” Tohō explained this notion of “learning” as follows: “In other words, one must become detached from the self. . . . To learn means to enter into the object and feel the subtlety that is revealed there.” As a result, “the color of the mind becomes the object” and one “can identify with the feelings of the things in nature. . .” (Ijichi et al, 547-48).

While individual things have their own subtle feelings, the universe as a whole is characterized by an essential quality, sabi (“loneliness”), that a true poet is able to experience. The universe is immense in both space and time, and sabi refers to a feeling of being small and fleeting within a vast cosmos. Like mujō–kan, this feeling is characterized by inner tranquility, for it grounds us in the fundamental condition of reality shared by all.

Bashō’s notion of nature also differs from ours because of its conventional nature. Like any other poet in Japan, he saw the natural world through the eyes of culture. Particularly important are what we might call “imbedded associations.” A bush warbler, for instance, is considered a bird of early spring because it is one of the first birds to sing in the new year (i.e., the lunar year, which normally began around early February). As such it is also associated with another image of early spring, plum blossoms. In addition its song is not only considered beautiful but is said to sound like the title of the Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyō). All of these meanings are imbedded in the one word, uguisu. However, the bush warbler is actually a common year-round resident throughout Japan, and it sings in other seasons beside early spring.

Such a conventionalized view has lead to the conclusion that Bashō and other Japanese poets did not write of “real” nature but only an artificial, culturalized version of nature. However, we need to realize that different assumptions about nature are at work in Bashō’s writings. One is that plants, animals, and even natural scenes have a “true nature,” just as humans do. A bush warbler, a pine, a moment of late autumn dusk when the light fades behind silhouetted trees: they are not mere objects but are characterized by certain qualities that make them distinctive. One can appreciate the true nature of a bush warbler most fully as it sings in early spring with the plum blossoms in bloom; if we want to see the true nature of a pine we should look to an aged pine on a cliff-edge; and a scene of late dusk in autumn (aki no kure) is by its nature lonely. The Japanese held to an idea of “poetic essences” (hon’i) that captured the true nature of a thing and could be handed down in the literary tradition. Similarly there were utamakura, famous places that were characterized by certain qualities and even a particular season, and references to those places were expected to refer to those accepted associations.

A second assumption is that the natural world and the experience of nature are not wholly distinct: our objective-subjective distinction does not hold. A true poet is one who has cultivated his sensibility to the point that his “subjective” feelings match the “objective” feelings in the scene being experienced. Sabi, for instance, is a quality inherent in scene as well as a feeling experienced by the refined poet.

A third assumption is that there are authoritative experiences of nature. Some experiences of nature are “truer” – more deeply insightful of the essential nature of things – than others. We can look to the experiences of great poets of the past and to literary conventions derived from them as guides for what can and should be experienced when we see a bird, tree, or scene.

A fourth assumption is that nature and culture are deeply interrelated. Bashō’s sense of this interrelationship can be seen in the famous passage in which he says that “one thread runs through all the artistic Ways. And this aesthetic spirit is to follow the Creative (zōka), to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons. Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined is not a flower, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow the Creative, return to the Creative” (Imoto et al, 311-12). The barbarian and beast are those without culture. They are also those who have lost contact with nature’s creativity. Highly refined culture such as poetry is at root a natural expression of human feelings. Poetry is not essentially different from birdsong and is, in fact, our own form of zōka. This will happen only, however, if artists create out of their deepest nature, in concert with the creativity of nature itself. So poetry must arise spontaneously out of authentic feelings and our true nature. It is culture that allows this to take place. The greatest poet, then, is not only the most cultured but also the most natural, because to be fully cultured is to follow the processes of nature. It is “barbarians and beasts” – those devoid of culture – that are far from nature. “Culturized nature,” perceived with deep cultural insight into nature, is “true nature.”

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by David Barnhill last modified Apr 03, 2011 07:51 AM