Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bruce Ross on the Basho video

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.


Lynne Rees said...

There are two things that ocurred to me reading the account:

1. Basho's journals were literature... (I think I'm right when I say that he took artistic liberties, selected and re-organised things to create 'art') ... so can we really be sure that the event 'happened' exactly like this? Could it have been 'enlarged' upon, or was it invented for a particular purpose i.e. to have a specfic affect on his readers?

2. We're divided from this experience/event/account by centuries, history, and cultures. I have an opinion - I find it heartbreakingly sad - but I try to resist making a judgement on what he could have/should have done.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

I would like to second Lynne's 2nd point especially - as with translation itself, the cultural gap is so wide as to be nearly incomprehensible. Translator/scholars such as R. H. Blyth and D. T. Suzuki posit that not only is it nearly impossible to understand haiku in translation, that it is also nigh impossible to write haiku in any language other than Japanese for just these cultural reasons.

I think a scholar in Japanese history might be what's needed here. Is there something similar going on here as with the ancient Greeks, if only in an analogous way? Is it something in Bashô deep Zen training?

In any case, the sadness is deep and felt by all, even Bashô.


Mike Rehling said...

Might I suggest, that 'judging' Basho based on so little information is 'silly'. It was an interesting video, but not history. Nor is this 'story', with no context, any more reflective of Buddhist thought than the actions of a terrorist is of Islam.

Area 17 said...

All of the points made have been interesting, and illuminating, including Bruce's points.

The fact still stands that human attitude at its best towards children is ambiguous.

Possibly a million children die a year through hunger, beatings, poverty, religion, culture, race etc...

We allow more children to be killed now than possibly at any other time.

Basho most likely used one child to represent the hundreds, probably thousands, he saw in his lifetime.

As cold as his account may appear to us I am sure it had its effect on his readers.

We, as a human race, seem more ruthless towards human suffering today than pre-20th Century, and that is saying something. ;-)

This discussion has been very informative, and only shows that maybe we should all study Basho even deeper.

Government agencies do not deal with child issues very well as they are bureaucratic machines. It is the charities who do incredible and effective work.

I urge everyone to make a contribution/donation, however small, to a charity that cares for children.

I'll be donating to:
Action for Children in Conflict
Especially as they include Kenyan children, who as you know are excellent haiku poets, I should know, I judged one of the competitions! ;-)

There are excellent charities in the States such as:
Voices for America's Children