Original woodcut by Akiko Naomura, used with permission of Council Oak Books
Original woodcut by Akiko Naomura, used with permission of Council Oak Books

When studying the work of the masters, / I watch the working of their minds.” Lu Chi’s advice to aspiring writers of the third century has been especially appealing to the followers of Basho, students and critics alike. Just when every scrap, every journal of every acquaintance, every letter and paraphrase had been thrice examined and commented on and theorized about, along carne the Kobe earthquake, and three hundred years after its completion, the “final” version of Basho’sNarrow Road to the Interior was discovered. A new, annotated manuscript edition was quickly published, confirming the longstanding proposition that the poet continued to revise his masterwork even during his last days. Basho is more than the author of certifiable classics. He is a very likeable fellow whose Zen practice and poetry practice were one, for whom poverty and homelessness were useful tools, and for whom travel was a primary teacher. He was a demonstrably brilliant teacher whose wisdom included knowing when to smile as a student turned away. He may have been gay, and he admitted to “exploring the ways of homosexual love.” He may have fathered a child. What we don’t know about Basho is almost as intriguing as what we do know. But not simply because he had an appealing personality. What is most intriguing is simply learning to watch the working of his mind. 

The young poet went to school on Chinese classics:

Confucius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, T’ao Ch’ien, and especially the recluse poets of the T’ang dynasty, Po Chu-i, Tu Fu, and Su Tung-p’o. He quotes and paraphrases and echoes them. Confucius observes, ”The study of the high begins with the low.” Basho advises his students, “Awaken to the high and return to the low,” and quotes lao Tzu, “Beauty and ugliness have one origin.” Confucius calls for the “rectification of language,” claiming, “All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.” Basho instructs his students in using high classical diction combined with very colloquial language that is “intensified through the rectification of words.”

Basho believed passionately in kado, the “Tao of poetry,” and fuga no michi, the “path (or road) of high culture.” He wrote, “Those who devote themselves to the truth of poetry (makoto) seek the spirit of the ancients in poetry.” He criticized a number of poems for being too allegorical or overloaded with symbolism. He advocated on behalf of karumi, “lightness,” meaning a kind of transparency through which we see or hear omokage, “shadows,” or quotes and paraphrases from history and the classics that deepen the resonance of the poem. Basho is a master of resonance, exactitude, and sensibility achieved through daily practice and refinement.

He tells his students that it is not enough merely to follow in the footsteps of the masters, but to “seek what they sought.” He spent a lifetime mastering the arts of wabite, “living poor,” modeling his practice on the Chinese recluse poets. Even the plantain (basho) tree presented by his students at his little hut, and from which he drew his pen name, is symbolic of classical Chinese sensibility.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.