”No record surviving today specifies when or where Basho practiced Zen.” says Makota Ueda in biography of Basho. See that Basho cared more about friendship than he did about Zen.
Western authors toss about the statement “Basho practiced Zen” with no indication of what “practice” entails. If it is serious long-term self-discipline then, as Ueda says, Basho left no record of such practice. He wrote several verses about Zen monks, and a few about the experience of Zen meditation. In one letter Basho praises his friend Dosui’s serious spiritual discipline, and also discusses the Zen Priest Butcho – however nowhere in 229 letters does Basho speak of himself practicing Zen with Butcho.
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.
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. Butcho’s residence later became the temple Rinsenji, a short walk from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on either Hanzomon or Oedo Subway Lines (15 minutes from Shibuya). From Rinsenji is a five-minute walk to the site of Basho’s hut. Until Butcho’s petition was successful and he left the area in the summer of 1682, Basho probably did spend considerable time with the Priest and must have learned much from him – although none of this is recorded in Basho’s letters. From reading the 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.
Kon notes that Zen priests introduced the teachings of the ancient Chinese sage Chuang Tzu to Japan, and in Japanese books on Zen aare where you study Chuang Tzu. Zen contained two modes: the self-discipline of Zen meditation most often practiced by warriors as military training, and the free-thinking Taoist 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 Zen Priest Butcho not to learn the discipline of Zen but rather the non-discipline of Chuang Tzu (see my article E-4 From Chuang Tzu to Basho).
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.
Two well-known Basho haiku have been co-opted into Zen legends about Basho and Butcho; neither legend fits Basho biography, because when these haiku were written, Butcho was many miles away. According to one legend, as told by Ueda, Butcho at first discouraged Basho from writing haiku because he thought it distracted from Zen training. Basho is said to have commented, “Haiku is only what is now, before one’s eyes.” Butcho pointed to a wild hibiscus growing beside the path, and asked for a haiku to illustrate. Basho is said to have replied with
Butcho then decided that haiku could have a profound Zen meaning. Ueda notes that that this story is “unconvincing”; note that it does not mention a horse. In reality, Basho wrote this haiku while he was traveling in 1684 and saw his horse eat the wild flower.
In 1686 Basho wrote his ultra-famous haiku in response to a remark by Kikaku:
D.T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture says this verse was Basho’s response to a Zen koan from Butcho, although Hiroaki Sato explains that this story was hoax concocted by a man named Kitsuda Shunko in 1868. Michael Dylan Welch notes that people who believe “haiku is Zen” consider this haiku “the moment in which Basho’s study of Zen came to its sudden fulfillment, when the mystery of the universe was solved in the plop of the falling frog,” but Welch proposes that “haiku was not seeking Zen, but at times, if anything, might have sought what was Zen was seeking.”
Basho wrote numerous Zen-oriented haiku in the winters of 1680 and 1681; this even before he moved into his hut
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 the 30 years of his poetry, Basho seeks to transcend spatial and temporal barriers: to look at the actual 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, the first cold season he endured in his hut, Basho wrote several poems of the desolate sadness typical in Chinese Zen 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, or desolate loneliness, 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 poem about the basho or banana plant 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 the priest 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:
The Buddha usually sits on a pedestal of lotus blossoms, but in Basho’s he will have to settle on mere weeds. Zen for fun.
In 1683, Basho followed a renku stanza about Zen with a stanza that expresses his Zen consciousness:
The observation of a single petal falling from a poppy brought a novice enlightenment, and he took his name as a Zen monk from that moment. Basho says no word of Zen, however because this is linked verse, the Zen in the previous stanza flows into his stanza. The slender crescent on the 3rd night of the lunar month rises from the east during the day and hardly can be seen. As the evening bell of the temple tolls, the
moon leaves the east dark as it passes into the west where it can be seen. Later in this article are two more Basho renku about Zen which portray the sky and celestial bodies; he brings our attention to the vast panorama of sky and the even vaster panorama of time passing. This is his Zen consciousness.
Viewing a pine said to be a thousand years old:
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.
Someone immature has stolen a single orchid, thinking it would not be missed. From this human pettiness, Basho switches to enlightenment: the dew suggests impermanence; as the silent monk opens the door to go out into the garden, he opens the door to the Truth. Here are two poles in the continuum of humanity, from self-ignorance of a juvenile delinquent to total self-awareness of an enlightened monk.
In a 1690 letter to his follower Kykusui, Basho wrote
Sudden enlightenment which comes like a flash of lightning is “raw Zen.” To be enlightened for a moment is useless. True Zen must be “cooked” through experience and time.
After early morning meditation, the Zen monk rests, sipping tea from a fine ceramic cup. His calmness matches that of the flowers.
In 1687 Basho describes going to visit Butcho at his home temple in Chiba with Sora and his nieghbor, the Zen monk Soha:
In this lovely sketch of a travelling Zen monk, Basho uses lively active verbs – “wears…carries…hangs…carries…strikes…touches. . . walks” to convey the state of non-attachment sought in Zen. The Gateless Barrier is a book of Zen koans, but Soha transcends all barriers.
Basho means himself: he 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 no fan of the self-discipline of Zen.
Basho wrote the next haiku on an ink drawing he did of the 9th century Chinese Zen monk and hermit Han Shan with a broom in his hands (this drawing appears on page 347 of Ueda’s Basho and his Interpreters). Here is the meaning most translators see:
Kon offers another possibility for the Japanese:
Basho expresses the Zen ideal of bouga, 忘我, “self-forgetting” or “selflessness,” in which the there is no individual divided into body and mind, selfhood and relation to others, active and passive, living and inanimate; there is only awareness of the whole, the Buddha nature, in which these two translations flow into each other.
In the first half of his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho tells of visiting Butcho’s former hermitage in Tochigi:
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 in Kanazawa:
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 the second half of Basho’s journal mirrors the first: thus these enthusiastic young Zen monks mirror the boisterous young people on the road to a Zen monument. Always, always I 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 Zen meditation; although he is not necessarily speaking about himself, we take his words that way. In the first verse, 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 even when cloudy, throughout human life even when emotions surge within us, and throughout time no matter what happens, 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; his focus is on physical activity leading to stillness and concentration.
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 along with that sharp pain between your neck and shoulders.
We have two verses, one including the word “zazen,” the other specifying a Zen custom, which do suggest that Basho practiced Zen – although the people who claim that “haiku is Zen” have no knowledge of these renku. They go on and on with abstract Zen philosophies which they ascribe to Basho although Basho never says any of this, but they neglect his renku which specify Zen. Also we notice in both verses the unconventionality of Basho’s Zen: he meditates outdoors, not in a meditation hall; focusing on celestial bodies, the North Star and the Moon in the vast night sky.
Only in this 1694 New Years letter to his follower Dosui does Basho mention Butcho, but still says nothing about practicing Zen with him. The Priest is once again staying at his Fukagawa residence.
So poetry, not “the Great Way,” Taoism, was their common interest.
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. They note it was written to express togetherness with three friends. 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 that Basho is austere and aloof from people, and leads into Zen philosophy. The plural 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.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion are,
I believe, the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material,
to edit and improve the presentation, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom worldwide, and preserve for future generations