Don’t follow the old masters’ footsteps,
seek what they sought.

To learn about pine trees, go to the pine tree;
to learn of the bamboo, study bamboo.

Old pond
frog jumps in
the sound of water.

Whether in his poems or in his teachings about poetry, Basho sets forth his useful reminder with an incomparable and elegant simplicity: see for yourself, hear for yourself, enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing and all things will speak with and through you. One of Basho’s abundant gifts was the equality with which he met every form of existence: “Plants, stones, utensils, each thing has its individual feelings, similar to those of men.” For Basho, the path is through: entering deeply into the cry of a duck or a hototogitsu, chewing dried salmon or eating lettuce with worn-down teeth, watching a nectar-drunk bee emerging from a peony, the poet—or any person—can awaken into the true nature of the self, the splash of this moment’s water. Between frog, pond, water-sound, poet: no separation. 

For most of his life, Basho (1644-1694) supported himself by guiding other writers: compiling anthologies, commenting on his followers’ poems, receiving gifts of clothing and housing from those who admired and emulated his work. He took a kind of verse that had been close to a parlor game in its intentions and made of it a vehicle for understanding everyday life in a new way: bringing the surrounding commons, in which unnoticed life takes place, into interiority and depth. From the record we have of his teaching and approach to poetry, it is clear that he concerned himself, wanderer that he was in every sense, no less with the destination (a poem’s words, that is) than with the quality of the traveler’s attention: “Nothing is worthy of writing down unless it is seen with fresh eyes.” The process mattered. There are two ways poems happen, Basho counseled his students: some poems are made by technique, others arise as if of themselves, the poet virtually becoming the thing observed. We can see his opinion of the poem created solely by the writer’s will: “If we were to gain mastery over things, we would find that their lives would vanish without a trace.”

Yet even while foregoing any ambition of “mastery,” the path of poetry, like the path of Buddhist practice, is not without effort, requiring a concentration sufficiently deep to erase its own marks. A formal student of Zen who practiced at an Edo temple under the teacher Butcho, Basho learned the mind of meditative freshness equally from the study of earlier poets-the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty and especially the twelfth-century Japanese Buddhist priest Saigyo. “Saigyo in waka poems, Sogi in renga (linked verse), Sesshu’s paintings, Rikyu’s tea ceremony: all are moved by a single spirit,” one of Basho’s diaries begins, “The spirit of one who follows nature and its passing seasons.” From each of these expressions of the way, Basho learned the path of immersion and interconnection. Only when the space between poet and object has disappeared can the object be truly perceived, Basho taught his students, adding that for one who sees, there is nothing that does not become a flower, a moon. And so the writers of haiku could bring into the tradition of Japanese literary imagery a new possibility for the homely—a crow pecking up mud snails from between a rice paddy’s plants was Basho’s suggestion for haiku’s proper subject.

Waking mid-night—
the water jar cracks
in the freezing cold

The authority of Basho’s poetry is the authority of the world itself; yet the world of the poems is one that doesn’t exclude the human perception, feeling, and understanding through which they come into being. “Silence— / the cicada’s cry / falls into stone.” The poem describes what cannot be heard by following the hearable sound into its immoveable disappearance. In another version, the opening subject, “Silence,” is changed to “Loneliness.” Yet it would be a mistake to think one version more (or less) human-centered than the other. For Basho, as for Robinson Jeffers, human beings are not the center, bur coexistent with the rest of being.


It occurs to me that Basho’s description of the way of poetry can be thought of as offering a mirror-path to Dogen’s famous teaching that “to study the way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to awaken into the ten thousand things.” The haiku poet studies the ten thousand things one by one, going deeply into each in its particular, fleeting expression at the moment of the poem’s composition. In doing so, the poet forgets the self and enters, for that moment, a practice indistinguishable from Shakyamuni’s when, after long sitting under the Bo tree, he saw the morning star and touched the earth, saying as he did, “With this star all things and I awaken.” After, there is nothing to cling to: daylight comes, the Buddha stands up. And the haiku writer? “The poem,” Basho suggested, “only exists while it’s on the writing desk.” By the time the ink has dried, “it should be recognized as a mere scrap of paper.”

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