A Selection of Haiku by Buson

Landscape with a Solitary Traveler
BY Yosa Buson
c. 1780, Japan, Edo period
Hanging scroll
Ink and light colors on silk
Kimbell Art Museum

Translator’s Note

In the Vegetable Root Discourses or Saikontan written by Kōjisei in perhaps the sixteenth century, the author says: “When in the mood, I take off my shoes and walk barefooted through the sweet-smelling grasses of the fields, wild birds without fear accompanying me. My heart at one with nature, I loosen my shirt as I sit absorbed beneath falling petals, while the clouds silently enfold me as if wishing to keep me there.”[1]

Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Japanese poet and painter of the Edo period, though certainly influenced by Bashō who was in turn under the sway of the epigrams in the Saikontan, does not give us such an idealized picture of the wandering nature lover, the itinerant lay Buddhist enthusiast that he was. In an epigraph to this hokku

do cuckoos
fly about the heads
of patch-robed monks?

Buson writes: “Master of the brushwood hermitage, the little cuckoo. Two cuckoos emerge, at any rate, even if there is only one in the hokku — darting across the sky, mingling more with princes, loathing the patchrobed, dishevel-haired ones who seek fame and fortune in the mountains.”

A Little Cuckoo Across a Hydrangea
(38.7 x 64.3 cm)
BY Yosa Buson
Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art

Indeed, Buson’s attention to the mundane, his unsentimentalized portrait of the traveler’s world leave us space for meditation and contemplation:

evening coming on
and the roof of the inn leaks
a drooping cherry tree

But for every verse of such pathos, resignation, and indeed beauty, Buson has ten that aim to delight through humor and paradox, the heart of Zen. This selection of haiku I have translated bear those traits in mind.

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  1. Blyth, R.H. Haiku. Volume I. Eastern Culture. Hokuseido, 1964, 75.

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