“This path no one walks along, evening of autumnal day.” — Basho
A path that no one walks along, on an autumn evening — what sense can we make of Basho’s mysterious image? It conveys a certain metaphysical pathos, one redolent with melancholy, yearning, and a haunting sense of the uncanny. A feeling can, though, be poignant, and yet dark, obscure, and unintelligible, especially one as profound as this. What, more precisely, is Basho seeking to communicate?
On the face of it, Basho’s poetic image of an untrodden road on an autumn evening evokes a sense of aloneness — although not necessarily loneliness — and, as we suggested, melancholy. After all, autumn is the time when the creations of the natural world are dying. It’s a prelude to the dark days of winter. The fact that it’s evening reinforces the moody feeling, although some translations of the haiku indicate, more accurately, that Basho’s poem is really referring to dusk, the time when the last remnants of sunlight are fading and evening begins.
The Power of Dusk
Dusk is an in-between time, a brief twilight period between two realms, day and night. It’s the mystical time when, according to some spiritual traditions, it’s possible to journey to the realm that lies between and beyond day and night, indeed beyond all of the polar opposites that constitute the warp and woof of the waking dream that we call “objective reality.” The traveler, who arrives at that placeless place, realizes the wholeness and completeness that lie beyond the opposites.
To arrive at that mystical realm is to grasp the true ontological standing of the polarities, to see that they mutually arise and are a product of our own mind. Immanuel Kant had used the term “the transcendental illusion” to refer to the world we experience, owing to our unawareness that it’s our mind itself that creates the categories — such as space and time and causality — that we mistakenly believe to be “out there,” in the sense of objective. I think, though, that the same could be said of unawareness that it’s our mind that creates the polar opposites that we imagine to exist independent of our cognition. To be awake to the transcendental illusion, in regard to the polar opposites, is to realize that the world that we experience is a function of dualistic thinking.
The Road that’s Been Patiently Waiting for Your Footsteps
A “path that no one walks along” is an image of “a road not taken,” but Basho’s road isn’t simply a life choice that the poet chose not to pursue, by virtue of having decided upon a different one, as in Robert Frost’s famous poem. It’s not about, for example, not having chosen to pursue a career as an English teacher. Rather, the path in Basho’s poem doesn’t run along a horizontal axis, i.e., it’s not about the individual and his decisions. Rather, Basho’s path essentially runs along the vertical axis, as do all spiritual paths, for it involves a journey down into the depths, and then upward to the heights, which lies beyond the dream. In other words, it’s the journey to the awakened state of consciousness.
Fear of the Undiscovered Country
It seems to be intrinsic to the human condition to have a sense that something’s missing from our lives, some vital aspect of reality. We sense that if we don’t find it, that we shall be forever incomplete. Usually, though, we imagine that what’s missing is something of a material nature, such as a new car, rather than a different state of being. The path, in Basho’s poem, represents the journey to true reality, where we can regain our wholeness and completeness. That is what we really yearn for, even if we don’t realize it.
Why, then, would anyone forsake the quest? It’s because there exists something about the road that’s far more unsettling, indeed far more dreadful, than aloneness, namely the uncanny. Freud rightly contends that the uncanny consists of a profound sense of not being at home. When we’re lost, in the ordinary sense, we at least know that we still inhabit Planet Earth, and that a map or a GPS can guide us home. But not being home, in the uncanny sense, is that we’ve left reality, as we know it. We’ve fallen down the rabbit’s hole, but not in any humorous and playful way, as in a Lewis Carol novel. That is the real “undiscovered country.” And as Shakespeare goes in to say, “…from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Just as there is no return from death, which is what Shakespeare is referring to, similarly there’s no return for the person who has travelled the mystical path at dusk, and walked until he’s reached the point of no return. He simply can’t forget what he’s seen. He’s no longer the same person. (It’s not that he has a different personality, but rather that that which is at the core of his being, his suffering, has been transformed into light.)
Freud considered the uncanny the most terrifying of experiences. To return to our discussion of dusk, for a moment, it’s telling that Rod Serling named his frightening TV show “The Twilight Zone.” He must have intuitively known that the twilight is a time when the strange path appears, the path between two worlds, and therefore the time of the uncanny. And so, is it any surprise, to use Basho’s metaphor, that few or none of us walk that autumnal path at dusk? Well, some do walk that path, those whose yearning for the light of truth is intense enough to endure the terrors.
What, then, is Missing?
What could it be that we’re missing? What is the obscure object of desire, which, were we able to obtain it, would make us feel complete? Plato claims that it’s the Form of the Good, which is his notion of that which is infinite, absolute, unconditioned, self-sufficient, and eternal, and philosophers and theologians have since had their own notions of the absolute. The existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers, contends that we must, out of necessity, experience a sense of incompleteness, owing to the perspectival and horizontal nature of consciousness. In other words, we can only perceive reality from a certain finite perspective. We cannot see, know, and experience it all at once. Jaspers is correct, in so far as everyday dualistic consciousness is concerned. But it’s possible to ascend to a level of knowing beyond dualistic consciousness, beyond the opposites, to what is known as the mystical level of knowing.
Who Is the No One, Who Walks Along the Path?
Basho was a Zen monk. Perhaps, Zen offers us another clue as to the haiku’s meaning, particularly as indicated by the words “no one.” Indeed, it suggests that someone might be walking the path, but that someone — having realized the Buddhist state of “emptiness” — has, in truth, become no one. Of course, the Zen sense of emptiness, hollowness, or nothingness, is not a state of lack, or deficiency, but rather one of fullness, or plenitude, that only the true infinite can provide. If so, this doesn’t relieve the sense of aloneness. And there is still a residue of melancholy, although now melancholy is mixed with wonderment. In regard to aloneness, the person who has awakened is all the more isolated from his fellows, as Plato indicates, in his cave allegory. Indeed, he is like one who is awake amongst sleepwalkers.
Some Additional Reflections in the Gloaming
The Delusion of Travel
It’s the hunger, the yearning, for “I know not what” that prompts a certain type of person to travel. Of course, world travel can be enjoyable as well as a broadening experience. It’s just that travel is often a surrogate for the vertical journey, the spiritual journey that the fates require of a person. A romantic soul is more likely to be deluded into wanderlust, seeking outward what should be sought inward. Imaginary places, like Shangri-La, or actual exotic locations, are simply symbolic images of an awakened state of being.
What about Dawn?
Like dusk, dawn is an in-between time, a twilight time, and a holy time. It’s the time when the day emerges out of the darkness, a time of spiritual power, renewal, and hope for a truly new day, and not just a rerun of the previous day. It is a time when the world seems clean, pure, fresh, and alive. (And which is why it’s an excellent name for a dish detergent.) Dawn also offers a narrow pathway to the realm that lies beyond life’s dualities, to the One. But dusk has a much different spiritual power than dawn, for the fading of the light gives dusk’s twilight moments a gravitas and an urgency that aren’t there at dawn. After all, we can always travel the path, but once we’re dead it will be too late.
Walking at Dusk as Spiritual Practice
In the above pages, I’ve been treating Basho’s untrodden path, at autumn, as a metaphor. But actually walking at dusk has been used, throughout the ages, as a spiritual practice. It’s been years since I read Carlos Castaneda’s books, but I seem to recall Carlos’ teacher, Don Juan Matus, utilizing certain types of walking to help Carlos gain knowledge and power. Buddhist spiritual practices tend to be meditative, which makes sense, since it’s more difficult to think when one is walking. But for those Westerners, like myself, who are inclined not to meditation, but to analysis, walking a path — especially in autumn, in the gloaming — can invite deep reflections, if you let it, for penetrating insight requires a certain openness and receptivity. I am no Thoreau, but I do know that, when the time is ripe, a tree, a cloud, or a horse can offer valuable clues to life’s deepest secrets. It might also happen that a deep question starts to pursue us or is lying in wait, ready to ambush us. It’s a good idea to carry a small notebook, in one’s pocket to write down any insights that come upon us, on such walks, or if one is so inclined, to channel one’s inner-Basho and to write down one’s own haikus. Depending on where the path is located, it might be prudent to bring along a dog, and to carry along a walking stick, pepper spray, a siren, and perhaps a firearm, for a spiritual being — assuming that he or she isn’t an angel — has a body that needs to be protected. Oh, and don’t even think of bringing a companion, for as Robert Hunter, songwriter of the Grateful Dead states, “There is a road, no simple highway, Between the dawn and the dark of night, And if you go no one may follow, That path is for your steps alone.” Yes, it’s for your steps alone.
Thus ends my peripatetic reflections.