Makoto Ueda says ”No record surviving today specifies when or where Basho practiced Zen.” Western authors toss about the statement “Basho practiced Zen” with no indication of what “practice” entails. If it is serious prolonged-for-years self-discipline then, as Ueda says in his biography, Basho left no record of such practice. He did leave some evidence in linked verse that he sometimes meditated. In one letter Basho praises his friend Dosui’s long term spiritual discipline – however nowhere in 222 letters does Basho speak of himself practicing Zen, nor do any of his followers tell us of him doing so.
Apparently he did study with the Zen Priest Butcho for about a year and a half, from winter of 1680 through 1681 and into 1682, and at this time he shaved his head he wrote this stanza:
We cannot know if he kept it shaved, since he is always portrayed wearing a hat.
In 1690, Basho wrote of his youth twenty years before:
To “enter a monastery” would have been to shave his head and become a monk at a Zen temple. Japanese Language Instructor Shoko observes that the grammar in this passage expresses Basho’s indecisiveness at that time in his life: “Ohh, what shall I do? This or that?” As it turned out, he did neither.
Basho wrote numerous Zen-oriented haiku in the winters of 1680 and 1681; this even before he moved into his hut near Butcho:
The monk holds up his umbrella although there is no rain; this is Basho’s Zen koan: the incongruity challenges us to forego rational thought and look deeper into the nature of reality. As he does so often throughout this trilogy, Basho seeks to transcend spatial and temporal barriers – to look at the monk and his raised umbrella in the sunshine, and ‘see’ rain falling on them a short time ago in a different place.
In the winter of 1680 Basho moved to a hut (in what is now Tokiwa 1-chome in Koto-ku, just cross the river from downtown Tokyo) provided by his follower and patron Sampu. An eminent Zen priest, Butcho, was staying nearby while he petitioned the Shogunate for a land grant to his temple in Chiba many miles to the east.
Exiting Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on either Hanzomon or Oedo Subway Lines (15 minutes from Shibuya), you will see a busy intersection. Notice the street sign in English: “Kiyosu-bashi Street.” From that sign, without crossing either road, walk for about one minute. Just before the Denny’s on your left there is a small temple, Rinsenji This was Butcho’s residence; it was not a temple then, though Basho and other people came here to listen to the Priest lecture, ask him questions, and meditate.
From the temple go past the Denny’s, cross the main road, and find the little bridge across the stream flowing into the large Sumida River. Cross the bridge and take the first left: on your right a tiny shrine marks the site of Basho’s hut. The bridge existed in Basho’s time, so he could walk to Butcho’s place in five minutes. Until Butcho’s petition was successful and he left the area in the summer of 1682, Basho probably did spend considerable time with Butcho and must have learned much from him. From reading Basho’s letters, Shoko gets the impression that Basho dabbled in Zen while Butcho was nearby. Certainly Zen influenced his consciousness and his poetry -- along with many other influences.
In the winter of 1680, the first cold season he endured in his hut, Basho wrote many poems of this sadness inherited from ancient Chinese poetry.
Ueda says, “The hyperbolic style poeticizing loneliness is also from Tang verse…The elements of Chinese verse are made to serve his prime purpose: to present his own feelings.” Yes, to present his own feelings – to be self-absorbed in his own loneliness and misery.
Much of the sabi in Basho come from this year and a half when he was into Zen and the sadness and self-absorption of ancient Chinese poetry. These sad, lonely verses said to be “characteristic of Basho” actually only characterize this 18-month period when a Zen priest was his neighbor; and yet in spring of 1681, in the midst of his heavy Chinese Zen period, Basho did write this light happy verse:
The interjection ja is kind of jazzy -- so I translate “yeah!” The usually grim serious priests float along, and the usually staid housewives “slither” their hips in an erotic manner, all because of the joyful exuberance of cherry blossom season. The verse is very fashionable; it expresses the liberated mores of yuppies in Edo these days. Not exactly a Zen way of looking at things.
But when the winter of 1681 came, Basho was even more absorbed in Chinese Zen desolation’ – for instance this about the basho or banana plant growing in his garden, the plant which gave him his pen-name:
Basho obviously means himself. The poem drips with desolate loneliness – but that desolation seems to have tapered off from 1683 when Butcho was no longer his neighbor.
In the summer of 1684, Basho was presented a wooden statue of Buddha rising into Nirvana to display in his “hut of weeds.” He wrote:
On a journey at Taima temple he wrote:
Monks live a half-century, flowers a single season, either a mere fraction of the existence of this pine. The vast age of the tree leads to a realization of the Dharma, the Law of Buddhism that all beings must die and reincarnate.
Two well-known Basho haiku have been co-opted into Zen legends about Basho and Butcho; neither of them fits Basho biography: According to one legend – as told by Ueda – Butcho at first discouraged Basho from writing haiku because he thought it a distraction from Zen training. The two were walking together, when Basho said, “Haiku is only what is now, before one’s eyes.” Butcho pointed to a hibiscus (or rose mallow) growing beside the path, and asked for a haiku to illustrate. Basho replied with
Butcho then decided that haiku could have a profound Zen meaning. Ueda notes that that this story is “unconvincing.” In reality, Basho wrote this haiku on his journey of 1684 while Butcho was in Chiba.
In 1686 Basho wrote this ultra-famous haiku in response to a remark by Kikaku:
There is a story, told by D.T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 238-240, that this verse was Basho’s response to a Zen koan from Butcho. In reality, however, as noted before, Butcho was only in Basho’s neighborhood until 1682; in 1686 Butcho was home in Chiba, too far from Edo to spend any time with Basho. Hiroaki Sato explains that this story was hoax concocted by a man named Kitsuda Shunko in 1868.
In 1687 Basho describes going to visit Butcho at his home temple in Chiba with Sora who, having given up his samurai status, is a ronin, “man of the waves,” a wandering samurai with no master (like a modern surfer) and his neighbor, the Zen monk Soha:
A lovely little sketch of a Zen monk on a journey. Basho begins with specific visual imagery, then uses active physical verbs “strikes . . .touches. . .walks” to describe the state of non-attachment sought in Zen. The Gateless Barrier is a book of Zen koans, but Soha transcends all barriers.
Basho separated from society to wander about in monk’s robes, but he did not go so far as to become a monk. Somewhere in between, he is like a rodent with membranes stretched like sails between fingers and body, no match for the muscular wings of birds. Bats hibernate in caves until warm weather wakes them:
Basho gave this verse to a monk leaving on a journey, telling him to “lighten up” -- all Buddhism and no play makes a dull monk. Come out of that cave and fly about. Get high, man. Basho was not much for the self-discipline part of Zen.
According to his follower Kyoriku, Basho repeatedly said:
Each morning, re-invent yourself, a completely new person. Such a philosophy demolishes any possibility for self-discipline -- defined as being the same today and tomorrow as yesterday.
In the first half of A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho tells of visiting Butcho’s former hermitage
Basho portrays human interaction, being with young people so vigorous and high-spirited that he forgets where he is. Later on in this passage, Basho talks about ancient Chinese Zen monks, but I am more interested in the liveliness of these ordinary young people which so captivated the poet.
In the second half of A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho writes of staying the night at a Zen Temple
The succession of three sound images -- wind, sutras, gong – form a sensory experience of early morning at a Zen temple. Note, however, that Basho did not get up to attend morning service. He hears the chanting through the walls while he lies in bed.
As Basho steps down the temple stairs to the ground, the young monks “pursue” him (another active lively verb) eager to get a poem from Basho poem (in our time, it would be a selfie). He came all the way to this Zen temple in remote Kaga province, yet did not attend morning service and says nothing about meeting with priests or senior monks. Instead he focuses on the vigor and enthusiasm of these young, bald headed men. Because they are Zen monks, they hold in their youthful enthusiasm, but because they are also eighteen-to twenty-year old guys, that energy still comes from them. Many have noted that the second half of Basho’s journal mirrors the first: thus these enthusiastic young Zen monks reflect the boisterous young people on the road to a Zen monument. Always, always we focus on the variations of humanity in Basho’s works.
The guest who has stayed the night may sweep the temple garden to show gratitude – and sweeping with a broom is a task frequent given to students of Zen; focusing on the repetitive motions of sweeping is one path to Oneness.
Basho’s stanzas on this two-page spread may come from Basho’s own practice of Zen - although he is not necessarily speaking about himself, we take his words that way. Here he specifies zazen, sitting meditation, a discipline practiced, usually in a meditation hall, seeking to concentrate enough insight into the nature of existence to gain enlightenment. The aim of zazen is just sitting, that is, suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them.
Sora offers an image of passionate humanity: a girl missing her father totally loses it to emotion. Seifu counters with an image of eternity without humanity or passion -- an obvious, even blatant Zen message: the Way never changes but sometimes cannot be seen. As the North Star remains constant throughout the night, throughout human life, and throughout time, so must be your discipline in Zen if you are serious about practicing, which Basho was not. Basho follows Seifu with a personal experience of Zen meditation – however he is not merely sitting in zazen; he is climbing onto a large rock to do so; the focus is on activity leading to stillness. Basho does his Zen not inside a temple, but rather outside, concentrating on the heavens.
The next verse tells of the practice in Zen of the Master striking the meditator on the band of muscle between the shoulder and the neck with a thin somewhat flexible wooden cane that stings but does not injure. The purpose is to wake up the student and from sudden sharp sensation induce realization of the Way.
The subject is meditating on the Zen koan, ‘In the form of a frog there is no voice.’ No matter how we dissect a frog, nowhere can we find the croak that fills the night above the pond. The voice exists somewhere outside of flesh and blood. How is this possible? Whack! Don’t go there, dude; you just end up debating within yourself the endless variations in philosophy between “form” and “substance” and “spirit.” You’ll never gain enlightenment that way. Return to the physical world: the slender white crescent of moon, and that sharp pain between your neck and shoulders.
We have two two verses, one including the word “zazen,” the other specifying a Zen custom, which do support the claim that Basho practiced Zen – although the people who claim Basho practiced Zen have no knowledge of these verses. Also we notice the unconventionality of his Zen: he meditates outdoors, not in a meditation hall; focusing on celestial: bodies, the North Star and the Moon..
Someone immature has stolen a single orchid, thinking it would not be missed. From this human pettiness, Basho chooses a metaphor for Zen Buddhism: the world heavy with dew suggesting impermanence, the monk in utter silence opens the door to go out into the garden, as he opens the door to the Truth. The two stanzas portray two poles in the continuum of humanity, from the self-ignorance of a juvenile delinquent to the total self-awareness of the enlightened monk.
Sudden enlightenment which comes like a flash of silent lightning, is “raw Zen.” To be enlightened for a moment is useless. True enlightenment can only come from experience through time.
After early morning meditation, the Zen monk rests, sipping tea from a fine ceramic cup. His calmness matches that of the flowers.
On May 18, 1690 Basho sent a short letter to Dosui, Kyokusui’s younger brother who, like Basho and most second sons in Japan, has no role in his household and can spend his time practicing disciplines or studying or whatever. Dosui and Basho share an enthusiasm for the 3rd Century BCE Chinese sage Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) who is most famous for his story of waking up from dreaming he was a butterfly to wonder whether if actually he was a butterfly dreaming of being Chuang-Tzu. In the letter is this haiku:
Kon Eizo, pre-eminent authority on both Basho haiku and letters, elaborates:
“You and I are one in our attraction to Chuang Tzu.
We can give up all notions of distinction between us.”
Kon notes that Zen priests introduced the teachings of Chuang Tzu to Japan, and to study Chuang Tzu you read books on Zen. We see that Zen contained two modes: the self-discipline of Zen meditation and the free-thinking philosophy of Chuang Tzu. Because Basho speaks so often of that ancient sage in his poetry and prose, it appears likely that Basho studied with the Priest Butcho not to learn the discipline of Zen but rather the non-discipline of Chuang Tzu.
Only in this 1694 New Year letter to Dosui does Basho mention Butcho, but still says nothing about practicing Zen with him. The priest is once again staying at his Fukagawa residence.
How succinctly and cogently Basho expresses how self-discipline leads to self-realization. Basho praises Dosui for his Zen discipline and encourages him to continue – while noting that he himself would never do anything like that. At no point in his life does Basho show any self-discipline. Basho wanders about like a butterfly, like Chuang Tzu.
Is Basho saying that Zen priests talk too much?
Basho wrote the following verse at Bokusetsu’s tea hut in Zeze; with him and the host were Shiko and Izen:
Four-and-a-half tatami mats (about ten feet square) is the size of a one-room tea hut. As usual in Japanese, singular or plural are not indicated. Westerners have taken this poem with “my” instead of “our” and the singular “heart” or “mind.” Thus the late Zen priest Robert Aitken translated:
Inclination of my mind!
A four-and-a-half-mat room
In singular, this is “my” individual experience of Tea Ceremony and the Zen philosophy that goes with it.
The Japanese have an altogether different way of seeing this haiku. Basho wrote it to express his togetherness with Bokusetsu, Shiko, and Izen. So “our hearts draw close” to each other on the four and a half mats. The Western interpretation focuses on the individual and the philosophic, The Japanese interpretation reflects the actual situation and focuses on group consciousness. The singular interpretation allows us to say Basho is austere and aloof from people, and leads into Zen philosophy. The plural interpretation affirms his warmth and affection for humanity; instead of Zen philosophy, he offers a philosophy of friendship: rather than self-absorption, absorption in a group of friends.