Analysis of Spiritual Pilgrimage in The Narrow Road To The Deep North

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the adventure turns into the incredible similitude. Travel is life. Life is travel. There's no closure to travel; you succumb to death on the road, you’re conceived on the road. What's more, the road takes on a few implications. Be that as it may, it's a troublesome journey, that is the narrow road. It is anything but a simple road, and the pilgrim isn't simply somebody who's going touring. He's somebody who has thrown away the entirety of his possessions and essentially turns into a panhandler. What's more, it's through that venture that he creates poetry. Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North introduces three essential themes:

  1. impermanency, the ever-changing way of nature, and the transiency of all life;
  2. the notion of life as a type of spiritual journey; and
  3. the transformation of everyday life.

The theme of transiency in The Narrow Road to the Deep North is primarily associated with the ephemeral nature of human affairs and social life, and the whole of nature itself. The notion of impermanence is in response to the inescapable way of nature and fate of the whole world. This view of placing the fate of human life within the larger context of an impermanent, ever-changing nature relates to the prominence of the idea of death. The first hint of Basho’s awareness of impending death occurs in the opening passage, for the selling of his hut could very well indicate Basho did not expect to return from his journey. Ironically, Basho’s mentioning of hut and home — things normally designating stability and permanency — become symbols of change, warnings against a false sense of security, and reminders of the transiency of all life. Of all the passage depicting ephemerality and impermanence, none is more poignant than the second to last entry. The weary traveler wrote:

oh what loneliness…

more desolate than Suma

this beach in autumn

between each wave-break…

mixed with small shells, the debris

of bush-clover flowers.

Basho’s acute awareness of impermanence provided him not with a problem to be solved, however, but with the key to the solution of human unease with the transiency of life. Once one realizes that impermanency and death are neither aberrations of nature nor unfortunate mistakes in life, but rather essential characteristics in the very fabric of worldly existence, one no longer attempts to avoid loneliness, heart-ache, or the suffering concomitant with human mortality and instead willfully roots oneself in the impermanent nature of the universe. The Narrow Road to the Deep North suggests that Basho’s self-conscious “rooting” of himself with ever-changing nature took place through travel.

Pilgrimages to temples, shrines, sacred places, and poetic places formed an integral part of the travel tradition in Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho’s experience at Matsushima illustrates how his pilgrimage may be envisioned as an impassion pursuit of poetic truthfulness through immersion in nature. This leads to the traveler’s connectedness, interpenetration, and co-arising of all things — poet, rocks, cicadas, and silence. The final occasion of Basho’s attainment in which he ascends upon the Three Holy Mountains is worth mentioning. After climbing Mount Haguro, Basho refers to the Tendai sect, stating how the bright moon “holds up the lamp of perfection and enlightenment”. The grace revealed in the ascent up the mountains evokes reverence, awe, and compassion in everything it touches. Taken as a whole, the Three Mountains represent at once spiritual pilgrimage, “awakening to the high,” and “returning” to the world common life.

The theme of the transformation of everyday life is most accurately presented in Basho’s encounter with the prostitutes on their way to the shrine of Ise. The young women had fallen to shame and sorrow due to their unfortunate karma. Despite Basho’s apparent callousness, the story tellingly illustrates his insight into the common life. The first thing to notice is Basho’s refusal to criticize or condescend these women in any way. Basho believes that one should immerse oneself in the way of nature and accept “Buddha’s compassion”. It is only through accepting change, impermanency and the way of nature that one may gain true insight into the human condition and attain to reality. Basho, Sora and the two young women are all pilgrims on an endless journey characterized by impermanence. Basho embraces his condition, for the pilgrimage itself is both the journey and the goal; he accepts all things and everyone simply for what they are. Such insight renders suffering sufferable, and transforms the unsatisfactory condition of life into something infinitely more noble and honorable.

In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we find a humble, unpretentious pilgrim pointing out the simplicity, wonder and poetic beauty of all life. The insight of the Buddhist notion of the interpenetration of emptiness and impermanency provided the foundation of Basho’s poetic ideal of the unchanging and the ever-changing. The quest for a more complete realization of this ideal was a chief impetus in Basho’s spiritual pilgrimage. Ultimately, it is not only Basho’s world which one intends to experience more fully, but our own; Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, therefore becomes a Zen garden gate — inviting us on our own pilgrimage where “journeying is life, and journeying is home”.

09 March 2021
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