contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Japanese poetry

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

POEM: MATSUO BASHO

In imagination,

An old woman and I

Sat together in tears

Admiring the moon.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966. (Translated from the Japanese with an introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa.) The strongly Zen influenced Basho lived from 1644 – 1694 and is considered one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.

HAIKU BY SARYU

Without a brush

The willow paints the wind

 

Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements

London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

 

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

POEM: THIS WORLD OF DEW

 

This world of dew

is only the world of dew –

and yet … oh and yet.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), translated from the Japanese by Robert Hess. From The poetry of impermanence, mindfulness and joy edited by John Brem. (Wisdom, kindle edition, undated.)

 

POEM: THE MOON IN DEWDROPS

Simplicity and complexity, elegance and wisdom combined in the poetry of Japanese Zen. I notice that I respond more strongly to such poetry than I do to didactic texts about meditation and philosophy.

 

To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.

 

I particularly love this poem. The apparent naturalism of the imagery makes it powerful and accessible to anyone. Yet for me, this poem also brings up wider issues about reading and interpretation. The poet’s location in place, time and culture do make a difference. Ehei Dogen (1200-1253) was one of the first to transmit Zen Buddhism from China to Japan and was founder of the Soto School. His poem is a waka – a 31 syllable form predating the invention of haiku. Dogen is a key figure in both Japanese Buddhism and Japanese literature.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of all Japanese schools including Zen, the moon stands for Buddha-nature. So the poem teaches a familiar Mahayana truth that the moon (Buddha-nature) is completely reflected in every one of the countless dew drops (all things) without discrimination, namely one in all, all in one. This understanding is accompanied by a sense of fragility and impermanence within nature – strongly present in Japanese culture independently of Buddhism and reinforced by Buddhist teaching. Dogen gives us elegance and complexity in a 31 syllable form.

Hee-Jin Kim*, a modern Zen scholar, takes this further, bringing out Dogen’s sensitivity to history as well as to nature. He draws attention to the word ‘shaken’: each dew drop holds a full yet shaken reflection of the moon. Dogen lived in what was seen as a dark and ill-starred time in Japanese history. Many Buddhists thought that even their path was compromised and talked of degenerate dharma (mappo). Kim understands Dogen as resisting this ideology of despair whilst fully aware of the collective turmoil. On this reading, the poem asserts that timelessness is experienced within, and only within, momentariness, even when the times are stressed.

 

To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.

 

* Hee-Jin Kim Dogen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen Albany, New York: State University, 2007 (At the time of publication Hee-Jin Kim was Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. He is also the author of Dogen-Kigen: Mystical Realist).

HAIKU BY BUSON

A Summer Haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet Buson from the collection Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements. London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

Across the summer stream

With such joy

My sandals in my hand

HAIKU BY SHIKI

Without my journey

And without the spring

I would have missed this dawn.

Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements

London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

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