voyage north beyond the Shirikawa barrier was a journey of
self-rediscovery. He left behind his hut, friends, and the comforts
of the capitol to walk north. Making a pilgrimage to visit places of
specific literary importance. In this paper I will examine James
LaFleur's thesis that Basho went north to expand his Buddhist
horizons. I will also examine the similarities and contrasts between
his portrayal of the rigors of the voyage and the portrayals of
other, pre-Edo, authors.
The Karma of Words, James LaFleur posits that Basho was using
a mode of expression from a past
era. He explains that Basho wrapped inside his work Narrow
Road many references to the
poet-priest Saigyo. LaFleur's thesis is that Basho considered Saigyo
as a model and consciously modeled his travels after Saigyo1,
and that his poetry in theNarrow Road
reflected his Buddhist ideals2.
The idea of inja, or the reclusive life, had great appeal to Basho as
it had also appealed to the models of his time3.
LaFleur argues that Basho is taking this journey to increase his
understanding of Buddhism and reflect on his past. He notes that "it
is the 'worldly' man who is blind4 "
was the notion that most impressed Basho. To Buddhists the world is
blinding by its own repetitive nature. Therefore the pilgrimage is a
method to remove the blinders; by its ever-changing nature it serves
to heighten Buddhist insight5.
Through pilgrimage Basho is considering not only the Buddhist truth
but also whether or not he is a person of the world6.
In this journey, Basho writes passages that are replete with imagery
and allusion. LaFleur notes that you can not throw away any word that
Basho uses, because they all have meaning7.
The passages crafted by Basho are layered, as you peel back the
meaning from one layer another, deeper, meaning rises to the surface.
The snippet that LaFleur has chosen to explicate contains allusions
not only to Saigyo but also to Gyogi; references that any modestly
literate member of the times could be expected to understand. This
passage also serves to illustrate the depth of each poem that Basho
wrote.Working with the premise that Basho's voyage was not only
literary but spiritual we can begin to understand the structure
of the Narrow Road.
set out on this voyage in 1689 with a traveling companion Sora8.
The journey north was planned so that Basho could "feel the
truth of old poems9."
He planned to do this by visiting the sites of famous utamakura. At
each site, he planned to honor the previous poet by composing a poem
of his own. One of these associations was that of a chestnut tree,
the verse that LaFleur analyzed. This poem was inspired by Basho's
witnessing a monk who had chosen to renounce the world and lived
under the branches of the large tree. The poet chooses as his
subjects only those things that are associated to works in the
literary repitore of the educated member of society. In fact, he
eschews writing about the mundane10.
This reluctance to write about the mundane elements of his voyage can
be interpreted as a Buddhist idea; the concept that the everyday
rituals blind us to the mujo that underlies each aspect of life11.
Basho's literary style
masks the actual rigors of his voyage from us, but Japanese Inn
by Oliver Statler can shed some light on that facet. Statler does not
discuss Basho's journey itself, but is instead dedicated to telling
Japanese History through the lens of an Inn. For this inn commoners
were not really a problem, their difficulty lay in the touchiness of
the celebrated guests12.
Basho himself never stayed at the inn, but he did spend an evening
there with the members of the local poetry club13.
Minaguchi-ya was a well reputed inn; why did Basho decline to reside
there? Statler comments that he stayed at the local temple where "the
view was better and the literary associations richer14."
There may well have been another reason for him to decline; inns were
places of extra-worldliness, a place one would visit to steep oneself
in the world15.
Since steeping himself in worldliness was diametrically opposed to
what Basho wanted, to stay there would be a disaster. In the
following passage he laments having to have a shelter- a true
Buddhist is supposed to have no fixed home16.
A grass hut less than
five by five -- I regret living
even in it: if only
there were no rainfalls17!
This quest was one of
spiritual searching, a quest to remove the blanket from his conscious
mind and begin to see as a true Buddhist
This was written after the
introduction of the printing press to Japan, and that created the
concept of the author18.
In that respect Basho's writings depart from the works of the pre-Edo
authors that we studied, Lady Sharshina and Sugawara No Michizane.
Those authors wrote for different purposes, Lady Sarashina in a diary
for personal expression and Michizane for professional life.
Michizane's poems are considered to be some of the finest in all of
Japanese literary history placing him on the same, or similar,
pedestal as Basho. Lady Sarashina, on the other hand, is not regarded
as one of the better poets but rather her work was remembered almost
because there are few works remaining from that period. Both
Sarashina and Michizane are early Heian era poets, and their work is
representative of their roles in Heian society. The body of
Michizane's work is in some manner related to his position as a
member of the court, and Lady Sarashina's revolves around her
personal affairs. In addition to the differences caused by social
status, they traveled for different reasons. Michizane traveled
because he was a Confucian bureaucrat and Lady Sarashina traveled for
pilgrimage. For a comparison it will be more accurate to compare
Basho's writing to that of Lady Sarashina's since they both were
traveling for religious purposes.
Lady Sarashina's diary was
not written for publication, but rather as a memory aid19.
Basho's Narrow Road while not published immediately is
necessarily influenced by the knowledge that it will be published.
Its style, in contrast to the Sarashina nikki, is more formal and
refined. The topics that they discuss are quite different too. Basho,
as noted earlier, refrains from discussing the mundane in contrast to
Lady Sarashina who discusses the banal at length.
Sugawara No Michizane's
travel poetry is quite different. He didn't travel for pleasure or
for religion. He did it out of duty and obligation the the state. As
a proper confucian gentleman he was expected, even obligated, to join
the civil service. One of the duties of the civil servant was to
journey to the provinces and take a position in their administration.
These positions were assigned by the imperial government, and when
Michizane's number came up he did not want to go20.
Michizane's travel poetry was quite poignant, although in a formal
The three poets all share
some common thematic elements, the refer to the weather, they all
relate their poems back to the work of other poets. Michizane is
often called to compose a poem on a theme by the poet Po Chü-i21,
Lady Sarashina discuses the utamakura of Mt. Chichibu22,
and Basho has his chestnuts23.
The thematic elements begin to diverge when you get to the actual
substance of their works. Michizane's travel poetry discusses the
fear and the excitement of being on a trip, along with the regret
that he is leaving the capital. Lady Sarashina's poetry concentrates
on the mechanics of the voyage in addition to the scenery that occurs
along the way. Basho writes not about the everyday, but about the
very special feelings that are evoked on the journey. The difference
is spiritual. Narrow Road is Basho's journey of awakening, his
conscious effort to follow Saigyo's path to enlightenment. Lady
Sarashina travels to escape her loneliness and her confinement. But
for Basho, the act of walking is a commitment to shed the everyday
and become a better Buddhist.
Basho's poetry is
retrospective, but is not an anachronism. He is using Narrow Road
to reflect on his life and to escape what he feels is are living
proof of life's paradoxes24.
He goes on this journey to emulate Saiygo's journey of enlightenment,
by hoping that becoming a pilgrim he can improve his life. The Narrow
Road is a guidebook of sorts as well. It's a path that the lay
person can follow, mentally if not physically, to better feel what
the utamakura were about.
1: LaFleur p. 160
2: Ibid p. 161
3: Ibid p. 160
4: LaFleur p. 161
5: LaFleur p. 161
6: LaFleur p. 159
7: LaFleur p. 152
8: Rath Lecture notes 6-Dec-2000
9: Sora pp. 19
10: Rath Lecture notes 6-Dec-2000
11: LaFleur p. 161
12: Statler p. 138
13: Statler p. 150
14: Statler p. 150
15: LaFleur p. 69
16: Sato p. 54 (see Note 52)
17: Sato p. 55
18: Rath Lecture notes 11-Dec-2000
19: Morris p. 9
20: Borgen p. 150
21: Borgen p. 151
22: Morris p. 100
23: Sato p. 63
24: LaFleur p. 161
Borgen, Robert; Sugawara No Michizane and the Early Heian Court; University of Hawaii Press; Honolulu, 1999
Lafleur, William R. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary arts in Medieval Japan.
University of California Press. Berkley 1983
Morris, Ivan. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Penguin Books, London. 1975
Rath, Eric. Lecture notes from class given on December 6, 2000 and on December 11, 2000
Sato, Hirokai. Basho's
Narrow Road Spring and Autmn Passages. Stonebridge Press. Berkley 1996
Statler, Oliver. Japanese Inn
. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu 1982