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.

He wrote in The Knapsack Notebook:

Saigyo in poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Rikyu in the tea ceremony-the spirit that moves them is one spirit. Achieving artistic excellence, each holds one attribute in common: each remains attuned to nature through the four seasons. Whatever is seen by such a heart and mind is a flower; whatever is dreamed is a moon. Only a barbarian mind could fail to see the flower; only an animal mind could fail to dream a moon. The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian or animal heart and mind, to become one with nature.

In Narrow Road to the Interior, he makes a pilgrimage to stand under a willow where Saigyo had stood and written five hundred years earlier, “beside a clear stream,” as if sharing the spirit of the place could bring him closer to the clear stream of his master.

In July 1691, struggling with failing health, Basho moved into a cottage near Kyoto that looked out on fields and mountains of the Iga Basin and wrote a wonderfully erotic poem:

Under the harvest moon,
fog rolling down from foothills,
mist and clouds in the fields

His poem alludes to a fixed epithet (“clouds and rain”) that was commonly used in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry to refer to sexuality. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. Watching the weather and the workers, he sees the eroticism of the earth itself, and presents it by reexamining what is basically a cliche, except that his clouds are real clouds and his misty rain just what he describes. He resists the temptation to comment or to draw parallels, believing the clarity and double meaning of the image and language sufficient to establish a sweep of understanding.

The double evocation created by the mot juste is almost a signature of Basho’s poetry. In one of his last poems, he wrote:

Kono michi ya
Yaku hito nashi ni
Aki no kure

All along this road
Not a single soul—only
Autumn evening

Aki no kure can also be correctly translated as “autumn’s end.” Those who know the life of the poet may also understand that this poem was written at a time when a number of his longtime followers had begun to critcize him, so that he probably felt particularly alone, his health in decline, and his allies abandoning him. Still another reading suggests a more Zen-inspired interpretation that underscores the solitariness, the aloneness, of daily practice, dailykensho, the daily enlightenment that is essential to haiku mind. “Yesterday’s self is already worn out!”

But for the poet, the classics are not only eternally refreshing, they serve, in Lu Chi’s words, “as models for the examination of the good and bad in writing.” Several passages in Narrow Road to the Interior are modeled directly on classic No plays, the Chinese True Treasury of the Ancient Style, and others. And yet each haibun [a combination of prose and haiku] is distinctly Basho. And an important ingredient in that sensibility is how details of his personal life illuminate certain passages and poems, while the bigger picture of his personal life remains virtually unknowable. In the end, it is the writing that matters, not whether he was gay or had children. He remains a nearly perfect model for the conduct of a life in poetry and Zen.

Returning to the past again and again, Basho enlightens the present. He wrote in his Knapsack Notebook,

From the earliest times, the art of the travel journal has been appreciated by readers. The great Ki-no-Tsurayuki wrote the famous Tosa Journal, and Kamo-no-Chomei recorded life in a ten-foot-square hut. The nun Abutsu perfected the genre. All the rest merely imitate these masters. My brush, lacking both wisdom and inspiration, strives vainly to be their equal. . . . Nothing’s worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes.

Three hundred years after Basho made his famous journey through the northern interior, I followed his trail, translating his poems and those of many classical Japanese poets along the way, and writing a little travel book of poetry and prose, Basho’s Ghost. In one passage, I talked about samu, “devoted labor,” taking the temple sand gardens as an example. I had Basho in mind when I wrote:

Raking the sand, there is plenty of sand to be raked, and indeed some of it seems at first to be the sands of one’s own life, sands of the hourglass, or sands from a remembered beach. Samu suggests a right-mindfulness toward one’s work, toward all of one’s work. Raking the sand, one sifts through illusion and deceit, through guilt and embarrassment and anger, until, eventually, slowly and carefully raking the sand, one gets at last to the sand The work is part of the koan.

Poetry is a mostly solitary practice, as is shikantaza, just sitting. The Sixth Patriach Hui Neng says the practice is rooted in “silent solitary self-illumination,” and isn’t that very close indeed to the practice of poetry I Thirteen years after my journeys with the ghost of Basho, his guidance and his companionship are constant, as is the struggle to “be one with nature,” to “know all the rules (of composition), then forget them,” and to “see with fresh eyes.” I, too, follow kado, the Way of Poetry. Basho’s teachers are my teachers. But only a fool of a poet would compare himself to Basho. Following his advice, I seek what he sought.

The following recent poem is addressed to one of his teachers, famous for a series of poems about wine-drinking in his garden. But it could just as easily have been addressed to Basho. The haibun master’s influence on my life and work is indelible—not in the poetry directly, perhaps, but in my sense of the practice and function of poetry and Zen.

Reply to Tao Ch’ien:

June rain drizzles through the heavy boughs
of cedar and spruce and knocks
the blossoms from the cherry trees.
Rhododendron blossoms also fall
as blue irises begin to open.
The bamboo shoots shoot up so quick
I can almost watch them grow.
In the first light of day I sit
in silence, watching one old crow patrol the borders of my garden.

Whatever truth you told me
in your garden long ago, it returns,
here, now, in the poem that begins

just beyond its words. ▼

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.