Oku no Hosomichi – Life’s Journey

The Magazine of The World Haiku Club
Vol. 3, Issue 1:  March 2003

Oku no Hosomichi
Life’s Journey
Masahisa Fukuda
Professor of Japanese Linguistics and Japanese Literature, Kokushikan University, Tokyo, JP

The World Haiku Festival 2002
Yuwa-town, Akita 20-22 September 

(1) It was in March (old lunar calendar) 1689 when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) started on his journey to the northeastern section and the Hokuriku district of Japan. He was 46 years old then, and it was a journey of over 6 months and 2400 km. He recorded it in an essay titled Oku no Hosomichi.

At this time, he came into a period of ripening. He was spreading his school of haiku by instructing his disciples.  His reasons for started on his journey are as follows:

1) He wanted to spread his school not only to his disciples but also to people in the northeastern section and the Hokuriku district.

2) He wanted to trace where Saigyo (1118-1190), who he respected, had been a pilgrim. This was the 500th anniversary of Saigyo’s death.

3) He wanted to visit places famed in poetry and experience nature like the poets who preceded him.

4) He wanted to establish his ideal of the unification of unchangeableness and changeableness in haiku.
Oku no Hosomichi is shorter than we expect, and consists of only 8000 words or so. We can see Basho’s view of both life and nature in it clearly. It describes how he met with Ten (nature), Chi (culture and ideas) and Jin (past and present people). Each of its 50 paragraphs is elaborated by changing styles, incorporating haiku or not, etc. The method of development in Basho’s renku is applied within these 50 paragraphs.

Oku no Hosomichi greatly impresses readers and lets them think about life.  Recently, haiku poets in the West have been willing to write haiku prose (haibun). It seems that they think of Oku no Hosomichi as their model of haibun writing. This is great literature, which can impress not only our Japanese but also people all over the world.

(2) The starting verse in haikai is written as a greeting. We customarily greet people, but with the starting verse, we can also greet Ten (nature) and Chi (culture and ideas). In this way Basho continued, throughout his journey of Oku no Hosomichi, greeting the Ten, Chi and Jin he came across.

The first paragraph begins as follows:

The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.

Referring to the words of Ri Bai, a famous Chinese poet, Basho expressed his view of life and the world in this work: that life is like a journey. Actually, after publishing Nozarashi Kiko (1688) until his death, he spent more time traveling than at home in his cottage. We have to feed our families, so it is unlikely that we can be free to travel even for half of a year. Basho, who had no family (though there is an opinion that he had a wife, Nun Jutei, and a son), freely went on his journey, cultivating himself by coming across Ten, Chi and Jin without pursuing fame and fortune. Such an attitude on his part was due to the fact that he was a disciple of Buccho, a Zen master, and mastered the truth of Buddhism by retiring into religion. When he left Edo, he wrote a farewell verse for the people who gave him a send-off at Senju.

Spring is passing by!
Birds are weeping and the eyes
Of fish fill with tears.

This is a kind of fiction. In general, haiku is thought to be a sketching or realism but, in fact, some haiku are written based on literary fiction.

(3) In Nikko, he visited the Toshogu shrine, which is sacred to shogun Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. He greeted shogun Ieyasu and Nikko with the following haiku.

How awe-inspiring!
On the green leaves, the young leaves
The light of the sun.

(4) In Iizuka, he slept on a damp dirt floor. Because of this he got ill and suffered greatly. After that, he reached Matsushima (Ten), which he had wanted to visit for a long time. He was impressed by this natural miracle so he wrote many great compositions in the classical Chinese style. He wrote them so that there was no room to put his haiku into them. It has been said that he was too greatly impressed with Matsushima to write haiku but this opinion is wrong.

(5) In Hiraizumi, Minamoto Yoshitsune, the brother of Minamoto Yoritomo, who founded the Kamakura government had been killed. Here too, the Fujiwara family, who had dominated three generations in the northeastern district, had fallen (Chi). Basho offered the following haiku for the rest of their souls:

The summer grasses–
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath.

(6) At the Ryushakuji (Chi), he wrote a greeting verse about trilling locusts in the quiet temple site.

How still it is here-
Stinging into the stones
The locusts’ trill.

Afterward, he visited Kisakata beside of the Japan Sea (Ten). He imagined the beautiful Seishi taken as a hostage against bright Matsushima like Yang Gui Fei and, therefore, greeted Kisakata as follows:

Seishi sleeping in the rain,
Wet mimosa blossoms.

(7) At Izumozaki. in Niigata, he offered his next haiku to the ex-emperor Juntoku, and other people who had been exiled to Sado Island.

Turbulent the sea-
Across to Sado stretches
The Milky Way.

I was born on Sado Island. When I introduced myself at a meeting of the Haiku Society of America held at Daibosatsu Zendo in New York in 1989, I said, “I came here, across this Milky Way we can see now, over the sky”, and a storm of applause arose. I felt comfortable, so I went on to say, “I am planning to found “The Milky Way Park” in Sado and there I want to enjoy friendship with people from foreign countries through the exchanging of haiku and renku.”  I have been trying to realize this dream with others for ten years.

(8) In “Ichiburi”, Basho stayed at the same inn as some prostitutes who were sisters. He expressed this experience with a kind of gloomy love, in a graceful and narrative way.

Under the same roof
Prostitutes were sleeping
The moon and clover.

This paragraph is where readers of the work become most interested. These sisters asked Basho to travel with them. Though he sympathized with them, he could not grant their request and, after parting, he worried about them. Life has many patterns like this.

In renku, love is considered important as “a blossom of life.” This paragraph is very famous as a “love verse” (the part written about love) in Oku no Hosomichi.

(9)  It is certain that Basho wrote Oku no Hosomichi according to the technique of renku.  He developed these 50 paragraphs by using Ten, Chi and Jin as materials and content in varying styles.  I think it is his skill in arranging these 50 paragraphs that impresses the readers of Oku no Hosomichi.  If paragraphs involving strained situations continue, it eventually makes readers feel rather weary.  To avoid this, he successfully and skillfully invented his own method.  For example, after he used the strained old Chinese style in “Matsushima,” he wrote a paragraph that made the readers worry that he had lost his way to Ishinomaki. He made the readers uneasy because mountain robbers might fall on him in “Natagiritoge,” and then he introduced Seifu, a noble-minded merchant in the “Obanasawa” paragraph.

Not only content and arrangement, but also various styles and sentence structures are utilized: old Japanese style after the model of a tanka, a Chinese writing style after the model of classical Chinese, lyric composition describing the scenery a traveler sees on the way, a war chronicle style, a novel style on the model of The Tale of Genji, etc.

(10) The 50 paragraphs of Oku no Hosomichi are classified into several kinds: paragraphs with hard and tense Chinese writing style; those expressed with humor; those with bright, gloomy and sacred content; and those suggesting love. The contents of Oku no Hosomichi are generally seen as contrasting brightness to gloom, but I want to add sacredness. Paragraphs imbued with a sense of the sacred include “Urami no Taki” (the 6th paragraph), “Haguro” (34), “Gassan” (35), “Natadera” (43), etc. When Basho visited these shrines and temples, he met with gods.

As paragraphs expressing “brightness,” I can name Seifu in “Obanazawa” (30), Kumenosuke in “Yamanaka”, etc. We can see that these paragraphs deal with people, or what is related to people.

As paragraphs of “gloom”, I can site illness in “Iizuka” (17), “Hiraizumi” (28), parting with Sora in “Yamanaka” (44), etc. These were written about tragedies in history, Basho’s illness and farewells to people.

In Oku no Hosomichi, it is important to view the work not only from the aspect of structure, the methods of development in renku, but also in terms of the spiritual aspect – how the author responded to Ten, Chi and Jin that he met on his journey.

(11) I consider the next four verses to be the most important and worthy verses to show this sense of sacredness:

  • So holy a place / the snow itself is scented / at Southern Valley  (34)
  • I cannot speak of / Yudono, but see how wet / my sleeve is with tears (35)
  • Whiter, whiter than / the stones of Stone Mountain- / the autumnal wind (43)
  • How pure the moonlight / on the sand before the shrine / brought by Pilgrim-Priests (47)

It has been said that the verse that expressed Basho’s last state of mind is:

  • Fallen ill on the journey / my dream runs around / the withered field………………………………………….(the night of October 8, 1694)

I disagree with this, and suggest a new theory, because on October 9, when he neared his end, Basho revised a verse of his, written the preceding summer, into this:

Kiyotaki River / falling into the waves / green pine needles

[For more on this matter, I invite you to read the paper I distributed to you.]

For now, I will just say that I think green pine needles are a symbol of Basho himself, and show that he is in a pure and decisive state of mind. This state of mind did not arise suddenly. It succeeded the state expressed in the four earlier verses (above). I appreciate this verse as the last verse of a person. At Ochiai of Oku Saga in Kyoto there is a monument of the last verse, where we have held a meeting every year. The thirty-second meeting has just been held, on September 8th of this year.

(12)  I think that there are three main resources for understanding Oku no Hosomichi. They are

1) The literary work that Basho wrote;

2) the many parts of the journey that Basho omitted from mention in Oku no Hosomichi (a diary written by Sora, his disciple);

3) his renku, written with renku poets in cities visited during his journey.

I will comment briefly about each of them.

1) Oku no Hosomichi, by Basho, is my subject, now;

2) According to a diary by Sora, Basho visited 38 shrines and temples but, in the work, only 26 were written about. In the diary, Basho met 162 contemporary people but in Oku no Hosomichi, he mentions only 17 of them;

3) As for the renku works, there have been few studies to consider the light these works might shed on Basho’s journey or on Oku no Hosomichi.

(13) Oku no Hosomichi is important both in literary and haikai history because, through this work, Basho explained the literary ideas of his school: changeableness and unchangeableness. Within the work, the expression “a thousand years” is used three times to show “unchangeableness.”  Specifically: “the future a thousand years later” in “Niko”(6); “a monument of a thousand years” in “Taga Castle” (21) and in “Hiraizumi”(25);

“Changeableness” is shown with stones in “Mojizuri” (14) and a pine in “Takekuma”(18).

Throughout his journey of that time, he experienced deeply the ideas of unchangeableness (eternity) and changeableness (ephemerality), and at last he grasped them as his literary idea. After his journey, he taught this idea to his disciples. The mention of “unchangeableness and changeableness” and its meaning are regarded as important, even now.

(14) Basho composed about 1000 haiku, and there are more than 400 monuments of his haiku. Later enthusiastic haiku poets raised monuments called Okinazuka (a mound built in honor of a famous elder), supplying him with a tomb in all parts of Japan and showing their respect for him. In this way, Basho has been adored as a god of literature.

Haiku has spread, as the shortest poem, to many foreign countries and is now written and translated into many languages.

(15)  It is said that Oku no Hosomichi is “literature of simplicity and purity.” It consists of only what most impressed and attracted Basho on his 150-day journey. This is clear when it is compared with the diary by Sora.

We can also call it “literature of abandonment,” because in his life, he abandoned his family, name and fortune, kept himself from the laity and longed for the life of a hermit (Saigyo). We can see this everywhere in Oku no Hosomichi: for example, in a monk “living in the shade of a chestnut tree”(12) and in people on Ojima in “Matsushima”(23).

It is characteristic of Basho that his literary spirit proceeds from the medieval tradition of the hermit, though he was born in the Edo period. (16)  The last leg of the journey of Oku no Hosomichi was to Ogaki, where disciples welcomed him as if he were raised from the dead. He rested there quietly about ten days. He then started his journey again in order to worship at the ritual removal of the god from the old Ise Shrine and it’s investiture in the new shrine, which occurs once every 20 years.

Dividing like clam
And shell, I leave for Futami-
Autumn is passing by.

This means, “I am going to say good-bye to you to leave for Futami with the departing autumn. I feel as if the covering (futa in Japanese) and body (mi) of a clam were forced to divide.”

(17) He then continued his wandering journey to Iga, his hometown, Kyoto, Otsu and again to Iga. This was because he had no place to live. He had sold off his residence to secure means for his journey.

After two years, in May of 1691, he retuned to Edo and settled down in a new cottage named Basho-an, which his disciples had presented to him. It was May of 1694 when he left Edo for Kyushu. Following a stop in Iga, he continued toward Kyushu again and reached Osaka. There, he spent time attending haiku gatherings until he was poisoned by toadstools.

Three days later, leaving his last verse, “Kiyotaki River,” which I have explained for you, he died quietly in a detached room of Hanaya Jinzaemon’s residence at Minamimido in Osaka on October 12, 1694.  Surrounded by his many disciples, it seemed as if he were smiling. Basho’s tomb is located in the Gichuji in Otsu, where he sleeps forever.

(18) He ended his life in this way. But his many disciples have carried on his spirit. Thanks to them, this spirit has been spreading to foreign countries these days. The road Basho followed once has extended to the world now.

As Basho’s journey was to seek encounters with Ten, Chi, and Jin, so our journeys are the same. All the participants in today’s WHC meeting are also seeking a new encounter. This is life’s journey.

We are living fully by meeting with Ten, Chi, and Jin many times.

Let’s pray together that we will be able to meet often with Ten, Chi and Jin through haiku, enjoy our lives and realize the peace of the world.

(Essay translated by Fusako Matano)

Handout #14
(Oku no Hosomichi translated by Donald Keene) 

1) “The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”

2) Spring is passing by! / Birds are weeping and the eyes / Of fish fill with tears

3) How awe-inspiring! / On the green leaves, the young leaves / The light of the sun.  …..

4) How still it here- / Stinging into the stones / The locusts’ trill

5) Kisakata- / Seishi sleeping in the rain / Wet mimosa blossoms.

6) Turbulent the sea- / Across to Sado stretches / The Milky Way.

7) Under the same roof / Prostitutes were sleeping / The moon and clover

8) So holy a place / The snow itself is scented / At Southern Valley

9) I cannot speak of / Yudono, but see how wet / My sleeve is with tears

10) Whiter, whiter than / The stones of Stone Mountain- / The autumnal wind

11) How pure the moonlight / On the sand before the shrine / Brought by Pilgrim-Priests

12) Fallen ill on the journey / My dream runs around / The withered field

13) Kiyotaki River / falling into the waves / green pine needles

14) See below

15) Dividing like clam / And shell, I leave for Futami-/ Autumn is passing by.

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