The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki – by Robert Aitken


The variance in translations of the four Haiku masters usually makes any book on their best pieces interesting.

Aitken’s, River of Heaven, adds to this interest the insight of a western Zen teacher, so the reader has not only the pleasure of reading old favourites (perhaps slightly altered) but of reading a Zen infused short commentary on each.

While I found some of these commentaries a little light on content and some of them drew what I feel was a long bow in terms of interpreting the poets intent, for the most part it was a really enjoyable and instructive read.

The more I read traditional Japanese Haiku and commentaries such as those alluded to above, the more I realise what a deep ocean of literary experience and history they are based on.

The excerpt below is a good indication of the work you are likely to encounter:



tabibito to / waga na yobare n / hatsu shigure

Let my name
be “Traveler”—
first rains of spring.

Look in the phone book of any Western municipality and you will find a number of Washingtons, Lincolns, and Kennedys. That certainly doesn’t mean they are all part of a president’s family. However, one’s name in Japan is one’s identity. If you are part of an untouchable clan, you are stuck with a surname that identifies you as an untouchable. All untouchables who manage to migrate hasten to the nearest official name-changing office to become Tanaka or Watanabe or some other conventional Japanese name. But Bashō would be “Traveler,” even to the point of dying. As he wrote in The Narrow Way Within: “On and on I travel; / although when I fall and die / let it be in a field.” He actually did die on his travels, and in his very last hours he wrote, “Taken ill on a journey / my dreams wander / over withered moors.” He was a traveler even in his last dreams.


Haiku can appear to be just quaint mindful sketches when the reader is divorced from this prior literary and cultural knowledge, so for that factor alone it’s probably worth adding Aitken’s work to your collection of traditional Haiku commentary.


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