Narrow Road to the Interior
By Matsuo Basho. Translated by Sam Hamill. 
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1991.
105 pp. $10.00 (paperback).

addiss_1
courtesy of Stephen Addiss.

As Sam Hamill reminds us in the preface to this lucid and engaging translation, Basho’s haibun—brief prose combined with haiku—is a “return to natural, spiritual, and literary origins.” Hamill’s translation, a gift of careful attention, does not separate poetry from spiritual practice. And, Basho becomes our guide on the way of insight.

Written between 1690 and 1694, Oku-no-hosomichi is based on the journey Basho began in cherry blossom season in 1689, crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into northern Honshu, moving south along the Japan Sea to Ogaki in the autumn. Like the sun and moon which he calls “eternal travelers,” Basho is a wanderer. For him, “each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Having left his small house and students and throngs of admirers, Basho embraces mujo, or impermanence, in a concrete way—he becomes a traveler; no fixed abode, no fixed “self.” Visiting places made famous by poems, Basho enters the spirit of each place more fully by remembering the verses associated with it. Poem and place bring each other into being.

The beauty of Hamill’s translation is that it gives us a clear view of each situation. For those readers willing to go further, Hamill provides brief notes. And, he translates in such a way that the hidden comes closer into view.

In the shade of a huge chestnut at the edge of town, a monk made his hermitage a refuge from the world. Saigyo’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for chestnut means “west tree,” alluding to the Western paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyoki, all his life, used chestnut for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.

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