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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


Basho & Kukai
by Hideaki Hirano

From a letter written to his friend John
by Professor Emeritus Hideaki Hirano
Department of Sociology, Hosei University, Japan

Lines within a pair of hook-like parentheses are Basho
referring to Nanzan Daishi , which was the compillation of Kukai .

Basho's words (above) read:
"Fuga is much like ingle in summer or fan in winter. Contrary to what they covet, it is useless ... [yet it serves to spirit] ... Nanzan Daishi once said that in Buddhist calligraphy 'Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.' The same stands true in Haikai. I spoke this for the last time, took up lantern, saw him [Kyoroku] off to brushwood-gate". ["Kyoroku Ribetsu no Kotoba" (Words given to Kyoroku as he parts), written in 1693.].

As Kyoroku was also a good calligrapher, the topic of their last occasion seemed to focus around Fuga and Calligraphy.

What Kukai (774-835) had written (below) reads:
" Buddhist calligraphy it is the spirit of old that should be learned; the likeness in figure is not what should be thought as the token of good hand". (In Shoryo Shu, compiled ca. 840, recompiled 1079.).

When anyone, Japanese or non-Japanese, is wanting to grasp what was the essence of Haikai or Haiku incorporated by Basho, the crucial word would be Fuga . his word does not seem to have any counterpart in other parts of the world.

From the unknown past, at least before the 7th century B.C., the character Fu meant folkways as well as air or wind. Ga , or ya in Chinese pronunciation, on the contrary meant festivity; especially it later came to mean grace or gracefulness in the courtly festivals. In one of the earliest "Book of Poetry", commonly believed to have been compiled by Confucius, Fu and Ga are categories under which songs and poems are compiled; those of the populace and those of the nobles.

They are not a pair of antonyms originally, but as the kings and nobility became stronger and richer, they tended to be like one. However, one thing is worthy to be remembered: in Asia, people did not and do not have any notion of sharp opposition like the one in Europe, namely the Secular and the Sacred.

Now back to poetry. Japanese poetry, originating and learning from Chinese poetry, gave birth to Waka sometime around the beginning of the 10th century. As Waka poets belonged exclusively to the courtly nobility, what Waka sought was just Ga and anything else was excluded as vulgarity. The taste of the same ideal could be found in that famous "Genji Monogatari" (or Tales of Genji).

Not very long after Waka's flourishing time it encountered a new, if not always opposing, wave of poetry which was broadly called Haikai. The newcomers shared two things in common. 1) They were not so intolerant to vulgar words of the populace, and as a consequence they often did mix up Waka, Chinese poetry or sometimes even songs. 2) Outside of the king's exclusive courtly palace, they held occasional or standing assemblage for their new place of artistic practice/learning, from which place emerged what was called Renga. It was true that before Basho, Haikai occasionally tended to be depraved to distasteful vulgarity.

It was Basho in the Edo era who launched the radical reform in Haikai. He vehemently stressed Haikai to acquire equal or higher artistic quality as the preceding Kansi (Chinese Poetry) or Waka. As you have read in the lines he told to Kyoroku, it was not the external form of Haikai, but the internal spirituality that mattered. To him, Haikai was to reacquire the high artistic spirit, like e.g., the ancient "Book of Poetry" possessed. Thus his keyword Fuga , and what he told his disciple citing Kukai:"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought".

Fuga should be seen from another, rather more serious, aspect. A man has to live in Fu, that is in daily folkways. Can he then forget about Ga, that is nobleness of mind and pure spirituality? Or, should and could a man seek merely Ga and sacrifice Fu? Most definitely not! When you read carefully Basho's works, including "Oku no Hosomichi" , you would agree that he devoted his entire life to this contradictory, difficult yet important issue. The issue might have seemed to some people as if "Karo Tosen" (ingle in summer, fan in winter), but in fact it was not! We clearly see this grave issue in the mind of Basho as he often departed to hermitic journeys. We also have a strong impression of finding Basho as if he humbly enjoyed his life in them.

Curious it may sound, but I often feel Basho's lifelong task or question sounds even more serious to us, living at the end of this century of affluence, surrounded by ready-made Ga given to us as the amplitude of consumer goods, and by TV distributed Fu; all of which more than often blur our concern about nobility and purity of mind and spirit.

More curiously, whenever I get back to Basho, I cannot stop thinking of John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, Jack Kerouac in On the Road or William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways. Am I proceeding too far?

I received the part translation of "Kyoroku Ribetsu no Kotoba" -- Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought -- from my new friend living in the USA. For the moment let me call him John. I am grateful that he brought me back to the essence of Basho again. Thank you, John! I had a good time writing this hypertext.

Hideaki HIRANO was born in November, 1932. He studied and taught sociology at Hosei University in Tokyo 1966-2003. He became Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Hosei University in 2003. His study speciality is Comparison of the Civilizations, East and West. His latest article is "Expelling the Poets: Why Our Civilization Corrupts," in Hosei Journal of Sociology, 2005 (in Japanese).

Hideaki HIRANO's website:


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