Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior

The Narrow Road to the Interior is a surprisingly short book, barely 30 pages long as translated by Sam Hamill. It’s actually rather hard to write anything meaningful about it because, despite my first assumptions, there is no one pattern to the entries, though many entries consist of a short prose passage followed by a final haiku. Some of the most interesting entries, though, contain multiple haiku written by more than one author, and even entries that contain no haiku seem quite “poetic.”

Any commentary is complicated by the fact that I really can’t think of anything comparable that I have read, though if I were still in college I might be tempted to compare it to Thoreau’s Walden, though Thoreau’s writing is certainly much more discursive. If I had access to some of Emily Dickinson’s letters where she included it poems that I’ve heard mentioned, but not read, it would be interesting to see if they are comparable.

As it is, I am limited to citing two of my favorite passages to indicate the general flavor of this journal, though it is difficult to limit myself to just two citations because this journal contains some of Basho’s most famous haiku.

Personally, I’m fondest of the format where a short prose passage is ended by a haiku. Of those entries, this one may well be my favorite, though I suspect that it is the haiku, more than the prose entry that I love:

In Yamagata Province, the ancient temple founded by Jikaku Daishi in 86o, Ryushaku Temple is stone quiet, perfectly tidy. Everyone told us to see it. It meant a few miles extra, doubling back toward Obanazawa to find shelter. Monks at the foot of the mountain offered rooms, then we climbed the ridge to the temple, scrambling up through ancient gnarled pine and oak, gray smooth stones and moss. The temple doors, built on rocks, were bolted. I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open.

Lonely stillness-
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone

It’s hard to decide whether the last prose lines, “The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open.” or the beautiful haiku is more poetic. Both seem profoundly true to me.

What may well be my favorite prose entry contains no haiku at all:

We paid homage at Gongen Shrine on the fifth. The first shrine on the mountain, it was built by Nojo, no one knows exactly when, The Engi Ceremonies calls it Ushusato Mountain, Feather Province Village Mountain, but calligraphers’ errors got it changed to Feather Black Mountain, The province is called Dewa, Feather Tribute, dating from an eighth-century custom whereby feather down from this region was used as payment of tribute. Together with Moon Mountain and Bath Mountain, Feather Black Mountain completes the Dewa Sanzan, or Three Holy Mountains of Dewa. This temple is Tendai sect, like the one in Edo on Toei Hill. Both follow the doctrine of shikaxaztz, ‘deep-sitting concentration and insight,” a way of enlightenment as transparent as moonlight, its light infinitely increasing, spreading from hermitage to mountaintop and back, reverence and compassion shining in everything it touches. Its blessing flows down from these mountains, enriching all our lives.

One wonders whether Basho, as I do, felt that the final lines of this entry were so poetic that it would have been redundant to include a final haiku.

If I had been exposed to this journal earlier in my life, I would have been sorely tempted to use this technique to record week-long hikes I’ve spent in the mountains. As it is, I will continue practice writing haiku, and occasionally slipping them into my blog entries in hopes that I can continue to develop my skills as a writer.

Thinking back, at one point in my retirement, I’d hoped to use a technique very like this to create a hiking weblog with a friend. Certainly my week-long hike in the North Cascades with the Sierra Club, accompanied by delightful companions from throughout the world, would have provided some great material for such an effort.