Surrounded by disciples “lost to boundless grief”

From Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s O’er A Withered Moor, an imagining of the final moments of Matsuo Basho and – the true focus – the thoughts of his gathered disciples. This translation is from the Archipelago Press collection called Mandarins.

Kikaku was followed by Kyorai, who since Mokusetsu’s signal appeared to have lost his composure. True to his reputation as a consistently modest man, he nodded slightly to all assembled as he slid his way to Bashō’s side, but as soon as he saw the disease-ravaged face of the old poet stretched out before him, he felt despite himself a strange mixture of satisfaction and remorse. These emotions, as inextricably linked as darkness and light, had indeed been troubling the mind of the timid man over the course of the last four or five days. Learning of Bashō’s serious illness, Kyorai had immediately set out by ship from Fushimi and, having rapped on Hanaya Nizaemon’s door in the dead of night, watched over his master day in and day out. Moreover, by prevailing upon Shidō to arrange for an assistant, sending someone to Sumiyoshi Shrine to pray for their ailing master, and consulting with Hanaya for the purchase of various personal effects, he had, more than anyone, endeavored zealously and relentlessly to provide whatever was required. Needless to say, he had done all of this quite on his own, never intending to impose a debt of gratitude on anyone.

The intense awareness of having immersed himself in the care of his master had naturally planted within him the seeds of enormous satisfaction. Hardly knowing his own mind in this, he felt rather untroubled in allowing the emotion to warm his carefree heart as he went about his daily tasks.

Had this been otherwise, he might well have conducted himself differently with Shikō, as one evening they kept their vigil under the light of an oil lamp. Rather than holding forth on the subject of filial piety and dwelling endlessly on his desire to serve Bashō as a son would a father, he would have conversed of mundane matters. Though basked in such complacency, he had caught in the spiteful face of Shikō the flicker of a sarcastic smile and now felt his tranquil state of mind disturbed. The cause was the dismal realization, as brought home to him by his own self-critical eye, of a hitherto unconscious sense of self-approval. Even as he nursed his master, so gravely ill that there was no knowing what the next day would bring, he was far from anxious or concerned for him; rather he was vainly and smugly observing the pains that he was taking on his behalf. For a man of such honesty, such a revelation would surely have aroused in him terrible pangs of conscience.

Since then, in whatever he sought to undertake, he had naturally felt constricted, trapped between the conflicting emotions of pride and contrition. Of the former, he became all the more aware whenever he glimpsed, if only by chance, the hint of a smirk in Shikō’s eyes, a frequent and ever more painful reminder of his lowliness.


Amidst all these mournful voices, Jōsō, his bodhi prayer beads still dangling from his wrist, quietly resumed his place. Sitting directly across from Kikaku and Kyorai was Shikō, who now took his turn. But Tōkabō, known as a cynic, did not appear to suffer in the least from the sort of distraught nerves that would cause him, induced by the sentimentality all around him, to shed vain tears. As he unceremoniously moistened the lips of the master, there was on his swarthy face the same familiar expression: a mélange of mockery and a strange haughtiness. Yet it is, of course, indisputable that even he was filled with a measure of emotion.

Cutting to the quick,
(“Here I leave my bones to bleach . . .”)
The harsh autumn wind.

Four or five days before, the master had said: “I had long thought that I would die stretched out on the grass, with earth for my headrest. I could not be happier than to see the hope for a peaceful end here fulfilled on this splendid bed.” This he had oft repeated as an expression of his gratitude, though whether he was now lying on a withered moor or in the rear annex of Hanaya Nizaemon’s residence was of no significant difference.

In fact, up until three or four days before, the very person now moistening the lips of the dying man had worried that his master had not yet composed his last verse; just the day before he had contemplated how he might compile a posthumous book of his hokku. Now today, just a few minutes before, he had been intently observing the old man as he rapidly slipped into the arms of death, seeking anything in that process that might be of poetic interest. Indeed, to advance one step further in cynicism, one might even suppose that behind his watchful gaze was the hope of finding inspiration for at least one line in an account he would later write of these last days and hours. Even as he was ministering to him in these final moments, his mind was obsessed with the renown he would win among other schools of poetry, the consequences for the disciples, favorable or otherwise, and all that he might reasonably expect to gain himself.

None of this had the remotest bearing on the imminent death of his master, whose fate was now faithfully fulfilling what he had so often predicted in his verses, for truly he was now being left as a bleached corpse in a vast and desolate moor of humanity. His own disciples were not lamenting the death of their master but rather their own loss at his passing. They were not bewailing the piteous demise of their guide in the wilderness but rather their own abandonment here in the twilight.

Yet, as we humans are by nature coldhearted, of what use is it to offer moral reprobation? Lost in such world-weary thoughts, even as he exalted in his capacity to indulge in them, Shikō wetted the lips of his master and returned the plumed stick to the water bowl. Then glancing about at the weeping faces of his fellow disciples in apparent derision, he slowly and calmly returned to his place. For the good-natured Kyorai, Shikō’s cold demeanor had from the beginning only renewed his anxieties; for his part, Kikaku returned the look with an oddly awkward expression, apparently irritated by the air of brazen disdain that was Tōkabō’s wont.


Behind Kyorai sat Jōsō, the faithful student of Zen, his head bowed in silence; even as his boundless sorrow deepened with each sign of weakening in Bashō’s breathing, his heart was gently filled by a boundless sense of peace. His sorrow required no explanation, but this feeling of serenity was strangely like the feeling of cheer that comes when the cold light of dawn slowly penetrates the shadows of night. Moment by moment it was purging his mind of idle thoughts, so that in the end his sadness was one purified of all tears and heartache.

Was he rejoicing in his master’s transcendence of the illusory distinction between life and death, his attainment of Nirvana in the Realm of Treasures? No, that was not the reason that he could affirm even to himself. Then . . . Ah, who could have been so foolish as to vacillate in vain, to dare to deceive himself as to the truth? Jōsō’s serenity sprang from the joy of liberation, of being freed from the shackles with which the sheer force of Bashō’s personality had long bound him, of feeling his drearily oppressed soul allowed at last to exercise its own inherent strength.

As he rubbed his prayer beads, filled with joy both rapturous and sad, his eyes no longer seemed to see any of his companions, engulfed in tears. A faint smile on his lips, he reverently paid homage to the dying Bashō.

Thus, it was that Matsuo Tōsei of the Banana Plant Hermitage, the great and incomparable master of haikai, then and now, suddenly expired, surrounded by disciples “lost to boundless grief.”

Under one roof, prostitute and priest

From Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior

Today we came through places with names like Children-Desert-Parents, Lost Children, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse, some of the most fearsomely dangerous places in all the North Country. And well named. Weakened and exhausted, I went to bed early, but was roused by the voices of two young women in the room next door. Then an old man’s voice joined theirs. They were prostitutes from Niigata in Echigo Province and were on their way to Ise Shrine in the south, the old man seeing them off at this barrier, Ichiburi. He would turn back to Niigata in the morning, carrying their letters home. One girl quoted the Shinkokinshū poem, “On the beach where white waves fall, / we all wander like children into every circumstance, / carried forward every day . . .” And as they bemoaned their fate in life, I fell asleep.

In the morning, preparing to leave, they came to ask directions. “May we follow along behind?” they asked. “We’re lost and not a little fearful. Your robes bring the spirit of the Buddha to our journey.” They had mistaken us for priests. “Our way includes detours and retreats,” I told them. “But follow anyone on this road and the gods will see you through.” I hated to leave them in tears, and thought about them hard for a long time after we left. I told Sora, and he wrote down:

Under one roof, prostitute and priest,
we all sleep together;
moon in a field of clover

Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage

From Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior (Sam Hamill translator):

Checking Kaemon’s drawings as we walked, we followed the oku-no-hosomichi along the mountainside where sedge grass grew tall in bunches. The Tofu area is famous for its sedge mats sent in tribute to the governor each year.
At Taga Castle, we found the most ancient monument Tsubo-no-ishibumi, in Ichikawa Village. It’s about six feet high and three feet wide. We struggled to read the inscription under heavy moss:

This Castle Was Built by Shogun Ono-no-Azumabito in 724. In 762, His Majesty’s Commanding General Emi-no-Asakari Supervised Repairs.

Dated from the time of Emperor Shomu, Tsubo-no-ishibumi inspired many a poet. Floods and landslides buried trails and markers, trees have grown and died, making this monument very difficult to find. The past remains hidden in clouds of memory. Still it returned us to memories from a thousand years before. Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage: infirmities forgotten, the ancients remembered, joyous tears trembled in my eyes.

Think of them as the delirium of a drunk or the rambling of one asleep, and listen recklessly.

From The Knapsack Notebook of Matsuo Basho, in Basho’s Journey: The Literary Prose Of Matsuo Basho translated by David Landis Barnhill

Among diaries of the road, those of Ki, Cho-mei, and the Nun Abutsu are consummate works, bringing to fulfillment the feelings of the journey, while later writers merely imitate their form, lapping their dregs, unable to create anything new. I too fall far short, my pen shallow in wisdom and feeble in talent. “Today rain fell, it cleared at noon. There was a pine tree here, a certain river flowed over there”: anyone can record this, but unless there is Huang’s distinctiveness and the freshness of Su, it’s really not worth writing. And yet the scenes of so many places linger in the heart, and the aching sorrow of a mountain shelter or a hut in a moor become seeds for words and a way to become intimate with wind and clouds. So I’ve thrown together jottings of places unforgotten. Think of them as the delirium of a drunk or the rambling of one asleep, and listen recklessly.