Editorial – The More They Remain the Same…

Editorial Corner – November 2002 Editorial

the more they remain the same…

Days and months are eternal travellers, as are the years that come and go…”

This famous beginning of Oku-no-Hosomichi means more than it says. As well as the continuity and constancy of time, it is talking about its reverse, namely, the impermanence of living things and ephemeral nature of our life, which has long been the essence of Japanese literature, and Japanese Weltanschauung (view of life) in general. The contradictory interaction between this permanence and impermanence also forms the basis of Matsuo Basho’s creative force.

Part of the significance of the kind of journey some of us WHC members and friends undertook in our Oku-no-Hosomichi Basho Journey programme last September, was to experience, in person, the dynamic interplay between permanence and impermanence at work. Almost everywhere we set foot, the permanence was visible, audible and tangible, be it the flow of the Mogami River, or the moss in Ungan-ji; the ripe golden sea of rice plants ready for harvest; the inscription of the Tsubo-no-Ishibumi, or the heat of the hot spring at Yudono-yama. The silence of Ryushaku-ji could almost painfully be heard. The temple bell at Haguro-san, even when struck by an overseas visitor, had the same permanent feel of reverberation. The sound of crickets, the smell of misty rain, the touch of cold rocks; the taste of hot sake, the subdued colour of a cryptomeria forest, the chanting of Buddhists or the tune of folk songs; the giggling of northern girls, the way bush clover or pine trees are placed and their relation to rocks and lakes…

On the other hand, we saw the bustling life of the Japanese in the 21st century. The most ancient of the ancient temples were visited by school children armed with all manner of electronic gadgets. The old inn-keeper at Yama-dera looked up the flight time for me on the Internet. A young lady with classic features while looking smart by London or Paris standards, proved one of the best singers at a Karaoke bar, deplored excess globalisation and showed sympathy with the view of the end of history.

In an even more complicated way, we saw what has been permanent turn into impermanence, in such as what must have been a magnificent complex of buildings at Taga-jo, northern-most fortress it once was, but now just ruins; or the willow tree at Yugyo-yanagi in Ashino, which has been planted and re-planted; or Kisagata islands and sea, which are now all land, as the water was drained when the sea bed-rose after the earthquake in 1804. What is impermanent also can turn into a permanent feature. All these ancient buildings once were brand new, without exception. The beauty of sabi, seen in many ancient monuments, would not have been present when still retaining the original garish colours.

This puzzle that things change and yet, they do not change, and that changing becomes unchanging, and unchanging becomes changing, is our basic perception of the universe. If and when this puzzle is solved, it probably would mean the ultimate triumph of science over religion and of man over God. Or at least man’s knowledge and wisdom will have reached those of a god who may well have been proved to be no more than one of man’s inventions. However, that almost certainly would also mark the end of poetry, and probably of all other arts as well. The puzzle must remain the puzzle along the lines of panta rhei (everything is in a state of flux) of Heraclitus, or yuku kawa no nagare no gotoshi (everything is like the flow of a running river) of Kamo no Chomei, or l’évolution créatrice of Henri Bergson.

The last thing Basho wanted was to master god(s) or tempt God. He also knew the danger of staying still. That is why he went on journeys many times, both physically and in his imagination. That is why he compared life to a journey. When his lord, Todo Yoshitada, died young, it was a grievous shock to the system for Basho, who was even younger. The upset subsequently drove him on, from one place to another, and from one occupation to another until he gave up everything to become virtually a mendicant poet, both literally and figuratively. The important thing is that he also became an itinerant poet in real terms as well as in his literary life.

According to Western logic, time either exists or it doesn’t. According to the Eastern non-logic, time exists and it does not exist. Haiku lies in-between the existing time and non-existent time. The same can be said with the subjective and the objective, the particular and the universal, ego and ego-less state, and man and nature. Without understanding this paradox, perception based on ego or understanding based on linear logic cannot go far or amount to much. Haiku poems churned out without such understanding are shallow, self-conceited, one-sided and lacking in grace.

Such journeys as our Oku-no-Hosomichi provide us with golden opportunities to learn so much. If “following in Basho’s footsteps” means only following Basho, it would not get one very far. One would probably end up in being less than a holiday-maker. As Basho said in another context, we must seek what Basho sought during such a journey. And the journey must not end when the physical one ends but must be continued mentally as life itself is a journey. Haiku is a way of life, and must therefore be a part of that journey.

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