The Masters of Enlightenment: Basho



The series on the Masters of Enlightenment continues today with a look at Matsuo Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet who is internationally renowned as a master of haiku.

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 moras (or on), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 moras respectively. Although haiku are often stated to have 17 syllables, this is inaccurate as syllables and moras are not the same.  A mora is something of which a long syllable consists of two and a short syllable consists of one.

The art of haiku stems from the Zen tradition, which I discussed in the article on Alan Watts. The goal of Zen is for the direct transmission of Truth to occur, without intermediary; as Alan Watts would say, “This is it.”

Or as Alan Watts simply explained it: “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

In Zen, the desire is to have an awakening of the mind, an “Aha” moment (or in the Zen tradition, “satori”), using brief and simple koans, which are simple worded mind-bending questions and phrases that challenge the student to transcend their rational thinking capability in order to arrive at a transrational solution that allows them to open their mind to a greater reality.

This greater reality is called Zen mind, No Mind, or Big Mind.

Much of traditional Japanese culture is aimed at this direct transmission: the Tea Ceremony, the Flower Ceremony, food preparation, calligraphy, the martial arts, bonsai, and poetry – especially haiku, with its simple asymmetrical rhythm that has the power of helping the reader achieve satori.

And it is Basho who is revered for his simple haiku, with its clarity and simplicity.

Basho was introduced to poetry at a young age, and after integrating himself into the intellectual scene of the Japanese city of Edo, he quickly became well-known throughout Japan.

Basho composing a haiku

Basho composing a haiku

He made a living as a teacher, but renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles and was inclined to wander throughout the country, heading west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements.

He made many long journeys in his life throughout Japan; in between the journeys he would live in the countryside outside of Edo in a hut his disciples built for him. There he would teach, until his restlessness overcame him, at which time he would embark on another journey.

Two of his most famous haiku are these:

1) An ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

2) The rough sea
stretching out towards Sado
the Milky Way

And his last poem written before he died, his poem of farewell:

Falling sick on a journey
my dream goes wandering
over a field of dried grass

Here are other of Basho’s haiku:

From moon wreathed
bamboo grove,
cuckoo song.

Summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers dreams.

One of Basho's haiku

One of Basho's haiku

Not one traveller
braves this road –
autumn night.

Clouds –
a chance to dodge

Orchid breathing
incense into
butterfly wings.

Spring – through
morning mist
what mountains there?

Autumns end
how does my
neighbor live?

Black cloudbank broken
scatters in the night…now see
moon-lighted mountains!

Husking rice,
a child squints up
to view the moon.

Clouds come from time to time —
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.

Whore and monk, we sleep
under one roof together,
moon in a field of clover.

Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion.

To Kyoto
still half the sky to go—
snowy clouds