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￭ a perfect death
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2006-10-02 | | Submited by Nina Shamana
Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
[The original Japanese]
The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
[Translated by Alan Watts]
Into the ancient pond
A frog jumps
[Translated by D.T. Suzuki]
The old pond;
A frog jumps in -
The sound of the water.
[Translated by R.H. Blyth]
The quiet pond
A frog leaps in,
The sound of the water.
[Translated by Edward Seidensticker]
An old pond -
Of a diving frog.
[Translated by Kenneth Rexroth]
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
[Translated by Donald Keene]
The old pond is still
a frog leaps right into it
splashing the water
[Translated by Earl Miner & Hiroko Odagiri]
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water -
A deep resonance.
[Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa]
[Translated by James Kirkup]
[Translated by Cid Corman]
Commentary by Robert Aitken:
The old pond;
a frog jumps in -
the sound of the water.
Furu ike ya [Old pond!]
kawazu tobikomu [frog jumps in]
mizu no oto [water’s sound]
Ya is a cutting word that separates and yet joins the expressions before and after. It is punctuation that marks a transition - a particle of anticipation.
Though there is a pause in meaning at the end of the first segment, the next two segments have no pause between them. In the original, the words of the second and third parts build steadily to the final word oto. This has penetrating impact - “the frog jumps in water’s sound.” Haiku poets commonly play with their base of three parts, running the meaning past the end of one segment into the next, playing with their form, as all artists do variations on the form they are working with. Actually, the name “haiku” means “play verse.”
This is probably the most famous poem in Japan, and after three hundred and more years of repetition, it has, understandably, become a little stale for Japanese people. Thus as English readers, we have something of an edge in any effort to see it freshly. The first line is simply “The old pond.”
This sets the scene - a large, perhaps overgrown lily pond in a public garden somewhere. We may imagine that the edges are mossy, and probably a little broken down. With the frog as our clue, we guess that it is twilight in late spring.
This setting of time and place needs to be established, but there is more. “Old” is a cue word of another sort. For a poet such as Bashô, an evening beside a mossy pond evoked the ancient. Bashô presents his own mind as this timeless, endless pond, serene and potent - a condition familiar to mature Zen students.
In one of his first talks in Hawai’i, Yamada Kôun Rôshi said: “When your consciousness has become ripe in true zazen - pure like clear water, like a serene mountain lake, not moved by any wind - then anything may serve as a medium for realization.”
D.T. Suzuki used to say that the condition of the Buddha’s mind while he was sitting under the Bodhi tree was that of sagara mudra samadhi (ocean-seal absorption). In this instance, mudra is translated as “seal” as in “notary seal.” We seal our zazen with our zazen mudra, left hand over the right, thumbs touching. Our minds are sealed with the serenity and depth of the great ocean in true zazen.
There is more, I think. Persistent inquiry casts that profound serenity. Tradition tells us that the Buddha was preoccupied with questions about suffering. The story of Zen is the story of men and women who were open to agonizing doubts about ultimate purpose and meaning. The entire teaching of Zen is framed by questions.
Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do - a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case.
In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!
“Plop” is onomatopoeic, as is oto in this instance. Onomatopoeia is the presentation of an action by its sound, or at least that is its definition in literary criticism. The poet may prefer to say that he became intimate with that sound. Thus the parody by Gibon Sengai is very instructive:
The old pond!
Bashô jumps in,
The sound of the water!
Hsiang-yen Chih-hsien became profoundly attuned to a sound while cleaning the grave of the Imperial Tutor, Nan-yang Hui-chung. His broom caught a little stone that sailed through the air and hit a stalk of bamboo. Tock! He had been working on the kôan “My original face before my parents were born,” and with that sound his body and mind fell away completely. There was only that tock. Of course, Hsiang-yen was ready for this experience. He was deep in the samadhi of sweeping leaves and twigs from the grave of an old master, just as Bashô is lost in the samadhi of an old pond, and just as the Buddha was deep in the samadhi of the great ocean.
Samadhi means “absorption,” but fundamentally it is unity with the whole universe. When you devote yourself to what you are doing, moment by moment - to your kôan when on your cushion in zazen, to your work, study, conversation, or whatever in daily life - that is samadhi. Do not suppose that samadhi is exclusively Zen Buddhist. Everything and everybody are in samadhi, even bugs, even people in mental hospitals.
Absorption is not the final step in the way of the Buddha. Hsiang-yen changed with that tock. When he heard that tiny sound, he began a new life. He found himself at last, and could then greet his master confidently and lay a career of teaching whose effect is still felt today. After this experience, he wrote:
One stroke has made me forget all my previous knowledge.
No artificial discipline is at all needed;
In every movement I uphold the ancient way
And never fall into the rut of mere quietism;
Wherever I walk no traces are left,
And my senses are not fettered by rules of conduct;
Everywhere those who have attained to the truth
All declare this to be of highest order.
The Buddha changed with noticing the morning star - “Now when I view all beings everywhere,” he said, “I see that each of them possesses the wisdom and virtue of the Buddha...” - and after a week or so he rose from beneath the tree and began his lifetime of pilgrimage and teaching.
Similarly, Bashô changed with that plop. The some 650 haiku that he wrote during his remaining eight years point precisely within his narrow medium to metaphors of nature and culture as personal experience. A before-and-after comparison may be illustrative of this change. For example, let us examine his much-admired “Crow on a Withered Branch.”
On a withered branch
a crow is perched:
an autumn evening.
Kare eda ni [Withered branch on]
karasu no tomari keri [crow’s perched]
aki no kure [autumn’s evening]
The Japanese language uses postpositions rather than prepositions, so phrases like the first segment of this haiku read literally “Withered branch on” and become “On [a] withered branch.” Unlike English, Japanese allows use of the past participle (or its equivalent) as a kind of noun, so in this haiku we have the “perchedness” of the crow, an effect that is emphasized by the postposition keri, which implies completion.
Bashô wrote this haiku six years before he composed “The Old Pond,” and some scholars assign to it the milestone position that is more commonly given the later poem. I think, however, that on looking into the heart of “Crow on a Withered Branch” we can see a certain immaturity. For one thing, the message that the crow on a withered branch evokes an autumn evening is spelled out discursively, a contrived kind of device that I don’t find in Bashô’s later verse. There is no turn of experience, and the metaphor is flat and uninteresting. More fundamentally, this haiku is a presentation of quietism, the trap Hsiang-yen and all other great teachers of Zen warn us to avoid. Sagara mudra samadhi is not adequate; remaining indefinitely under the Bodhi tree will not do; to muse without emerging is to be unfulfilled.
Ch’ang-sha Ching-ts’en made reference to this incompleteness in his criticism of a brother monk who was lost in a quiet, silent place:
You who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And worlds of the ten directions will be your entire body.
The student of Zen who is stuck in the vast, serene condition of nondiscrimination must take another step to become mature.
Bashô’s haiku about the crow would be an expression of the “first principle,” emptiness all by itself - separated from the world of sights and sounds, coming and going. This is the ageless pond without the frog. It was another six years before Bashô took that one step from the top of the pole into the dynamic world of reality, where frogs play freely in the pond and thoughts play freely in the mind.
The old pond has no walls;
a frog just jumps in;
do you say there is an echo?
Many more versions can be found in Hiroaki Sato’s "One Hundred Frogs" (Weatherhill, 1995), which includes over 100 translations plus a number of adaptations and parodies.
The commentary is from Robert Aitken’s "A Zen Wave": Bashô’s Haiku and Zen (revised ed., Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003). The book includes essays on 26 of Bashô’s haikus, of which this is the first.
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