Sunday, November 25, 2007

Readings: Mizu No Oto

Mizu no oto is the final line of a haiku by Bashō, the consensus choice as the greatest of the Japanese practitioners of the form. As most of you will know, a haiku is a poem consisting of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto In English: The old pond: A frog jumps in – The sound of water. I was introduced to the haiku form, to an understanding of its relationship to Zen Buddhism, and to this particular haiku, by the writings of R. H. Blyth, decades ago when I was an undergraduate. I have “known” during all this elapsed time that Furuike ya epitomizes the genre. I had thought to be able to find words to this effect in one of the three books by R.H. Blyth that I have in my personal library; but I came up dry. It is possible that I gained this appreciation of Furuike ya from D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, or one of the other translators of, and commentators on, Asian poetry, culture and religion whose works I was reading back then, and continue to read today. Of Bashō, Blyth writes in volume one of his great multiple-volume study Haiku, Eastern Culture: There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashō, Buson and Issa; …Bashō is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist. Bashō is concerned with God as he sees himself in the mind of the poet before flowers and fields. Buson deals with things as they exist by and for themselves, in their own right. Issa is concerned with man, man the weak angel…” Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644. He was the son of a feudal lord. Bashō left the samuri service at the death of his father, when he was 23 years old. At the age of 29, he traveled to the capital, Edo. He spent most of his life on the road. In addition to his poetry, Bashō is the author of the often-translated Narrow Road to the Deep North, a diary in prose and poetry of his travels through the villages and mountain temples of Japan’s northern interior. I recommend reading Bashō and Japanese and Chinese poetry, in general, if you have not done so already. Asian art forms have a beauty that is distinct from those of the West; and it is a distinction from which there is much—very much—to be gained. But my real purpose in this post is to introduce the writings of R. H. Blyth. I own three books by Blyth: Haiku, volume one, Eastern Culture; A History of Haiku, volume one; and Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I highly recommend all three. Blyth was a genius, in my opinion, in synthesizing for the Western mind the elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen both in their historical and cultural context in Asia, and as they relate to Western ideas of religion, art, and culture. For this reason, I particularly recommend Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics as a text that will repay the effort put into finding a copy and reading it, many times over. Here are the opening sentences of his preface: The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature. In his introduction to A History of Haiku, volume one, Blyth writes: Haiku is an ascetic art, an artistic asceticism. Of the two elements, the ascetic is more rare, more difficult, of more value than the artistic. The preface to the book I most highly recommend, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, begins: Zen is the most precious possession of Asia. With its beginnings in India, development in China, and final practical application in Japan, it is today the strongest power in the world. It is a world-power, for in so far as men live at all, they live by Zen. Wherever there is a poetical action, a religious aspiration, a heroic thought, a union of nature within a man and the Nature without, there is Zen. Chapter 1 of the book is entitled “What Is Zen?” and begins: Consider the lives of birds and fishes. Fish never weary of the water; but you do not know the true mind of a fish, for you are not a fish. Birds never tire of the woods; but do not know their real spirit, for you are not a bird. It is just the same with the religions, the poetical life: if you do not live it, you know nothing about it. As an example of the practical application of Blyth’s critical sensibilities, I will quote a bit of his comparison of a haiku by Buson, whom Blyth ranks second only to Bashō, that is superficially similar to Furuike ya. Here is Buson: The old pond, A straw sandal sunk to the bottom: Sleet falling. In comparing this to Bashō, Blyth states: To put it in a word, Buson lived in the world of phenomena, and his inner life was thin compared to that of Bashō. … Bashō’s verse has a life within it, it has Life, whereas Buson’s verse is dead, in this sense. The dreariness of the scene with the straw sandal is not superficial, but it does not involve within itself all the dreariness of the world; it is the thing-as-it-is, but not the Thing-as-It-is. We choose one or the other, according to our character and mood. We all need, be we Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, be we even Marxist materialist or Logical Positivist, to be in touch with the Thing-as-It-is. As a Christian, I recall that St. Paul admonished us to pray constantly. I find that the writings of R.H. Blyth are an aid to understanding what Paul meant by that. The bibliography of books by R.H. Blyth on is here.