Butterfly and Orchid ~ Haiku of Japan

Bashō wrote that he stopped at a teahouse and a woman named Chō (Butterfly) asked for a poem, so he wrote this for her.

ran no ka ya chō no tsubasa ni takimono su

an orchid
lends its fragrance
to the butterfly wings

(trans. David LaSpina[1])

"Orchid" byZuigetsu Ikeda

The woman in question evidently told Bashō that she once was a harlot but was now the tea-master's wife. This transformation impressed Bashō and reminded him of the noh play Eguchi (江口), which itself refers to a tale of the reclusive Zen poet Saigyō and a harlot he met while on one of his travels. (The 12th century poet Saigyō was Bashō's favorite poet and biggest source of inspiration)

During a rainstorm, Saigyō had met a harlot and asked her for shelter. She refused. He composed a poem on the spot complaining of her rudeness in refusing to aid a traveler. She replied with a poem of her own that basically said "I thought that as a monk you had given up all attachment to the world, so I would be wrong to give you the temptation of becoming attached to a stay under my roof". They are said to have then engaged in a longer conversation full of Buddhist views on life. No word on whether she let him in for that conversation or if he stood in the rain as they talked.

In the noh play, this tale of Saigyō is spun into a greater morality play, with the harlot actually being Fugen Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Virtue, her true identity only being revealed at the end as she changes into Fugen and ascends into the clouds.

The idea of a harlot also being a Bodhisattva may seem strange to us these days with the Western negative image of women who engage in this profession, but in pre-modern Japan the occupation was looked at more compassionately. The life of a prostitute was considered sorrowful and sad. Yet because of this, prostitutes were imagined to have gained a unique insight into the woeful nature of human life and this gave them a special wisdom.

Back to Bashō. Linguistically his poem echos the woman's transformation from harlot to tea-master's wife by beginning with only Sino-Japanese words and ending with only native Japanese words.

The season word (kigo) here is orchid, which is a season word for mid-autumn—or around now, using the traditional reckoning for the seasons.

Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku.

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    1. That is, me! If you like this translation, feel free to use it. Just credit me. Also link here if you can.


    Very cool haiku friend, the orchid is the national flower of my country Venezuela, I called much attention to this haiku, I always learn things about Japanese culture thanks to you and your haiku, thanks for sharing this great piece.