In the introduction to a collection of his translations of Bashō, titled The Essential Bashō, Sam Hamill renders a brief account of the poet’s life, including his forays into samurai society and his studies of Zen and Buddhist religious practices. Certainly important to his development both socially and philosophically, the references to these periods of Bashō’s life serve mostly as examples of contrast, standing as they do in opposition to the freer and more catholic bent of his curiosities. Hamill notes:
Bashō believed literature provided an alternative set of values, which he called fūga-no-michi, the ‘Way of Elegance.’ He claimed that his life was stitched together ‘by the single thread of art’ which permitted him to follow ‘no religious law’ and no popular customs. (xxv)
This formulation distinguishes the revered authors of Chinese and Japanese history, of whose works Bashō is a great admirer, as scribes of a kind of gospel, and the trees and mountains as holy temples.
It is true that Bashō occasionally dresses as monks do, or visits their monasteries and hermitages; however, he does these things rather for safe travel in the first instance; for food and shelter in the second; never really in a gesture of outright religious belief. In fact, he often recalls mention of the places he visits in the writing of his esteemed predecessors, framing his travels in the light of emulation rather than piety. His own writing offers proof, though, that his sentiments toward tradition are reverent even if inclined toward playfulness.
Often, the prose of his haibun exhibits a tone of utmost seriousness, as when he visits a particular temple in the Yamagata Province:
Ryūshaku Temple is stone quiet, perfectly tidy…we climbed the ridge to the temple, scrambling up through ancient gnarled pine and oak, gray smooth stones and moss…I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open. (22)
Reflecting on the ecstasy of Bashō’s experience at Ryūshaku, one may ascribe the opening of the poet’s heart to the temple itself, but a closer reading reveals the origin of the feeling as perhaps more naturalistic. The poet offers no details of the man-made buildings except for location and inception; trees and stones and moss dominate the landscape instead. As is common in the haibun form, it takes the distillation of haiku to impress the poignancies of the narrative into the reader’s mind. In the absence of any details of the shrines themselves, the awe of the moment comes clearly through as a paradox of organic contrast as the voice of a tiny insect seems to penetrate solid rock:
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone. (22)
The distinction between humanity and nature is important in contemplating Bashō’s relationship to his surroundings, given over as he is to the Buddhist concept of co-dependent origination. Hamill describes co-dependent origination as the belief “that all things are fully interdependent, even at point of origin; that no thing is or can be completely self-originating” (xi). The implication is that men do not exist independently of nature, and to the extent that people still exist on this planet neither does nature exist independently of men. Even though he avoids projecting his humanity onto the creatures and trees and rock formations around him –- perhaps because of his awareness of the arrogance inherent in anthropocentrism –- Bashō is fully cognizant of a deep connection between him and the ground beneath his feet.
Surveying the ruins of a clan long since passed, Bashō sees rice fields where great manors once stood, and along a horizon where walls and gates once dominated, “only Mount Kinkei remain[s].” (18) The efforts of warriors, on which he reflects before moving on, are nothing but
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams. (19)
In the final pages of this chronicle of one man’s inward/outward travels, Bashō provides a stunning synthesis of both the cicada’s cry among large boulders and the grasses left of the Fujiwara clan. Near the conclusion of Narrow Road, the poet writes about the enshrined helmet of the fallen warrior Sanemori:
a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings. (31)
Once again, Bashō deftly humbles — overpowers even — the great achievements of humanity, and all the wars of its years, all without expressing disrespect for their efforts to uphold their sense of duty, even if the fighting is to him but a curious custom in a world of unending curiosities.