Rare, polished, costly, the worldly jewel is not the same as the Dharma jewel, by contrast common, rough-cut and without market value. The Dharma jewel is so unremarkable that it takes a person of unusual insight to remark it, and remark so vividly that others see it as a treasure. Basho, the seventeenth-century Zen poet and pilgrim walking the back roads of Japan, is such a person, and the haiku that record his journeys, geographic and spiritual, are gems as works of art, as insights—the two one thing. Buddhists of all schools, we are Basho’s Dharma heirs, not of the art of the poetry alone, but more the art of the direct perception that reveals the jewels in our own lives.
Basho did not make up the poetic genre for which he is known but refined it to its irreducible essence. Haiku—or hokku, as they were known in his lifetime—are composed within fairly exacting guidelines: three lines of seventeen syllables, 5–7–5, usually referencing season. That simple form lends itself to the direct and concrete, offering uncommon glimpses of the commonplace: through Master Basho’s eyes, glimpses into reality.
Basho follows in the lineage of Shakyamuni Buddha, who late in life assembled his disciples on the banks of a pond and delivered what is traditionally known as the Flower Sermon. After a lifetime of verbally explicating his Dharma, on this occasion he wordlessly held up a lotus flower. Mahakasyapa, of all the hundreds of the disciples present, alone discerning what it was in Buddha’s hand, smiled. In that smile, silent as the sermon, Shakyamuni recognized his successor, declaring, “What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said I have given to you.” From Mahakasyapa, Buddha’s teaching came, in a long series of transmissions, hand to hand, teacher to disciple, down to Basho, who in three lines said, like Shakyamuni, what could be said in words and through those words gave what cannot be said, expressing the truth for anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear. Nothing abstruse, this Dharma jewel, nothing requiring spiritual credentials. Common.
Common as a frog taking to water. The crown jewel of Basho’s oeuvre of more than a thousand haiku is considered to be:
The old pond
A frog jumps in
Sound of water.
Such an unassuming conjunction of images. The pond, not a lake, not a sea, not a stream, but a modest body of water such as that from which Buddha plucked the lotus. The frog, humblest of creatures. Finally, a sound. Basho is clear in his choice of the word oto, designating sound itself—and beware the translator who renders it as a splash or a plop or a smack or any other onomatopoeia in any language by which words are made to imitate the wordless. Bare of all description, oto is the very sound of water, easily missed against the background noise of the mind, labeling this as melodic, that as noise. The sound of water takes as many forms as water itself: the rattle of rain on dry leaves, the whistle of a teakettle, the roar of a storm-swollen stream. One and all these are the sounds of water, audible to any ear yet heard by few. Or, rather, all ears hear them, but few recognize them for what they are: the sound of sound. Fewer still have succeeded in disappearing into the sound, silencing self and other, listener and listened to. Many have reached that silence, but it’s a whole other step to break it so that others may hear the Dharma. The Buddha, of course, was one. Basho was another, coming back from the word-less sound of water into the sounds of the word:
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto.
Easy as Basho makes it seem to come up with such sounds, we must remember that he had disciplined himself through thousands of hours of meditation and thousands of miles trudging the back roads of Japan. As well, he could not have reached his artistic destination without a literary lineage reaching back 800 years, to T’ang-dynasty monks walking China from mountain monastery to mountain monastery, documenting their journeys, handing down the wisdom of the road. One such monk, Jikaku Daishi, left behind him a travelogue, The Diary of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law, marking the way to Basho’s own Narrow Road to the Deep North. At one point in his travels, Basho and his traveling companion are holed up in a rough shelter during a three-day rainstorm. Here he observes:
by the pillow
The sound that hot stream made splashing next to the poet’s head to a more finicky ear would surely have been cause for complaint. But Basho, putting away discomfort and distaste, simply hears it: the sound of a horse making water mingling with the rain on the roof.
So the water streams on, through Shakyamuni to Jikaku Daishi to Basho, in our time to R. H. Blyth, who in the 1950s introduced haiku to the popular Western imagination. Meanwhile, the Beats took up Chinese and Japanese poetry and haiku in particular. Jack Kerouac, in his Book of Haiku, writes:
The heavy rain
Driving into the sea.
Driving into the sea, water drops lose their limits, as the frog loses itself in the pond. The pond itself loses dimension, small as a puddle or vast as the sea, no different. As well, the listener: the ears that hear could be those of a pilgrim in T’ang China or seventeenth-century Japan, or those of a backpacker in the twenty-first-century High Sierras, or those of a wanderer of urban alleys of any era. The ear itself disappears. In the actual moment of hearing the frog’s leap, Basho disappeared into the sound. But if he’d simply disappeared, he wouldn’t have been heard from again. Just as the Buddha returned with a flower from that which cannot be said, Basho returns from the old pond with a poem. Sengai Gibon, one of Basho’s disciples, caught the master in this disappearing, reappearing act:
The old pond!
Basho jumps in,
The sound of the water.
Four hundred years later we hear the echo of Basho entering the water. However, if we hear it as an echo, it’s not the sound of water itself, not our own proper Dharma jewel. We listen more closely. But since there is no listener and no listened to, no amount of effort will get us there. Besides, it’s such a fine summer morning, the frogs are singing, and the water’s fine. We strip down and dive into the pond.