Genjuan no Fui: Basho's Phantom Hut

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is best known for standardizing the formula and art of the haiku in Japanese poetry, which he mastered. His haiku are read as individual poems, though he wrote them in the context of several travel journals as an itinerant influenced by Zen Buddhist philosophy in a culture that intensely valued literary expression.

Basho's wry and personable journals include Journals of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, Notes in My Knapsack, and Narrow Road to the Far North. But perhaps his most famous travel piece is a brief narrative of his last dwelling place, Genjuan no Fu, translated by Burton Watson as "Record of the Hut of the Phantom," and by Donald Keene more evocatively as "The Unreal Dwelling."

Like Chomei before him, Basho's piece is the work of a world-weary observer of vanity, pretension, and human folly. He is sensitive to nature and the cycle of the seasons, honest  and content with himself. There is no hint of a tumultuous life or a bitter maturity. The refreshing candor of Basho is not mingled with the social commentary of Chomei.

My body, now close to fifty years of age, has become an old tree that bears bitter peaches, a snail which has lost its shell, a bagworm separated from its bag. It drifts with the winds and clouds that know no destination.

This formulaic modesty, necessary for the cultivator of solitude, opens the narrative , quickly followed by a description of the hut where he now lives. The little thatched dwelling is perched on a mountainside next to an old shrine "which so purifies my senses that I feel cleansed of the dust of the world."

The hut was the retreat of a warrior who likewise had abandoned the world years before, and now the hut stands abandoned "at the crossroads of unreality."

The stands in an idyllic setting between two mountains, as Basho elaborates:

From the lofty peaks descends a fragrant wind from the south, and the northern wind steeped in the distant sea is cool. It was the beginning of the fourth moon when I arrived, and the azaleas were still blossoming. Mountain wisteria hung on the pines. Cuckoos frequently flew past, and there were visits from the swallows.

Basho compares the view to a scene from China. He can see lofty pine forest shrouded in mist and can glimpse a castle. One mountain reminds him of Fuji and an old cottage in which he once lived. On the other mountain, Basho constructed a look-out he calls a monkey perch, where he can spread out a straw mat and enjoy a spectacular view -- and pick lice.

Simplicity, even austerity, are hallmarks of the Japanese Zen hermits, and Basho is pleased that the former occupant of the hut had "most refined tastes and did not clutter up the hut even with objects of art." The hut is a single room with a niche for a household shrine and another for hanging nightclothes. A plaque over the latter niche describes the hut in a single brushstroke: "Unreal Dwelling."

Having lived an itinerant life in the company of other like-minded poets, Basho still enjoys a little socializing. Of course, the villagers are farmers, not poets. They talk of rice planting and rabbits in their plots, and a noisome boar. When more sophisticated visitors find him the night is passed in quiet conversation, moon-watching.

Basho has no regrets for past mistakes - chasing after government office in his youth, not having become a formal Zen monk when he had the chance, or thinking he could match the two great Chinese poets, Po Chu-i and Tu Fu, who shaped his own sensibilities.

In this hut where I live as a hermit, as a passing traveler, there is no need to accumulate household possessions. ... But I should not have it though from what I have said that I am devoted to solitude and seek only to hide my traces in the wilderness. Rather, I a m like a sick man weary of people, or someone who is tired of the world.. What is there to say? ... I labor without results, am worn of spirit and wrinkled of brow. Now, when autumn is half over, and every morning and each evening brings changes to the scene, I wonder if  that is not what is meant by dwelling in unreality. And here too I end my words.

What more is there to say? The characteristic self-effacement of Japan's greatest poets testifies to his simple wisdom: that we all, at every moment of our lives, are dwelling in a phantom hut, an unreal dwelling. He leaves us a haiku, though not his last one, for he dies (at fifty) four years later)....

Among these summer trees,
a pasania --
something to count on.

(The pasania is a majestic and ancient tree with spreading trunk and splendid canopy, hence "something to count on.")