The seventeenth century may have been the golden age of samurai. Two men from that era stand out. One, Miyamato Musashi, wrote Go Rin No Sho, - The Book of Five Rings. Musashi, who died in 1645, was one of the best, if not the greatest, Japanese swordsman. From age 12 when he had his first fight to his death from heart failure at age 60 he was not only undefeated – defeated swordsmen died – but in his last 10 fights never unsheathed his sword; his opponents simply bowed and left.
The Book of Five Rings is a classic work on strategy and tactics, and uses the devise of setting various aspects of swordsmanship into five books named for the five elements. (Unlike the medieval west when the elements were four; earth, wind, fire and water, the elements were the same in the east with the addition of void.
This book is a must read for Japanese businessmen who regard business as war, but it is also read by military men and athletes.
At one point I engaged in a sport at which I became very good, but not quite the best. My instructor finally told me that he had taught me everything he knew, and there was nothing left for me to learn about the mechanics of the game. What kept me from winning was between my ears. He assigned me meditation and the reading of Go Rin No Sho.
The secret that I needed to learn was in the fifth book; "void". After a swordsman has learned everything else he needs to go into a fight with “no mind”. One has to surrender to the previous training. The well trained brain will know what to do without conscious thought. Conscious thought will get you killed. I needed to think of nothing as I competed. That, and the meditation did the job.
Miyamato Musashi lived in a cave where he wrote his book, and taught a school, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu. His life style was quite simple, but he was not a simple man. Musashi was a master of the Tea Ceremony, and that was one of the things he was most proud of accomplishing.
For those of us in the West tea is a drink. In Japan the Tea Ceremony was also called the Way of Tea. There was a ritual in the preparation of the powdered green tea, and in the serving and drinking of the tea. The ceremony was considered to be a bridge between people.
So, at one extreme, Musashi was a soldier for his master Samurai and his job was to kill his master’s opponents. On the other extreme he sought to establish a path to common understanding. This yin and yang made him a complete person.
Matsuo Basho was the son of a minor samurai who gave that up to become a poet. That sort of career path seems strange today, but the sons of Lords have become painters and poets.
Born the year before Musashi died, Basho studied Chinese poetry and initially wrote in a linked verse form , but eventually settled on the extremely terse form known as haiku. Basho is now considered to be the best. His early haiku are good, but in later years he studied Zen and his poetry that followed is considered to be his best work.
A haiku, written well, is deceptively simple. It should at first glance be about something familiar that can be enjoyed on that level. Good haiku has deeper meaning; something that pulls the reader emotionally into a greater understanding.
The form of haiku uses a 5-7-5 syllable scheme of unrhymed verse. Haiku translated from Japanese, of course, do not show that because the languages are completely different.
Here is the problem in translation. This is, perhaps, Basho’s most famous poem.
mizu no oto
Note the syllable count comes out right, but this is what happens when it is translated literally:
Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya,
ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu (jumping into)
mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)
Here is the translation by Fumiko Saisho
The old pond-
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.
Elsewhere, “sound of water” is interpreted as simply “splash”.
Basho’s quotes about life and writing poetry are illuminating. On writing: ““When composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”
― Bashō Matsuo
On life: Some of his haiku have been translated keeping the original thought.
“Many solemn nights
Blond moon, we stand and marvel…
Sleeping our noons away”
The above haiku speaks of Basho’s life philosophy whish he said in a number of ways. Elsewhere he said that his journey was his home.
The admonition to not let a hair’s breadth get between your mind and what you write is akin to Musashi’s concept of “no mind”. However, no mind would be deadly if training and practice had not been first ingrained in the apprentice, and I wonder if Basho’s first poems were written in such a state of what has been called “flow”.
Whatever the case, reading Basho’s poetry, even in translation, is a joy.
This is my favorite:
“A cicada shell;
it sang itself