Maps drawn by a poet
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a singlem . . . verse. Or so we might deduce from the writings of Matsuo Basho -- one of the world's greatest poets, and the man who elevated the Japanese haikum from colloquial nature poetry to the level of highest art. He also left to history a group of travel essays, wonderfully evocative sketches penned as he roamed throughout Japan. But to the modern traveler, raised on Fodor's Guides and the ubiquitous neon motel sign, it is hard to imagine the depth of abandon and the willingness for new discovery that accompanied the poet's wanderings. He preserved glimpses of his world with finely wrought prose vignettes, and placed jewel- like haikum into the settings to make the vision complete. For Basho, to travel meant to see; and to see with new eyes immediately called for a poem.
In 1684, when Basho reached the age of 40, he was already a respected poet; he lived simply but comfortably near a river in Edo. But his commitment to Zen meditation had slowly weaned him away from the world's clamor. Instead of living peacefully through his senior years, reading and publishing his books, he decided to unhinge himself from his possessions and, like a wandering priest, make a home of the road. Unlike today, few people traveled simply for pleasure; too many hardships and dangers accompanied the experience. But Basho understood that to posses the beauties of life, one often had to let go of them; to make a home of the world, one surrendered claim on any particular roof or door.
"The readers will find in my diary a random collection of what I have seen on the road, views somehow remaining in my heart -- an isolated house in the mountains, or a lonely inn sorrounded by the moor, for example. I jotted down these records with the hope that they might provoke pleasant conversation among my readers and that they might be of some use to those who would travel the same way." With this modest statement, Basho leads the reader on two simultaneous journey; the first is conducted on foot and horse and boat, and includes the views of 17th-century Japan that enthralled the poet.He would walk many miles over difficult terrain to witness a remarkable sight. Not at all typical tourist though, Basho's interest ranged from Japan's holiest shrines to the green temples of pine forests; full moons rising dramatically over mountain crests to morning fog winding through the bush-clover; the stone monuments of ancient emperors and the momentary monuments of wild irises and croaking frogs.
The second journey carries us into the realm of the imagination, the intellect, the spirit -- the mysterious territory that is human life on this planet. Basho named one essay "The Narrow road to the Deep North" because northern Japan was then a largely unexplored area; it represented for him all the mysterious corners of the universe. In his diaries, he attempts to lead the reader to the site where he or she may see the landscape without and within join to form one world. In the "Deep North" of the heart, the human self opens upon the self of all creation.
To conduct these expeditions, Basho unites prose and poetry into one continuous stream. Sometimes the prose highlights the poem's source; other times the two are independent. But in this combination of styles, the full spirit of the traveler is conveyed. The floatng worldm (the Japanese expression for the ephemeral world of things) is depicted with such careful vision that the seeds of eternity within it are uncovered. The haikum -- the heart's shorthand notation -- captures in a moment's flash the principles that sustain all thought. Even in nature's most short-lived flower, the poet's eye reveals a perfect stillness. One after another In silent succession fall The flowers of yellow rose -- The roar of tumbling water.
For the last ten years of his life, Basho traveled almost continually, returning to Edo for brief periods. But nowhere along the road, as we accompany the poet, are we made to feel any less profound or daring, any less capable of vision. His tone invites enthusiasm and sharing -- from the companions who travel with him, the friends and poets he visits, the readers who will find his words years later. Poems were invariably given to Basho as gifts at a journey's start, and poetry is offered by companions along the way. Basho includes all of these in the narrative, making the story not one man's exploration but the record of mutual discovery. If it is a foreign idea to our modern culture, it is our loss; travel must be a process of awakening and challenging our senses, not simply a moving from here to there. And lines of clear and enduring vision -- sketched or written or sung -- are the only true map one traveler can offer another, as we rise up together and make our way North.