With his permission, I'm publishing an email I received from Bruce Ross in regards to the Basho video. If you would like to respond to Bruce's email, click the COMMENTS link at the end of the post. You will need a Blogger account to post a comment.
Concerning the Basho's abandoning the child, years back I checked the translation in response to others' outrage. But there it was.
At last night's Bangor Haiku Group meeting I brought up the video and everyone was outraged. Pressing for an understanding of Basho's act, Bob said Basho's haiku reflected a "cold, objective" attitude, one I had discerned in this incident, and therefore (and I would agree) Bob could see such an attitude in this act.
In our modern Western culture the homeless have a social net, if they want it, a majority of them probably mentally ill. This New Year's Eve in Boston I saw the same beggar standing in the same general area as the year before. I passed him without giving him any money. On the way back from a dramatic presentation, I saw him again:
New Year's Eve
the beggar again
in the chocolatier
Whether he was using the facilities on this bitter cold night or buying a sweet or both I didn't know.
Basho, it seems, would offer compassion where he could (he refused accompanying the courtesans in "Oku no hosomichi" because he was going in a different direction; he left rice for the child).
Perhaps an understanding of his act could be found in popular samauri films. In one episode in the series on the blind samurai Zatoichi, the main character is given a baby by a dying mother. Buddhist practicing Zatoichi not only immediately starts looking for the baby's father but sprinkles milk on his own breast for the baby to eat. The ex-Shogun Executioner in an episode of "Wolf with a Cub" is holding the rope that dangles his son in a well while preparing to do battle with some enemies who put the son in the well. He lectures the son, in a way not unlike Basho's prayer over the baby's fate, on a Buddhist understanding of fate and death. Zatoichi places the baby with relatives. The son does not drown in the well. But Basho's baby is presumably real.
Basho's abandoned baby will probably die from the elements as Basho implied in his prayer. Is this cruelty in the most extreme? An abandoned child in the contemporary West would be rescued by a human service agency. Was Basho too old to care for the baby? Was it too difficult for him to search for a relative or help? Or (forgive the thought) was Basho honoring the chain of fate set off by the baby's parents? A hard nut to crack.
I've been a fan of Zatoichi films for about a year now. I believe the scene that Bruce is referring to is below. Slide the progress bar over to the 2:30 mark to see Zatoichi's attempt at nursing an abandoned child.