by Janice M Bostok
Perched upon the temple bell
the butterfly sleeps 1
Buson was originally named Taniguchi Buson (pronounced boo-sahn). He later changed his name to Yosa Buson. It appears he had more than one pen-name or ‘go’ throughout his lifetime. (Particularly as there are various seals that he used on his paintings.)
Buson was born in the village of Kema in the Settsu Province. Very little is known of his early childhood. His parents split up when he was eight years old and his mother died a few years later. His father died when he was about thirteen years of age. His family came from a farming village and it is recorded that Buson squandered his family inheritance.
Buson travelled to Edo when he was seventeen, some say. It is also thought that he might have been slightly older, but this was when he began to study haiku. Buson studied the haiku tradition of Bashô and it is thought that his work is second only to Bashô. Shiki shocked the literary community in Japan, at the time, by saying that he thought Buson was a greater poet than Bashô, because he was more objective. This objectivity may have come from his observation and interest in painting. Buson is considered one of Japan’s finest artists.
During this period he began studying Chinese literature and art. Buson was literally a self-taught painter. He took a separate ‘go’ for his paintings.
When his haiku teacher died he began a ten-year period of wandering about the countryside, and retraced Bashô’s steps on his most famous journey: The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Buson also wrote a type of free-verse/prose haibun. One example, Uji Visit, can be read in William J. Higginson’s handbook2. It is considered that Buson was writing free verse long before the western influence almost swamped Japanese verse in the mid-nineteenth century, causing Shiki to revive it and save it from extinction.
It was during this period that Buson studied with other students, and stayed at Buddhist temples and earned his living as a haiku teacher. This is when he began to use the ‘go’ Buson. He published a collection of New Year Poems in 1744. He was twenty-nine years old. Some think Buson means ‘my fields and orchards are invaded by weeds.’ Perhaps he just wanted to return to his family farming village. He was also known to sign himself ‘Monk Buson’. And he signed some of his paintings: Buson Zensh.
In 1751 at the age of thirty-seven he stopped wandering and settled in Kyoto. He was virtually unknown as a poet and painter at this time and lived in Buddhist temples for the next few years. This is where he developed his unique technique as a painter. In 1760 he married. Little is known about his wife and daughter, although they are briefly mentioned in letters.
Buson brought the influence of Southern Chinese painting to Japan. He liked bright colours and quick brush movements. As art critics have noted, he used a relaxed wrist style and fluid elbow movement. His quick strokes reveal little use of the flat part of the brush. He appears not to have paid much attention to the mastery of the set types of brush strokes (which one is expected to practice for years until one can do them perfectly, when learning Japanese painting). This is further evidence that he was self-taught and spent many years practicing his own technique. Apparently his technique for art was different from Bashô’s advice for writers of haiku: learn the rules and then forget them.
Buson’s best known statement about haiku comes from his preface to a collection of a haiku diary called ‘Spring Mud‘, which he published in 1777. He says: ‘the essence of haiku is to use ordinary words and yet become separate from the ordinary,’ Be separate from the ordinary and still use the ordinary. Most of us would think this very difficult to do.
It is recommended in the Li Yu Mustard Seed Garden Manual for Painting that the painter should, from time to time, lay aside his brush and read poetry. Buson agreed with this advice and thought that surely haiku and painting was close. 3
His skill as an artist came into its own with ‘haiga’: the combination of haiku poems and painting. Buson was one of the most skilled of the ancient Japanese artists. He practiced three arts: literature, painting and calligraphy. It was very rare to be so skilled in all three. The painting to accompany a haiku poem is called a haiga. When calligraphy is also added the art is called ‘ghaiku’. Buson’s work is called ghaiku-spirited.Literary allusion often appears in haiku and because of the artist in Buson he is capable of bringing layers of meaning to his poems. At first his work may appear to merely be a beautiful painting in carefully chosen language. But it pays to take the time to search out and peel back the layers.
on a white peony 4
At first we may simply see a vividly painted picture in our minds. But if we think about it we see the whole universe; the eco-culture working in harmony, as it should be.
in a bitter wind
a solitary monk bends
to words cut in stone 5
Like many artists Buson did not retire or stop creating. He painted and wrote poems right up until he died, on 17th January 1784. He was buried near the master Bashô, as was his wish.
When I too depart,
I’ll adorn the master’s tomb
with dried pampas grass 6
1. Translated by Lafcadio Hearn.
2. Quoted from Creativity and Aging: What the Active Lives of Older Artists Can Tell Us, by Bruce Darling. (from the website P.5 of 10)
4. From Haiku Menagerie, by Stephen Addiss with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, Weatherhill: New York, 1992.
6. Quoted from Creativity and Aging: What the Active Lives of Older Artists Can Tell Us by Bruce Darling: (from the website P. 10 of 10)
William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook, How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku, with Penny Harter, McGraw Hill, New York: 1985.
R.H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Hokuseido Press, 2 Vols. Tokyo: 1971 & 1976.
Harold G. Henderson (ed.), Introduction to Haiku, Doubleday/Anchor, New York: 1958.
This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005, pp. 32-33