“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking,” wrote the American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) in an essay titled “Walking.”

The first thing to understand is that it is an art — a religion, more precisely; whose real activity, “sauntering,” is no mere synonym for walking. It derives from “sainte terre” (holy land). “They,” writes Thoreau, “who never go to the Holy Land in their walks… are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds.”

No vagabond was he: “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

A walk to remember: A portrait photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau.  | BENJAMIN D. MAXHAM, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY/PUBLIC DOMAIN
A walk to remember: A portrait photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau. | BENJAMIN D. MAXHAM, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Thoreau would have loved Japan. Japan was a nation of saunterers — and, since the 17th century, a nation of roads, well built and scrupulously maintained, thronged with pilgrims (or pseudo-pilgrims), most of them on foot, many poor to the point of beggary, bound for this or that temple or shrine, open to any adventure or pleasure that might befall them along the way.

There are three Japanese I would introduce Thoreau to, if I could arrange it. Their lives, taken together, span nearly a thousand years. All three are poets, monks (or at least monkish) and saunterers. They are Saigyo (1118-90), Matsuo Basho (1644-94) and Taneda Santoka (1882-1940). Thoreau might almost have been thinking of them when he wrote, “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.”

Saigyo, Basho, Santoka — one soul, it almost seems, in three men. They were off-roaders, traveling beyond the roads. All had cast off the high status they were born to. Saigyo in early life was a samurai serving at court. Basho’s more modest samurai rank was respectable all the same. Santoka’s family were landowners, brought to ruin by his alcoholic, philandering father.

Santoka was 10 when his mother flung herself into a well. He saw her body hauled up. No wonder he went off the rails. His rootlessness, at least, is easy to explain.

A chance encounter with Zen Buddhism, deepened by formal training, gave it a religious cast. His walking, like his drinking and his begging, became a kind of meditation. He wrote free-verse haiku, wisps and shards of poetry, oddly vast in their very littleness:

Watching the moon go down / Me alone

The moon. Japanese poets celebrated the moon — rarely the sun, never the stars. Love? A poet’s mistress was the moon; a poet’s god too, notwithstanding the sun goddess’ primacy in the Shinto hierarchy. To give the moon its due, and receive from it its light, one must (in Basho’s words) “shed the dust of this world.” He judged himself harshly: “My head is clean-shaven and… I am indeed dressed like a priest,” he wrote, “but priest I am not, for the dust of the world still clings to me.”

Traveling would cleanse him, he thought; and so, “Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have traveled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon,” off he went, physically weak, prematurely aged, his dauntless spirit proof against physical infirmity, on voyage after voyage, walk after walk, up and down mountains, through heat and through cold, the length and breadth of Japan.

Ecstasy under the moon?

Fleas, lice, / The horse pissing / Near my pillow

“Whatever such a mind sees,” Basho wrote of a mind in harmony with nature, “is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.” “Whatever” fleas, lice and horse piss included.

Saigyo, disgusted by the court machinations he saw all too close up, took the tonsure at age 23. The temple he retired to was itself mired in deceit; he withdrew further, then further still, until finally only the flimsiest “grass hut” would leave his spirit free enough of worldly entanglements for its ascents:

This leaky, tumbledown grass hut / Left an opening for the moon / And I gazed at it…

“The dust of this world” is not easily shed. On Earth, the moon is not everything. There is war, there is peace. “In the world of men,” wrote Saigyo, “it came to be a time of warfare” — the first stirrings in the 1150s of the war that would end the peaceful Heian Period (794-1185) and launch the militarist Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Saigyo, a born (though lapsed) warrior himself, was appalled:

The river of death / Is swollen with bodies / Fallen into it

Santoka’s “river of death” was the dreadful 1930s: “valiantly… pitifully… white boxes” — encoffined glory, home from war in China.

Only Basho was spared the blight of war: “For now,” he wrote, “the august light of the Tokugawa rule illumines the whole firmament, and its beneficent rays reach into every corner of the land so that all the people may live in security and peace.”

The roads that bore the pilgrim traffic linked Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Our three travelers traversed rougher country. Ease and comfort dimmed the moon; adversity brightened it. As Saigyo put it:

(Religious) pledges are best when made / On precipices above it all

Basho, ill, exhausted and “having such a long way yet to go,” calmed his failing heart with thoughts of death: “If I fall by the wayside and die in a ditch like a beggar, it will merely be my fate. As I mused thus, I gradually regained my spirits a little.”

“I hate begging,” Santoka confided to his diary. “I hate wandering.” He begged and wandered regardless, aspiring to “a realm of roundness, wholeness that transcends self and others… I have to walk, walk, walk until I get there.”

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu,” is an anthology of the best “Living Past” stories.

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