National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Be a frog and jump into Basho's pond

by Michael Hoffman

This, explains Daisetsu T. Suzuki (1870-1966) in “Zen and Japanese Culture,” is how Japan’s most famous haiku came to be written:

Matsuo Basho (1644-94), samurai-born but a rootless wanderer most of his life, was a deep student of Zen. One day his Zen master Butcho paid him a visit at “home” — a “broken cottage” by the Sumida River in Edo (present-day Tokyo). “How are you getting on?” the master inquired.

“After the recent rain the moss has grown greener than ever,” replied Basho.

“What Buddhism is there,” pursued Butcho, “before the moss has grown greener?”

“A frog jumps into the water,” replied Basho — “hear the sound!”

We’re almost there: “An ancient pond/ a frog jumps in/ the sound of water.”

Haiku is the world’s most compressed poetry. Extravagant claims are made for it. The entire universe in 17 syllables! Suzuki, Zen master and connoisseur of all Japanese arts as they relate to Zen, requires that the poet descend, “entirely cleansed of egoism,” into the “Cosmic Unconscious.” Here, in the realm of “no-thought,” “no-mind,” we discover “our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature.” Or as Basho himself wrote in a prose essay describing a mind that is “one with nature,” “Whatever such a mind sees is a flower; whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.”

“An ancient pond/ a frog jumps in/ the sound of water.” How many readers, knowing nothing of Basho, nothing of haiku, nothing of Zen, happening for the first time upon this unpretentious little word cluster with no preconceptions as to its reputed greatness, would look up in bewilderment and say, “So?” Suzuki himself deals with this: “Did not Milton” — Basho’s rough contemporary (1608-74) — “write ‘Paradise Lost’?” What are Basho’s 17 syllables against Milton’s 10,000 lines? “But we must remember,” Suzuki continues, “that God simply uttered, ‘Let there be light.'”

So you reconsider, reread, ponder. Very well then … yes … . “An ancient pond”: the very image of transcendent tranquility; the frog jumps in, but “the sound of water,” far from disturbing the tranquility, enhances it, deepens it.

No, no, no! Brusquely, Suzuki cuts you short: Basho’s haiku “is far from being an appreciation of tranquility. … We must know,” he says, “that a haiku does not express ideas but that it puts forward images reflecting intuitions.”

This seems to suggest that anything you say about it — anything sayable about it — even, perhaps, what Suzuki himself says, is wrong. But what Suzuki says is so striking that it must be quoted at length:

“(The) sound of water coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the entire universe.” Hearing it, “Basho was no more the old Basho. He was ‘resurrected.’ He was ‘the Sound’ or ‘the Word’ that was even before heaven and earth were separated. He now experienced the mystery of being-becoming and becoming-being. The old pond was no more, nor was the frog a frog. They appeared to him enveloped in the veil of mystery which was no veil of mystery.”

This is a veil of mystery indeed! Perhaps William James, eminent psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910), was thinking along similar lines when he wrote, in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence … (but) no account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. … The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity.”

Suzuki again: “Basho the poet … has passed through the outer crust of consciousness away down into its deepest recesses, into a realm of the unthinkable, into the Unconscious, which is even beyond the unconscious generally conceived by the psychologists. Basho’s old pond lies on the other side of eternity, where timeless time is.”

And there we leave it, to turn our gaze upward now, to a flying bird, a cuckoo. Here too our guide is Suzuki. The poet, less known than Basho, is Fukuda Chiyo (1703-75) of Kaga (in present-day Ishikawa Prefecture). Her poem: “Calling ‘cuckoo,’ ‘cuckoo’/ all night long/ dawn at last!”

The story behind it is this: A celebrated haiku master was passing through Chiyo’s village. Keen to perfect her art, she paid him a call. He gave her a theme: a traditional one, the cuckoo. She wrote a poem; he rejected it; she wrote another: no good; a third: too “conceptual.” At her wits’ end, Chiyo sat up far into the night, no inspiration coming. She looked up and to her astonishment saw it was dawn. The poem practically wrote itself: “Calling ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’ …” The master, seeing it, declared it the best poem ever written on the subject.

Again, the uninitiated mind protests. Even making allowances for what is inevitably lost in translation — this is poetry?

Poetry and more than poetry, says Suzuki, who explains: “Chiyo’s all-night meditation on the hototogisu (cuckoo) helped to open up her Unconscious. … Chiyo for the first time realized that a haiku, as long as it is a work of poetical creativity, ought to be an expression of one’s inner feeling altogether devoid of the sense of ego. The haiku poet in this sense must also be a Zen-man.”

Here is another poem by Chiyo: “Ah! Morning-glory!/ The bucket taken captive!/ I begged for water.”

About to draw water from the communal well, she was entranced by a morning glory tangled in the bucket. How beautiful it was — more than beautiful: “The whole universe, including herself,” Suzuki explains, “is transformed into one absolute morning-glory …” Unwilling to disturb the flower, she went off to “beg for water.”

This is first of two installments on haiku. Next month: Japan and the moon. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5