Monday, September 25, 2006

Garden sensei

THE FROG in our garden greeted me most mornings.

It would be at the base of the bonsai tree. Mud-green and still, it always faced the side as if it knew where it wanted to go but was in no hurry.

That frog made my mornings.

Once, after dinner, I sat in the garden. A sudden movement beside the stunted tree distracted me.

It was the frog.

When my eyes saw better in the dark, I spotted another frog near the first one. Moments later, another hopped into the pool of light cast by a window.

Where frogs are concerned, it matters what time of the day you see them.

I assumed the frog I saw in the morning was the same one because I assumed there was only one. Imagine those frogs rolling their eyes if they only knew!

Frogs’ eyes must spare them from the human condition. In his novel, “Dusklands,” the Nobel Prize winner for Literature J. M. Coetzee writes that the “spherical eye of a frog or toad” sees “all that (is) around him.”

In contrast, Coetzee writes, man’s eyes perceive only those “ahead of him.” If the frogs deigned to watch me watching them, would they jump to the same false conclusion that there was only one of me, no others?

One dawn showed me the depths of the karmic misfortune of not being reborn as an animal with eyes bulging from the top of its head so it can see in all directions at once.

Past midnight, I woke and looked out the window. Three frogs shed shadows on the grass.

I stared at them until it felt like a mini-Sahara of sleep dust trickled at the back of my eyes. Minutes passed and still not one fellow moved.

Then a frog crawled and another.

According to websites, frogs “jump” or “leap 20 times their body length.” References never mention them dragging those long, sinewy legs like climbers scaling a sheer but horizontal cliff.

I still don’t know why those fellows pulled a stunt like that to keep me awake till sunrise.

So it pleases me to know that I’m not alone in my befuddlement. The most translated and most obscure poem is about a frog.

Written almost 300 years ago by the 17th century sensei (teacher), Matsuo Basho, the “frog haiku” spawned more than 100 translations in the English language alone.

The version of the scholar Edward Seidensticker reads: “The quiet pond/ A frog leaps in,/ The sound of the water.”

The Beat Generation icon Allen Ginsberg rewrote it as: “The old pond/ A frog jumped in,/ Kerplunk!”

The shortest version was written by James Kirkup: “pond/ frog/ plop!”

It even exists as parody. “The old pond!/ Bashô jumps in,/ The sound of the water!” is Gibon Sengai’s version.

But I like best Robert Aitken’s comment. He wrote that Basho achieved zazen (clarity) when a frog appeared to him while he sat in a garden at dusk.

This, says Aitken, is the reason why the original haiku builds up to the final sound: “Furu ike ya/ kawazu tobikomu/ mizu no oto.”

According to Aitken, “oto” does not stand for any word in Japanese. It is the sound a frog makes when it breaks the water.

Even in a human contrivance such as a poem, trust the frog to have the last word.

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