Report on the 145th London Eza

The 145th London Eza was held at Three Wheels on 30th June. The focus of this Eza was a talk by Professor John White on the haiku poet and Buddhist, Matsuo Basho. The month of June is a busy time at Three Wheels, with two of the weekends given over to the garden openings. Even so, everyone was very enthusiastic to hear Prof White’s talk, especially because many people have been enjoying reading the wonderful translations of Basho’s haikus that Prof White has recently released, along with Rev Sato, under the title “5-7-5 The Haiku of Basho”.

In the talk, Prof White started off by giving some history of haiku, explaining that they began not as a separate poetic form, but were actually part of sequenced linked verses called “renga”, where each verse was by a different poet. He then went on to discuss common aspects of Basho’s haiku such as the way the senses are combined, for example with colours having scents or a scent having a sound. In this way, the reader is given the sense of the oneness of all things, the unity of all that is of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow to save all sentient beings. Next, he went into detail of the careful and painstaking process that had gone into translating the haiku in such a way as to preserve the meaning, the rhythm and even any patterns or emphasis in the original text. When hearing this explanation, it was clear to me why the reading the translations feels so profound. It is not just a literal translation, but is a work of art and spiritual depth.

Many examples of haiku were given throughout the talk with explanations and analysis. I particularly enjoyed how Prof White explained the deep Buddhist sentiments behind a number of the haiku, even in places that were not overtly Buddhist in language. He also explained that “Like a Zen garden, a fine haiku must be constantly returned to if one is even to begin to know it”, going on to say that there is no logical approach to a true haiku and that “it is only in sleep or deep in our subconscious minds, beyond the realm of words and conscious thought, that it is reachable”.

The first question following the talk was from Jenny, a regular participant of Three Wheels activities, who asked how best to read the haiku, how many should be read in one day and whether you should aim to read the haikus in the seasons about which they are written. Prof White’s reply to this was that in many ways, the haikus leave the natural world behind and take the reader to another realm, so in that sense the current season of the present natural world shouldn’t matter to the choice of haiku. With regards to how many should be read in a day, Prof White said that there isn’t a set amount but it isn’t beneficial to read through lots together. In this regard, care was taken to present the haikus separately, one per page, so that the reader can focus properly on one at a time.

The next question was from a new Eza participant called Melanie. She asked Prof White to further discuss the process that went into producing the translations. He replied that the process generally starts with him choosing a set of haiku that are of interest. Rev Sato then translates the Japanese into English for Prof White to adapt into the original syllable structure (usually, but not always, 5-7-5) whilst every effort is made to maintain the underlying sentiment of the original Japanese. In this stage of the process, there is some back and forth discussion between the two of them until they come to an agreement, at which point the translation is complete.

Rev Sato further expanded on this explanation to say that literal translation is often difficult because the old style of Japanese contains vocabulary that is sometimes difficult to understand. However, he said, more importantly than just the words is that the poem is “only really reachable in the subconscious”, and that because Prof White is a poet, he understands well how to do this. He said that he came to understand the true meaning of the haikus following his discussions with Prof White. Finally, he said that he is currently pouring all of his energy into getting other haiku works published as soon as possible, and that working on this has been one of his greatest pleasures in his life.

Prof Montgomerie, one of the first participants in Three Wheels activities, talked about how he was present when Prof White and Rev Sato first met and he is so happy to see how their special relationship came to fruition with works such as the Basho translation. He said that he felt it was very characteristic of John’s work that the book is so meticulously laid out, with original Japanese script, followed by the phonetic Romaji script and finally the English translation. He expressed delight in seeing this book published.

An Eza participant named Ms. Fumi explained that she reads these Basho translations each morning following a period of meditation. She said that through this work she felt she can truly meet Basho for the first time, despite having read his haikus before in Japanese. In this way, she said she is looking forward to being able to “meet” Issa in the same way once that book is finished. Prof White replied to this that he is doing all he can to get the Issa books done, and reflected that in many ways, he believes that working on these books has been keeping him alive.

Sheena, a regular participant in various Three Wheels activities expressed how much she is enjoying the Basho book. She said that she reads one of the haikus each day, and is also enjoying reading Prof White’s other poetry. She reflected that “Prof White may say that he is not a Buddhist, but he seems to have strong Buddhist tendencies.”

At this point, there was a pause in the discussions so that people had the opportunity to view the haiku scrolls that have been purchased on behalf of the Three Wheels trust.  There is one scroll each of Basho, Issa and Buson. Many people took the time to admire the scrolls. Prof White commented that the Issa scroll had been a particularly lucky purchase as he had resigned himself to the idea that they would get quite a basic scroll of his, but in the end, they acquired a really good one.

Next, Mr Ogawa, who visits Three Wheels from Japan each summer to do work on the temple gardens, was welcomed by Andrew and invited to speak. Mr Ogawa explained that he enjoys coming to Three Wheels every summer for two weeks. He went on to talk about something that recently happened in Japan that he was really delighted about. For the last ten years, he has had an apprentice working for him who will soon begin working on his own. As part of this, Mr Ogawa had suggested that he takes an introspection session at Shogyoji temple. He took Mr Ogawa’s advice and spent a week at the temple. Following the session he said that he had gained insight such that he now sees himself as like a tree trunk, where everyone who supports him are like leaves and branches but his parents are like the roots. He said that roots are things which we do not normally see but it is important to remember all that they do, and the same is true of our parents. Mr Ogawa was touched by this insight and commented that even though his own parents are now sadly passed away, he still feels that all those close to him are roots supporting him. He said that “wherever we go, we often see trees and in the same way, wherever we go, we can see the influence of our parents”. He said that this is equivalent to saying the Nembutsu. Prof White then reminded everyone of the immense privilege that Three Wheels has by having such a top gardener as Mr Ogawa help with the Zen garden. He said that without Mr Ogawa’s help, the garden wouldn’t even have existed in the first place.

Next, Andrew announced that the Emperor of Japan has conferred the Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver Rays award on Rev Sato in recognition of his work in peace and reconciliation. He gave examples of this work such as Rev Sato’s efforts to introduce Japanese culture to Western people, his war reconciliation work and his finding out about the students who came over to London in the 19th century as part of the modernisation of Japan, but sadly died here.

The final speaker was Rev Ishii, who offered his congratulations as well as his thanks to both Prof White and Rev Sato for producing the Basho book. He expressed his feeling that listening to Prof White, Rev Sato and Mr Ogawa, he had the feeling that although the three of them are separate, they become one in his mind. He says this is because without Mr Ogawa, the garden could not exist, and without Prof White and Rev Sato, the garden, the book and Emperors award would not exist. He reminded us all that these things happen under Amida’s light and that the roots of Three Wheels are spiritual encounters. He said that Mrs. Sato had already become the roots of Three Wheels and that Prof White and Rev Sato will one day join her as roots. Because of this, he said, the younger generation need to try hard to digest this fact and work hard for the Three Wheels so that it survives strongly and doesn’t just become a historical place. He reminded us that this year will be the 25th anniversary of Three Wheels so it is important to remember that spiritual encounter made everything possible and that we need to give back to the temple by properly receiving this message.

I myself was very moved during the Eza by seeing the achievements of Prof White, Rev Sato and Mr Ogawa. They are inspirational, and through their efforts I am able to enjoy wonderful haiku translations, a beautiful Zen garden and a special place to hear the Dharma teachings. Following the words of Rev Sato, I intend to strive to keep in mind their hard work and do what I can to help to ensure that Three Wheels is able to continue to move forward.

Christopher D.