Basho

Breaking the silence

of an ancient pond,

A frog jumped in to water —

A deep resonance.

This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.

I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul.  On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.

Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.

Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.

In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.

Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space.  Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.

The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.

Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho.  Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.

 

 

Amid mountains of high summer,

I bowed respectfully before

The tall clogs of a statue

Asking a blessing on my journey

 

To talk casually

About an iris flower

Is one of the pleasures

Of the wandering journey.

 

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

 

 

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Gifts

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As we enter the traditional season for giving, I am reminded that gifts are always a part of the journey, on a pilgrimage and in daily life.   All you have to do is become aware the abundance of life and open your heart to receiving these gifts so freely given.  I offer these three gifts for this holiday season.  Gifts to give yourself and then in turn give to others.
Joy:   The poet Leon Bloy says, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”.   Finding joy, living joy, sustained joy are the moments the pilgrim has put down their burdens, worries, sorrow and let the light of the Divine show through to your life.   This is a moment of transformation where just being alive and open hearted is all there needs to be.   On the Camino I had the experience of sustained joy where just walking and being in nature made every breath a thank-you.

Silence:  In our noisy world we don’t find much silence and if you do happen to encounter it most people find it uncomfortable and immediately fill the void with more talking or scrolling.   Silence is where you take time from our frenetic world.   You can’t hear the voice of your heart and the Divine if you are talking or distracted.   Practice sacred silence as you move into sacred space.   Take time to sit in silent wonder and just be with the experience.   You need time to be without distraction to connect your being to your special place on earth.   Before and after visiting a special place give yourself the gift of coming into silence so you can prepare, receive and then integrate this experience.

Music:   Music is part of spiritual practice in all traditions, hymns, chants, toning and other types of music that enhances your personal experience.   As always these should not affect the experience of others near you or the nature of the site.   Sing a song in your mind, quietly chanting, listening to a song on an iPod can greatly enhance your experience.   I like to link a specific song with a specific place or experience.    Sometimes I have chosen that song ahead of time, sometimes I let the shuffle setting choose the song, sometimes I like to have a song spontaneously come into my mind.      When a song is sung or listened to at a site the song is then imprinted on your energy at that site.   In the future when you hear that song then you can be instantly transported back to that place and time.   It is a way of being part of that place forever.   In the cathedral in Burgos, Spain during a Mass in English the congregation sang a hymn I learned as a child.   I sang the words that I knew but hadn’t thought of for decades.   Now my voice is forever in the stones of that chapel.

Spring

Spring has arrived in east Tennessee and my world is pink and white and spring green.   The land is never more beautiful than at this time of year.   My sweet birds are chirping from dawn to dusk and the cats, Timmy and Persy, happily jump into the open bedroom window for some much loved fresh air.  Hamilton’s role changes from firetender to yardman.   He enjoys both roles especially now he has “another woman” named Huskey 2.2, a mechanical woodsplitter.   In the spring he spends many happy hours meditating on the old riding mower uninterrupted by the phone.

My old home has three working fireplaces and we use all of them during the winter.   They no longer are the main source of heat but now provide an atmosphere of warmth and peace with the smell of burning wood and the crackling sound.   During the winter months we offer our friends the irresistible invitation, “want to come sit by the fire”?  No one turns us down.

In the spring it is my job to clean out the fireplaces. I gather all the necessary equipment: brown bags, fireplace shovel, old sheet, hand broom and dust pan, bucket and rag.   I first take out the last bits of charred wood and then remove the screen, andirons, and grate.   I scoop the ash into the waiting bag and then sweep the remains into a dust pan.   Then, I wash down the mantel, tools and hearth.   Finally, I replace the grate and screen.   It is a big and dirty job but one that brings me a very unique joy.   Not only do I love the tidy fireplace for the summer season. but it is the one time I feel deeply connected to all the women who have lived in this house before me.   They are nameless, but we share a deep connection.   I’m sweeping the very same bricks they swept for generations before me.   I think about how they had to clean out the ashes constantly where I only have to do it once a year.   I’ve never met these woman but we are friends, bound by the needs of family and love of home.

This week I was reading Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton.   May loved her home and the solitude and space it provided for her writing.  She writes…”I have a fire burning in my study, yellow roses and mimosa on my desk. We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone…”   Plant Dreaming Deep is a memoir about her first year in her home in Vermont.   She learns to love her home and her home nourishes her.   May and I are kindred spirits and our spring birthdays are just a few days apart.   We love our old homes and find comfort and silence to grow our spirit.  “We are one, the house and I and I am happy….”

 

The Sleeping Beauty

A couple of weeks after my trip to Southeast Asia I found myself yet again in a very different world and a very different experience. Alexandra wanted to meet up on NYC for a mother/daughter arts weekend—how could I say no to that. My sweet girl and art—never a better combination.

For both of us it was a pilgrimage for we were going to see the New York City Ballet perform The Sleeping Beauty. I have loved ballet since I was a small girl but it wasn’t available to me because of religious restrictions. When I became a mother and removed those artificial restrictions I put my daughters in ballet class the moment they were old enough. I was too old to begin ballet but could live vicariously through them—-I’m so glad it worked out for all of us. Alexandra became passionate about ballet and it was her life all through school and beyond. She still takes class regularly and informs me that it is essential for her life and mental wellbeing. She is six feet tall and professional dancing isn’t her career path but instead she just gets to find the joy with none of the pressure.

Over the last few years she has become passionate about the New York City Ballet and follows them like others follow football. She knows the players, the moves, the opponents, the dramas and the choreography. So in February NYCB was performing her number one ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This ballet contains the quintessential elements of ballet in its highest form. The music, costumes, story, dancers, orchestra and audience all come together to experience art at its most refined and inspired.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music to The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and was first performed in 1890. It has been a touchstone for classical ballet ever since. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty will forever remain a popular and perfect ballet as it is at once pure beauty and mythic story that touches our hearts.  For in the classic fairytale we are reminded that true unconditional love awakens us from our unconscious lives. The NYCB production is choreographed by Peter Martins and is very much in the school of George Balanchine who founded the company. It is this perfect combination of the magnificent score by Tchaikovsky and the unique and truly American style of Balanchine that makes this work iconic and universal. Yet it was over 100 years in the making. Balanchine, a half a century after Tchaikovsky, pioneered a style and technique that matches the music like never before and elevated the art to a new level. It is a unique art form that can change and grow but yet still convey the essence of the original story and music.

Ballet is art expressed with the human body in time and space and this is the essence of this pilgrimage but makes it so different from visiting sacred sites. This is a pilgrimage of Time and ephemeral beauty. It is Time that brings the music and movement together in a refined state. Only in Time does this experience exist, the music and movement are only in the Now, fleeting and yet eternal in the effect on all who participate; dancers, musicians and audience. Alexandra and I were enraptured by the experience and what human beings are able to create. Each perfect movement to the perfect note is a transcendent moment.

Alexandra is the poster child for October 2017 Knoxville Symphony.   This picture from 2011 is just pure joy.

Questions

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It all started with a question. How will I feed my reading addiction when I’m walking the Camino? I could only carry about 17 pounds so a couple of books would make me way over the weight limit. Some people even suggested that there wouldn’t be time to read but they had no idea of the extent of my problem. I can get the shakes if I go more than few hours without reading. So, I bought a Kindle. Up until then I preferred books and fed my addiction at the used bookstore and with penny books on Amazon.

I took to my new electronic reader right away which is surprising because I’m actually what is termed a “slow adapter”, which mostly means I’m too frugal to buy new technology until the price comes down. Nothing wrong with old technology, in my world, the main source of entertainment here on the farm is sitting around a fire drinking coffee.

I looked around to find books to put on my new-fangled device that would be pilgrimage appropriate. I’m not much of a novel reader—can’t keep characters straight. I didn’t want anything densely philosophical or overly religious. I needed something to gently ground me after a long day’s walk, so Buddhism fit the requirements perfectly. I like the gentleness and simplicity of modern Zen writing and it was a good way to balance life on a Christian pilgrimage.

I decided to read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. I had read Hand Wash Cold and liked her style of writing. Karen is a Zen Buddhist priest living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looked like a good fit and someone I could relate too; mother, American, Buddhist, gardener. I downloaded the book and a couple of others on yoga two days before I flew to Spain hoping that would sustain me on my walk.

Everyday after our long walk and a hot shower Alexandra would take a nap and I would find some place to read because if I napped I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Each day I would read the next chapter in Paradise in Plain Sight. I always like to savor books like this and just read one chapter a day. Every chapter is centered around a part of Karen’s Zen garden that she was lovingly restoring to its original beauty after many years of neglect. It was a big project to take on but Karen knew she was the next caretaker for this special little paradise.

Each day I enjoyed learning something new about the garden and Zen. It was the perfect way to unwind after our daily 12 mile walk. That was until chapter 16, Weeds. Then everything changed. There was one tiny sentence that changed the entire perspective of my pilgrimage:

In Zen, we don’t find the answers: we lose the questions.

What?!? The whole point of the walk was to work through any lingering problems, sort through old memories, make future goals and generally come out of the experience full of ambition, accomplishment and deep personal insight. It seems that Zen had just turned that upside down and inside out. I put aside my western mind and moved into a wonderfully Zen place. In that moment I lost the questions.

The next three weeks of the journey took on a new light. Each day was just a walk in the world in great joy. I was freed from trying to figure life out and instead I was left the with the incredible lightness of being. Don’t tell anyone but I wrote the saying on a rock in hope that another pilgrim would also lose the need to find answers.

I am deeply changed by my walk, not in a dramatic “change everything about my life” type of change but a quiet, gentle way of seeing the world. I don’t need to have things figured out or know why things happen or what the future will be. All these questions will figure themselves out in time. My work is to be in this world and breath in life. I can definitely do that.

Vistadome Train

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I woke up about 5:15. The sun was up although it was overcast. There was no lying around and snoozing; my body had enough of the tent and every part of me was dried out. I sat on a bench used for the soccer games and just enjoyed the morning air and rehydrated. Soon the cook was up and I wandered up to the lodge for some hot cocoa and trail mix. One by one, the rest joined me and we relived the glories of the day before. We had fava bean porridge, omelets and a fried crispy bread with either cheese or chocolate sauce. Nico also baked and decorated a cake for a farewell. We thanked our support staff, Richard, Nico and Pablito for their great care and packed up to leave for Ollantaytambo.

As we were packing up Lisa started making a fuss. Seems that a friendly tarantula found her shirt warm and inviting. Lisa apparently wasn’t up to sharing and shook him out onto the ground. Poor thing just wandered off to liven up someone else’s day.

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A large bus came and the kitchen equipment was put on top and the rest of us inside plus an Australian couple, the only other people on the trail. Pablito rounded up the horses and started his trek the 15 miles back over the mountain to his home.

We dropped off Richard and Nico to head back to Cusco and picked up some people headed our way. In Ollantaytambo we found a restaurant to park our gear and ordered pizzas made in a wood-fired oven and set off to explore the town. We had already seen the ruins a few days before and there wasn’t much time so we peeked into the shops and bought a drink. Soon I had a text from Alexandra. She had found kittens so we played with the babies until lunch. It has always been our mission to find and hold kittens, lambs and puppies wherever we go

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It was time for the train to Auges Calientes the town at Machu Picchu. Our coach was a Vistadome with big windows, even overhead, because we were headed down the Urubamba gorge a long, spectacular raging river. This is one of the world’s great train rides.

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It ended too soon and we were met by a porter to take us to our hotel (El MaPi). There are no cars allowed in the town and it is all built on the side of a mountain. The porter loaded his cart with our bags and we followed him through the narrow streets. Quickly checked in, we got to our beautiful modern rooms. Each room had a quote on the wall. Mine was from Isaac Newton, “Nature is truly coherent and comfortable with itself”. Yep, Pachamama knows what she is doing. As much as I loved sleeping in the mountains I was ready for a shower and Wi-Fi. I had worn the same clothes for 4 days and was feeling a bit dirty.

We headed out to explore the town and do some shopping. There is never a lack of shopping even while we were on the isolated trek. There was always some one with a blanket covered in hats or scarves or a boy with woven brackets.

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Dinner and a pisco sour, the local drink something like a margarita, were included. So we headed to the bar to celebrate our victory and the glories of Peru. The dinner was wonderful with quinoa, lamb, pasta and salad. After a visit it was time for bed. Clean sheets and a fluffy comforter were pure luxury and I was tired so it wasn’t long until I was fast asleep

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Lemniscate

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A few years ago I started to seeing a new symbol on jewelry, along side the usual hearts and crosses were infinity symbols. The infinity sign had been around a long time but now I started to see it on bracelets, necklaces, made in pink or blue stones symbolizing everlasting love and friendship. I was gifted one of these bracelets with the infinity sign outlined in pink next to a few other bangles about love and friendship. It is the one bracelet I wear often and for me it is a reminder of a couple of my favorite Tarot cards.

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There are four Tarot cards that have the infinity sign, also known as the lemniscate. I’ve already written about the Two of Pentacles. On this card the man with a tall hat is balancing two opposing pentacles, ideas or demands. In this case, he doesn’t have to choose. The lemniscate is helping him balance the seemingly unbalanceable. He is able to juggle these two directions by holding them lightly and allowing the flow of life to keep it all going. He demonstrates that, with a little skill, you can balance the yin and yang of life.

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The next card to have the lemniscate is The Magician, card number 2. Our magician has all the tools of the trade laid out for him to use to create his world. But, more importantly, he has the connection to the universe symbolized by the lemniscate over his head. He is connected and will use the power of the divine, the infinite, to create his world for growth and wisdom, not manipulation. He has this never ending loop to connect the physical world with the unseen spiritual world. He is in balance and is ready to start the journey through the lessons of all the cards.

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Our beautiful and gentle Strength, card number 8, has the lemniscate over her head as she tames the wild beast of our animal nature. When you turn the 8 on its side it becomes the infinite connection with her higher self that connects her to the spiritual strength she needs. Now she has the right force at the right time and the right place to balance her world. She is controlling the lion with gentleness and compassion. She is using her inner strength to demonstrate bravery, endurance and steadfastness, important skills for the trials ahead on the path of life.

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The lemniscate makes a fourth and final appearance in the grand finale of the journey. The World, card 21, has red ribbons on top and bottom of the laurel wreath surrounding the dancer of life. These red ribbons are lemniscates meaning that the connection to infinite wisdom is part of the whole being. The dancer is victorious after the long journey and is no longer separate from the eternal state represented by infinity. This is the state of oneness, always in the moment, beyond time.

As you can see the meaning of the lemniscate grows and becomes richer the further down the path of life’s journey. The cards use this elegant symbol to represent the never ending loop of love and spiritual power to our higher self and source if you choose. You are always connected. It is just about remembering that connection. Maybe a bracelet will help.