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‘Leaving the world’ to gain freedom

by Michal Hoffman

A challenge: Scan Japanese history in search of freedom fighters. You won’t find many. Not freedom but submission was the proud Japanese ideal.

It was the “way of the warrior.” A 16th-century poem declares, “For the samurai to learn / there’s one thing only — to face death unflinchingly.” The “Hagakure,” an 18th-century book of maxims, exhorts the samurai to “devote himself totally and single-mindedly to service of his lord, to cherish him above all else.”

Freedom? Who in old Japan was free? Hermits. Monks. Poets. Misfits. Vagabonds. Madmen.

To be free you had to “leave the world.” The 12th-century recluse Kamo no Chomei, in “The Ten Foot Square Hut,” explains: “I went on living in this unsympathetic world for 30 years, and the various rebuffs I met left me with a poor opinion of this fleeting life. So when I arrived at the age of 50 I abandoned the world and retired, and since I had no wife or child it was by no means difficult to leave it.”

Deep in the mountains near Kyoto he built himself a little hut, where years later, in old age, he wrote his beautiful little memoir.

“Since I forsook the world and broke off all its ties I have felt neither fear nor resentment.” That’s freedom in embryo right there. “Like a drifting cloud I rely on none and have no attachments.” To say that with joy, not melancholy, is to be free indeed. “My only luxury is a sound sleep, and all I look forward to is the beauty of the changing seasons.” Who needs more?

Chomei fathered no children but was rich in future disciples. They span the ages, and to study the free-verse haiku poetry of Taneda Santoka (1882-1940) is to link Chomei’s distant era to one very near our own. In between are two unfettered poets whose names evoke something like reverence in most Japanese — Matsuo Basho (1644-94) and Ryokan (1758-1831).

Chomei, Basho, Ryokan, Santoka — four of the freest spirits who ever lived.

Ryokan was born in rural Echigo Province, roughly modern Niigata Prefecture. The eldest son of a village headman, he was in line to inherit his father’s post when, as a teenager, he ran away to a Zen temple, emerging a “Zen man” par excellence. Few have ever renounced the world so completely or so joyously. Riches? Honors? Conventions? Respectability?

“What would I know,” he wrote, “of that dust, fame and gain?”

He was constantly with children — playing handball with them, gathering flowers with them, playing hide-and-seek with them. He was as innocent as they were — more so, for they laughed at him and played tricks on him and he only delighted the more in their company. His love was all-embracing, extending even to the lice in his chest hair.

What was he, a fool? Yes, a “great fool” (taigu) — so he styled himself, as though foolishness were mankind’s highest calling. Maybe it is.

How did he live? By begging. Where did he live? In huts like Chomei’s. His claim to fame? Some of the most wonderful and carefree poems in the language:

“Rainy nights here in my thatched hut / I stick out my two legs any old way I please.”

“Picking violets by the roadside I’ve forgotten and left my begging bowl — that begging bowl of mine.”

“Rags and tatters, rags and tatters, / rags and tatters — that’s my life.”

“Wonderful — the mood of this moment — / distant, vast, known to me only!”

Santoka, like Ryokan a beggar, poet and Zen monk, was, very much unlike Ryokan, a tragic figure, a misfit not by choice but by destiny — he may have been mentally ill. He was certainly an alcoholic.

He was born in Yamaguchi Prefecture. A marriage and a sake-brewing business having both failed, he embarked on the aimless, penniless, solitary walking journeys that were to take up the rest of his life. He walked, begged, drank, walked — and wrote poems. His “huts” were miserable wayside inns.

Drunk and apparently suicidal, he was dragged by a stranger one day to a temple, remaining long enough to become a priest, but no longer. He needed the open road. He was free but not happy:

“Nothing else but to die / mountains misted over.”

“No desire to live / no desire to die / the wind blows over me.”

“Woke up suddenly / tears coming down.”

Was he even, in fact, free? “Not a smidgen of tobacco left,” he complained in his diary in December 1932. “I dug around in the ashes of the brazier and came up with a half-smoked Golden Bat. … What shameful behavior! Shows what a disgusting beggar I am at heart, a slave to desire!”

In a diary entry dated October 1932, he admonished himself: “It’s all right to be poor, but not to stink of poverty.”

And in March 1933: “Even if it means nothing to eat, I don’t want to do any more of this hateful begging.”

Here’s his affirmation of victory: “After all / alone is best / weeds.”

Basho is the only one of our four poets to be widely famous in his lifetime. To this day he towers over all rivals.

No beggar was Basho. He was a teacher of poetry whose rich pupils were more than happy to feed him along the way of his several cross-country journeys — which were arduous all the same:

“Fleas, lice — / a horse pissing near my pillow.”

Once on the road he encountered an abandoned child, “barely 2, weeping pitifully.” Sad, to be sure, but “this is from heaven and you can only grieve for your fate.” Is that the way to address a starving 2-year-old?

“I tossed him some food from my sleeve” and passed on. In “leaving the world” Basho evidently renounced not only its pleasures but its miseries.

Ryokan, one likes to think, would have responded differently:

“Children! / Shall we be going now / to the hill of Iyahiko / to see how the violets are blooming?”

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).