Mar 24 2017
by Matsuo Basho
English version by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto
a plum tree.
— from Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter, Translated by Lucien Stryk / Translated by Takashi Ikemoto
/ Image by Nicki Verkevisser /
Death has been on my mind. I found out yesterday that a relative of mine, an aunt I was close to when I was a teenager, just passed away. Truthfully, I had been out of touch with her in recent years, but I still found myself experiencing the entire range of responses at the news of her passing– mild shock, slowly welling grief, replaying of past memories.
When someone we feel a connection to dies, we often enter a shadow realm ourselves. It is as if we walk with that loved one to the threshold. That sense of the world’s structure that seemed so solid and unquestioned becomes suddenly fluid. When death ceases to be a distant concept and, instead, shows itself to be a present reality, everything starts to shift and slide. Any thing, any person can move in and out of the world. A loved one can step beyond our embrace. In a world of such disappearances, reality itself becomes disconcertingly intangible.
And yet there is life. Even in the presence of death and loss there is life. Sometimes because of death there is life. One without the other doesn’t fully make sense. Life and death highlight each other, strengthen each other, each giving meaning to the other.
Thinking these thoughts, I came across this haiku by Basho…
It’s usually a mistake to simplistically explain a haiku’s meaning. Its primary impact is not really comprehended by the logical mind at all. Most haiku aren’t composed with intentioned metaphors; rather, the moment naturally resonates with nature’s implied truths.
But, for the sake of play, let’s explore this one anyway…
We see an abandoned nest seated in a plum tree. The nest is an image of emptiness, perhaps even desolation or death. But the plum tree suggests life. Here at the beginning of spring, I instinctively imagine the first pink and white blossoms to be appearing on its branches. Life and death at ease with each other. Sorrow and hope emphasizing each other through contrast.
That’s my first read, what I feel as I first glimpse these images in my mind’s eye.
But we can back up, clear our minds, and read Basho’s lines on a very different level.
In this haiku, each line gives us a distinct element: a crow, an abandoned nest, and a plum tree. Basho ordered his lines so first we have the awareness of a crow, which might be understood as representing the busy mind, a bird that proclaims its presence by croaking in the winter sky. Like the mind, the crow is a carrion feeder, ungainly in its movements but somehow suggestive of a mysterious hidden reality.
Next, Basho shows us that this crow has abandoned its nest. With the coming of spring, the crow has left. With the blossoming results of winter’s discipline, the mind has emptied itself, grown quiet, still.
An empty nest may be a curiosity for a moment, but its animating principle, the part that normally holds our attention has vanished, and so the vision widens and we finally notice the plum tree that supports it. Watching the empty mind, we finally expand our perception and recognize the full awareness in flower. We witness the natural, unmodified awareness of the Buddha mind that upholds mind and all creation.
Crow — empty nest — plum tree.
Mind — no mind — Buddha mind.
To those of us who have felt the loss of a loved one, perhaps we will allow some grieving part of ourselves to open and expand. And may we celebrate the life flowering all around us amidst this fluid, ever changing universe!
|Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter||The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry||The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library)||Haiku Enlightenment||The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku|
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Basho took his name from the Japanese word for “banana tree.” He was given a gift of a banana tree by a student and the poet immediately identified with it: the way the small tree stood there with its large, soft, fragile leaves. (See his banana plant haiku.)
Basho was probably born in 1644 in Iga Province outside of Kyoto, Japan. His father was a poor samurai-farmer.
As a teenager, Basho entered the service of the local lord, acting as a page. The young lord was only a couple of years older than Basho, and the two became friends, enjoying the playful exchange of haiku verses.
When Basho was still a young man, his friend and lord died. In reaction, Basho left home, abandoned his samurai status, and took to a life of wandering.
After several years, he settled in Edo (Tokyo), continuing to write and publish poetry. His haiku began to attract attention. Students started to gather around him. At about this time, Basho also took up Zen meditation.
Basho remained restless, even in his fame. A neighborhood fire claimed his small house in Edo leaving him homeless, and Basho once again took up the itinerant life, visiting friends and disciples, taking up residence for brief periods only to begin another journey. It was during this time that Basho composed some of his greatest haiku.
Basho returned to Edo in 1691 and died there in 1694.