I’ve just returned home from the New Year sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I’m a student of John Daido Loori. Basho was there, too. Not in person, of course (having died in 1694), and not in print, since reading and writing are not allowed during sesshin. But he was there nonetheless, a stowaway in my mind, because I was trying hard to achieve what the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in another context, called “a perfectly useless, self-forgetful concentration,” and Basho’s poems, which spring from exactly that kind of mind, have been another of my teachers.

For those who have never attended a sesshin, to say that it’s an arduous and intense experience would be the understatement of the kalpa. Seventy or eighty participants gather at the monastery for a week of concentrated practice. There’s no talking or eye contact. Attention is turned inward, away from the world’s distractions, in fierce scrutiny of the fiction that is the self. As the great thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen put it, “to study the self is to forget the self.” Sesshin provides a rare opportunity to practice this difficult work. The days become a complex flow of zazen, care-taking of the buildings and grounds, liturgy, oryoki (highly formalized, ritualized meals), and rest. But mostly zazenabout eight hours out of each day, which begins at 4:20 and ends with lights out at 9:30. When the body is perfectly still and the senses have nothing to play with, the mind’s activity is the only show in town. “Mind that abides nowhere must come forth,” says theDiamond Sutra. It was there, in the active silence of the zendo, that Basho’s words would appear in my mind like petals falling, there and then not there.

The making of poetry, like zazen, requires us to constantly confront the exact nature of the self. In a recent interview the writer Lucy Grealy speaks of “the space between the T who is being written about and the T who is doing the writing.” It’s in this small rift that Basho’s startling transparency becomes apparent. His poems are expressions of a human consciousness that has made itself nearly invisible in language. The poems open right where the self might appear but does not, as if their roots were in one world and their flowers in another:

A cloud of flowers—
Was that the bell of Ueno
or Asakusa?

There’s a human presence in this poem, a hearer, but it’s unlocatable, floating somewhere between the flowering branches overhead and the sound of the temple bell. It simply perceives and reports its split-second moment of consciousness, which consists of nothing but a tiny disturbance—the bell—marking an otherwise vacant perception of flowering trees. The sound is like a scribble of wind on a still lake; the object of perception and the act of perception are one and the same. Of this poem Robert Aitken writes that it expresses “exactly the condition of the Zen master sleeping on a tiger.” Kaijun Mold, one of the monastics, gave a talk during sesshin in which she spoke of a “second naturalness,” or innocence, which comes after long practice, when the mind’s seemingly tireless commentary finally wears itself out and a different kind of consciousness is possible. I think this is what the poet Robert Hass is talking about when he says that Zen provides “people with training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing.” This notion of a second innocence interests me both as a poet and as a practitioner because it goes to the heart of the always-underlying questions in all its guises: What is the self, anyway! What voice speaks to the world out of poems that outlive their maker, as all poems ultimately do? What happens to the self, the mind, when it stops thinking and seems to disappear? Where does it go! Where does what go!

Basho’s poems seem to unfold in the kind of responsive naturalness that animals have, or very young children before the tsunami of conditioning engulfs them entirely. Vestiges of that first innocence often appear in children’s poems and paintings, as in these examples, both by seven-year-olds:

Sometimes I get caught
in a time breeze
and think about
when I was little.

—Laura Janoff


Shhh. listen.
Can you hear the teachers talking?
My magic ear can hear concentrating.
The teacher is loud, the concentrating is soft.
—Shelby Scudder

But Basho’s is not original innocence. Rather, it is the state of being to which the Zen mind-in-training aspires: a consciousness free to move through the world unencumbered by self. It is hard-won, a second innocence, and Basho is one of its purest exemplars on paper.

Here’s another of his haiku, one that visited me often during sesshin:

Though in Kyoto,
I long for Kyoto
At the song of the cuckoo.

This is a spooky little poem, isn’t itt It speaks of the strange sensation we sometimes have when we realize that our longing is deathless, with no genuine object. It’s just longing: I want, I want. The new car merely displaces the craving onto something else, because the mind remains unchanged by the Toyota in the garage, and the craving is only a manifestation of mind. It doesn’t matter what it is we long for: love, money, fame, a pair of red boots. Unless we’re able to realize firsthand that the mind is the thief, we’ll continue to long for Kyoto when we’re already there. The cuckoo’s song is a flash of self almost-appearing, like a trout taking a fly without actually breaking the water’s surface.

The work of Zen is to reach the ground of being, to perceive the true nature of the self, which, as it turns our, is a phantom. This is also the work of poetry, at least for me: to erode the membrane between self and the world, so that a newly innocent consciousness can emerge, one that sees what it sees without commentary, analysis, or judgment. I want to see the melon as Basho sees it:

In the morning dew
Dirtied, cool,
a muddy melon.

Japanese haiku are written as a single line in three distinct phrases (though they are usually rendered in English as three lines). It’s useful to look at this one in the original: Asatsuyu ni /yogorete suzushi / uri no doro, or (Robert Aitken’s word-for-word translation) “morning dew in / dirty cool / melon of mud.” The delicate music of this poem gets lost in the rock-and-roll of English stresses, but its imagery survives the trip. I almost prefer it in its word-for-word form because the order and specificity of its pieces exactly replicate the mind perceiving the melon—that fragile, spontaneous and instantaneous, innocent moment of perception. Just a cool dirty melon in the morning dew. Nothing more. No eyes.

At the end of the sesshin, when the precautions were lifted and I came blinking back into the light, able to look for the first time at those who had been my companions all week, to hear their voices, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a sleek gray shape covered with buttons and numbers. It looked like something from the future—how mystifying and strange to find it in my pocket! For five full seconds I didn’t recognize my cell phone. Then the sensory avalanche of the world came tumbling back over me, and the work continued, the same work Basho was doing in seventeenthcentury Japan. In twenty-first-century America, his poems go on teaching me how to, in his words, “achieve enlightenment, then return to this world of ordinary humanity.” 

Basho haiku translated by Robert Aitken (A Zen Wave, Weatherhill).

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