Notes from Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings by Matsuo Bashō

Also known as:
Notes & Highlights: Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings
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Notes & Highlights: Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings

Matsuo Basho (Translated by Sam Hamill)

Translator’s Introduction

Time:2021-06-26 16:18

Ki-no-Tsurayuki’s co-compiler of the Kokinshū, Mibu-no-Tadamine (868–965), introduced another new term to the Japanese critical canon by praising a quality in certain poems which he called yūgen, a word borrowed from Chinese Buddhist writingto identify “depth of meaning,” a character made by combining the character for “dim” or “dark” with the character identifying a deep, reddish black color. Tadamine use dyūgen to identify “aesthetic feeling not explicitly expressed.” He wanted a term by which to identify subtleties and implications. Over the course of the next hundred or so years, yūgen would also be adopted by Zennists to define “ghostly qualities,” as in ink paintings. But the term’s origin lies within seventh-century Chinese Buddhist literary terminology. As an aesthetic concept, it was esteemed throughout the medieval period. An excellent study of Buddhism and literary arts in medieval Japan, William R. LaFleur’s The Karma of Words, devotes an entire chapter to yūgen.

Page Number:12

Time:2021-06-26 00:02

The fourteenth-century Zen monk Ikkyū Sōjun wrote, “Ame furaba fure, kazefukaba fuke.” If it rains, let it rain; if the wind blows, let it blow. Bashō spent many years struggling to “learn how to listen as things speak for themselves.” No regrets. He refused to be anthropocentric.

Page Number:14

Time:2021-06-26 00:03

Matsushima ya
ah Matsushima ya
Matsushima ya

This is the sort of poem that can be done once, and once only. But it is quintessentially Bashō, both playful and inspired, yet with a hint of mono no aware, a trace of the pathos of beautiful mortality. A literal translation: “PineIslands, ah! / Oh, Pine Islands, ah! / Pine Islands, ah!” Simple as it is, the poem implies co-dependent origination, physical landscape, and a breathless—almost speechless—reverence.

Page Number:14

Time:2021-06-26 00:33

“Abide by rules,” Bashō taught, “then throw them out!— only then may you achieve true freedom.”

Page Number:22

Narrow Road to the Interior

Time:2021-06-26 02:54

With every pilgrimage one encounters the temporality of life. To die along the road is destiny. Or so I told myself.

Page Number:34

Time:2021-06-26 02:57

To have blue irises
blooming on one’s feet—
walking-sandal straps

Page Number:35

Time:2021-06-26 03:03

On the eleventh day, fifth moon, we visited Zuigan Temple, and were met by the thirty-second-generation descendent of the founder. Established by Makabe-no-Heishiro at the time he returned from religious studies in T’ang China, the temple was enlarged under Ungo Zenji into seven main structures with new blue tile roofs, walls of gold, a jeweled buddha-land. But my mind wandered, wondering if the priest Kembutsu’s tiny temple might be found.

Page Number:37

Time:2021-06-26 03:05

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

Page Number:38

Time:2021-06-26 03:09

In Yamagata Province, the ancient temple founded by Jikaku Daishi in 860, Ryūshaku Temple is stone quiet, perfectly tidy. Everyone told us to see it. It meant a few miles extra, doubling back toward Obanazawa to find shelter. Monks at the foot of the mountain offered rooms, then we climbed the ridge to the temple, scrambling up through ancient gnarled pine and oak, gray smooth stones and moss. The temple doors, built on rocks, were bolted. I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open.

Page Number:40

Time:2021-06-26 03:12

The winds that blow
through South Valley Temple
are sweetened by snow [footnote: See the Li Chi or Confucian Book of Rites: “A sweet wind from the South”indicates warmth and clarity]

Page Number:41

Time:2021-06-26 03:14

Together with Moon Mountain and Bath Mountain, Feather Black Mountain completes the Dewa Sanzan, orThree Holy Mountains of Dewa. This temple is Tendai sect, like the one in Edo on Toei Hill. Both follow the doctrine of shikantaza, “deep-sitting concentration and insight,” a way of enlightenment as transparent as moonlight, its light infinitely increasing, spreading from hermitage to mountain top and back, reverence and compassion shining in everything it touches. Its blessing flows down from these mountains, enriching all our lives.

Page Number:41

Time:2021-06-26 14:24

Sitting in the temple chamber with the blinds raised, we saw the whole lagoon, Mount Chōkai holding up the heavens inverted on the water. To the westthe road leads to the Muyamuya Barrier; to the east it curves along a bank toward Akita; to the north, the sea comes in on tide flats at Shiogoshi. The whole lagoon, though only a mile or so across, reminds one of Matsushima, although Matsushima seems much more contented, whereas Kisakata seems bereaved. A sadness maybe in its sense of isolation here where nature’s darker spirits hide— like a strange and beautiful woman whose heart has been broken.

Page Number:43

Time:2021-06-26 14:29

Under one roof,
courtesans and monks asleep—
moon and bush clover — Sora

Page Number:45

Time:2021-06-26 14:42

a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings

Page Number:46

Time:2021-06-26 14:45

Sweep the garden—
all kindnesses falling
willow leaves repay

Page Number:48

Time:2021-06-26 14:45

At the Echizen Province border, at an inlet town called Yoshizaki, I hired a boat and sailed for the famous pines of Shiogoshi. Saigyō wrote:

All the long night
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.

This one poem says enough. To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.

Page Number:48

Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones

Time:2021-06-26 16:11

My older brother opened a small amulet, saying, “Bow to your mother’s white hair. This is like the famous jeweled box of Urashima Tarō— your own eyebrows have already turned gray!” I wrote this after we had all shed our tears:

If I took it in hand,
it would melt in my hot tears—
heavy autumn frost

Page Number:54

Time:2021-06-26 16:13

With clear melting dew,
I’d try to wash away the dust
of this floating world

Page Number:55

Time:2021-06-26 16:21

Karasaki’s pine,
compared to blossoming cherry,
looks a bit hazy

Page Number:59

Time:2021-06-26 16:22

After twenty years, I met an old friend at Minakuchi:

While we’ve lived our lives
they’ve survived to still blossom,
these old cherry trees

Page Number:60

The Knapsack Notebook

Time:2021-06-26 16:25

Saigyō in poetry, Sōgi in linked verse, Sesshū in painting, Rikyū in the teaceremony— the spirit that moves them is one spirit. Achieving artistic excellence, each holds one attribute in common: each remains attuned to nature throughout the four seasons. Whatever is seen by such a heart and mind is a flower, whatever is dreamed is a moon. Only a barbarian mind could fail to see the flower; only an animal mind could fail to dream a moon. The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian or animal heart and mind, to become one with nature.

Page Number:63

Time:2021-06-26 16:36

Moved to tears by
finding my umbilical cord—
the year concludes

Page Number:67

Time:2021-06-26 16:37

A world of memory
returns to me when I see
blossoming cherries

Page Number:68

Time:2021-06-26 16:39

We ceremoniously wrote on our hats, “No home in the world— we are two wanderers,” and set out

Page Number:69

Time:2021-06-26 16:41

Mile after mile
falls away each day I search
for cherry blossoms

Blossoming cherries,
a gloomy sky, and, sadly,
one arborvitae
My fan for a cup,
I drink from a downpour
of cherry blossoms.

Page Number:71

Time:2021-06-26 16:42

Throughout my three days in Yoshino, I enjoyed the opportunity to study cherry blossoms at various hours, predawn to dusk and past midnight when the moon was growing pale. I was too moved to write even one poem, especially when my melancholy heart remembered famous poems by Saigyō and other ancient poets. All my lofty pretenses and ambitions aside, my journey produced no poetry.

Page Number:71

Selected Haiku

Time:2021-06-26 16:53

New Year’s first snow—ah—
just barely enough to tilt
the daffodil

Hatsuyuki ya
suisen no ha no
tawamu made

Page Number:83

Time:2021-06-26 16:53

Now spring has arrived
on a mountain with no name
in early morning haze

Haru nare ya
na mo naki ya
ma noasagasumi

Page Number:84

Time:2021-06-26 17:06

All hundred thousand
homes in Kyoto empty—
cherry blossom time

Kyō wa kuman
kusen kunju no
hana mi kana

Page Number:86

Time:2021-06-26 17:07

Flowers are best seen
by the eyes of poor people—
devilish thistle!

Hana wa shizu no
me ni mo mie keri
oni azami

Page Number:88

Time:2021-06-26 17:08

Between our two lives
there is also the life of
the cherry blossom

Inochi futatsu no
naka ni ikitaru
sakura kana

Page Number:88

Time:2021-06-26 17:11

Flitting butterflies
in the middle of a field—
sunlit shadows

Chō no tobu
bakari nonaka no
hikage kana

Page Number:90

Time:2021-06-26 17:14

Saigyō’s hermitage
must be hidden somewhere in
this blossoming garden

Saigyō no
iori ma aran
hana no niwa

Page Number:91

Time:2021-06-26 17:18

At breaking sunrise,
glistening whitefish—an inch
of utter whiteness

Akebono ya
shirau shiroki
koto issun

Page Number:96

Time:2021-06-26 17:22

Live the lonely life!
Sing the Lonely Moon-Watcher’s
songs of Nara

Wabi te sume
tsuki wabi sai ga
Nara cha-uta

Page Number:100

Time:2021-06-26 17:23

On a bare branch,
a solitary crow—
autumn evening

Kare eda ni
karasu no tomari keri
aki no kure

Page Number:101

Time:2021-06-26 17:24

Old spider, what is
your song, how do you cry
in the autumn wind?

Kumo nani to
ne o nani to naku
aki no kaze

Page Number:102

Time:2021-06-26 17:27

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Page Number:103

Time:2021-06-26 17:27

Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion

Omokage ya
oba hitori naku
tsuki no tomo

Page Number:104

Time:2021-06-26 17:28

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

Yagate shinu
keshiki wa miezu
semi no koe

Page Number:104

Time:2021-06-26 17:29

Seen in bright daylight,
its neck is burning red,
this little firefly!

Hiru mireba
kubisuji akaki
hotaru kana

Page Number:106

Time:2021-06-26 17:30

On a white poppy,
a butterfly’s torn wing
is a keepsake

Shirageshi ni
hane mogu chō no
katami ka na

Page Number:107

Time:2021-06-26 17:30

With a warbler for
a soul, it sleeps peacefully,
this mountain willow

Uguisu wo
tama ni nemuru ka
tao yanagi

Page Number:108

Time:2021-06-26 17:32

I slept at a temple—
and now with such seriousness
I watch the moon

Tera ni nete
makotogao naru
tsukimi kana

Page Number:110

Time:2021-06-26 17:32

I’d like to be drunk
and sleep among blooming pinks
on a cool stone

You te nen
nadeshiko sakeru
ishi no ue

Page Number:111

Time:2021-06-26 17:34

Crossing long fields,
frozen in its saddle,
my shadow creeps by

Samuki ta ya
bajō ni sukumu

Page Number:113

Time:2021-06-26 17:34

The morning glories
ignore our drinking party
and burst into bloom

Asagao wa
sakamori shiranu
sakari kana

Page Number:114

Time:2021-06-26 17:34

Old morning glory,
even you, as it turns out,
cannot be my friend

Asagao ya
kore mo mata waga
tomo narazu

Page Number:114

Time:2021-06-26 17:34

A traveler’s heart
is what you should emulate,
pasania bloom

Tabibito no
kokoro ni mo niyo
shii no hana

Page Number:114

Time:2021-06-26 17:35

Grass for a pillow,
the traveler knows best how
to see cherry blossoms

makoto no hanami
shite mo ko yo

Page Number:116

Time:2021-06-26 17:35

Wake up! Wake up!
Then we’ll become good friends,
sleeping butterfly

Okiyo okiyo
waga tomo ni sen
nuru kochō

Page Number:116

Time:2021-06-26 17:38

Lonely stillness—
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone

Shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimi iru
semi no koe

Page Number:120

Time:2021-06-26 17:39

The oak’s nobility—
indifferent to flowers—
or so it appears

Kashi no ki no
hana ni kamawanu
sugata kana

Page Number:121

Time:2021-06-26 17:40

A wanderer,
so let that be my name—
the first winter rain

Tabibito to
waga na yobare-n

Page Number:122

Time:2021-06-26 17:43

All along this road
not a single soul—only
autumn evening

Kono michi ya
yuku hito nashi ni
aki no kure

Page Number:129

Time:2021-06-26 17:44

Why just this autumn
have I grown suddenly old—
a bird in the clouds

Kono aki wa
nande toshiyoru
kumo ni tori

Page Number:130

Time:2021-06-26 17:45

Rested from your journey,
now you’ll understand my haiku,
old autumn wind

waga ku o shire ya
aki no kaze

Page Number:131

Time:2021-06-26 17:45

Tremble, oh my grave—
in time my cries will be
only this autumn wind

Tsuka mo ugoke
waga naku koe wa
aki no kaze

Page Number:131

Time:2021-06-26 17:46

Your song caresses
the depths of loneliness,
high mountain bird

Uki ware wo
sabishi garase yo

Page Number:133

Time:2021-06-26 17:46

The whole household—
each with white hair and cane—
visiting a grave

Ie wa mina
tsue ni shiraga no

Page Number:134

Time:2021-06-26 17:47

With plum blossom scent,
this morning sun emerges
along a mountain trail

Mume ga ka ni
notto hi no deru
yamaji kana

Page Number:134

Time:2021-06-26 17:48

Bashō’s Death Poem

Sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno wo

Page Number:137


Time:2021-06-26 17:50

It was during this stay in Ueno that he first began to advocate the poetic principle of karumi, “lightness,” urging his followers to “seek beauty in plain, simple, artless language” by observing ordinary things very closely. Karumi, together with existential Zen loneliness (sabi) and elegantly understated, unpretentious natural beauty (shibumi), characterize his final work. His life had been profoundly shaped by wabi, a principle as much moral as aesthetic, and which suggests a spiritual prosperity achieved through material poverty together with a deep appreciation of things old, worn, modest, and simple

Page Number:138

Time:2021-06-26 17:51

Near the end of his stay, he wrote a short prose meditation, Genjū-an-no-ki, in which he concludes, “In the end, without skill or talent, I’ve given myself over entirely to poetry. Po Chu-i labored at it until he nearly burst. Tu Fu starved rather than abandon it. Neither my intelligence nor my writing is comparable to such men. Nevertheless, in the end, we all live in phantom huts.”

Page Number:138

Time:2021-06-26 17:54

He wrote to a friend in Zeze in the spring of 1692, complaining, “Everywhere in this city I see people writing poetry to try to win prizes or notoriety. You can imagine what they write. Anything I might say to them would no doubt end in harsh words, so I pretend not to hear or see them.”

Page Number:140

Time:2021-06-26 17:57

Bashō’s longtime friend Kyorai asked about the master’s jisei (death poem), and was told, “Tell anyone who asks that all of my everyday poems are my jisei.”

Page Number:142

Time:2021-06-26 18:00

His fundamental teaching remained his conviction that in composing a poem, “There are two ways: one is entirely natural, in which the poem is born from within itself; the other way is to make it through the mastery of technique.” His notion of the poem being “born within itself” should under no circumstances be confused with its being self-originating. A fundamental tenet of Buddhism runs exactly to the contrary: nothing is self-originating. Bashō’s poems were in fact a natural product of his close observation of the natural relationships of people and things, our presence in “nature.” He prized sincerity and clarity and instructed, “Follow nature, return to nature, be nature.” He had learned to meet each day with fresh eyes. “Yesterday’s self is already worn out!”

Page Number:143