Basho’s Zen: Matsuo Basho and the Buddhist influence on his Haiku Poetry — profound wisdom in three lines

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694, painted by Kamimura Hakuo.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is regarded as among the greatest poets — not only in Japanese literature, but worldwide. He is the undisputed master of the now world-famous Haiku form of poetry.

By Lee Clarke, Contributing Writer

Haikus are short Japanese poems, traditionally composed of three lines in a 5-7-5 seventeen syllable format. Even though Haiku are normally associated with Zen Buddhism in popular culture, it should be noted that they aren’t specifically a ‘Buddhist form of poetry’ and anyone can write a Haiku, whether they are Buddhist or not as a great post here [Haikuapprentice.com] that states, poetry and Haiku are universal.[1]

Basho though, was a Zen Buddhist and a lay monk, and did incorporate many Buddhist themes into his poetry and some can be read as inspiring through a Buddhist lens, whether they were meant to be read that way or not. This article then will be about a number of Basho’s Haiku that I feel have a particular Zen flavour or that have inspired me as a Buddhist myself. As with my last article on the subject of Zen Koans on Buddha Weekly, these are my interpretations alone, poetry means different things to different people and there are no ‘wrong’ interpretations of the poems below.

As Jane Reichhold, translator of all of Basho’s Haiku into English, and an accomplished Haiku poet herself states about Basho’s religious beliefs:

…haiku and Zen are often closely linked. Basho never actually became a Monk, though he studied Zen for many years and when he travelled, he shaved his head and wore the robes of the order. At one point he seriously considered taking vows but that would have meant giving up poetry, which was something he simply could not do. Still, because he had assimilated the precepts and teachings of Buddhism, his poetry is infused with Buddhist ideas and ideals to a degree not found in the works of most other writers.[2]

Glory to Buddha… such coolness

In some Haiku, Basho bluntly writes about Buddhism or the Buddha such as this one:

“Glory to Buddha,

On a pedestal of grass

Such coolness”.[3]

Contributing writer Lee Clark: “I’m a Buddhist, Quaker, Humanist, existentialist and pacifist. Budding professor of religion. Love many subjects, bilingual third year uni student.” On Twitter>>

As Reichfold’s commentary states, since Basho travelled all around Japan and spent a lot of time outside with nature, he could only use grass as an altar for the picture of the Buddha (an image his friend had sent him). Though it needs no real interpretation, I liked it because it shows how much he admired the Buddha, putting the sacred image on on the grass.

It also brings the Buddha down to our level, and shows that anyone, no matter your income, social class or anything else can practice and follow his teachings.

Basho, who lived a life of poverty, still found time to set up an altar and this should reinforce in us the Buddha’s effort to include and treat all people as equals and encourage us to do the same.

In other Haiku, Basho’s meaning is hidden in rich symbolism and must be interpreted in order to get to its ‘Zen essence’. The following Haiku is Basho’s best-known poem and probably the most well known poem in all of Japan. Whilst it looks simple, it carries within it a deep Buddhist meaning.

“Old Pond

A frog jumps into

The sound of water”.[4]

 

This particular Haiku could be interpreted to be describing the Zen doctrine of sudden enlightenment or ‘Satori’ with the still pond being the normal, unenlightened mind and the frog hitting the water representing the attainment of a sudden and brief enlightened state represented in itself by the “splash” or “the sound of water” as Basho puts it. Not only is it quite inspiring when read in this way — to the Buddhist — it also reminds us to take care of nature.

Autumn’s Departure

Another Haiku — similar to the last —  requires an insightful mind to be seen in a Buddhist context:

“This road

That no one else goes on

Autumn’s Departure.”[5]

For me, it took some time to start to comprehend this properly. Many have interpreted this poem as also being representative of life and death in that “this road that no one else goes on” represents  normal human life, with the “autumn departure” being death. It may very well mean this but in my opinion also may be talking about the Buddhist path. The “road that no one else goes on”could be said to mean the Buddhist path and how we must reach Nirvana of our own accord. The Buddha has shown us how to do so but the actual journey must be made ourselves. The “Autumn’s Departure” then represents the final attainment of enlightenment, reached by one’s own striving.

As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada[6]:

“All the effort must be made by yourself; Buddhas only show the way.”

 

My True Face

Our next haiku, like the first one has a very obvious Buddhist meaning and refers to a specifically Zen doctrine:

 

“Sleeping at a temple

With my true face

Moon viewing.” [7]

As Reichhold says in her commentary on this particular haiku, this poem is referring to the Zen doctrine of “Buddha Mind” — our true Buddha nature, free from egotistical, conceptual thinking — is hidden by the superficial mind that is our everyday one, the mind influenced by the society and people around us.[8] The fact that Basho was in a temple, most likely a Buddhist one, and wrote that he had his “true face” leads one to think that maybe he was feeling in a particularly Zen, spiritual state of mind at the time of writing. He would have no doubt been aware of what the doctrine was, given his study of Zen Buddhist philosophy and it’s a beautifully poetic way to reference a complicated philosophical doctrine in an easy-to-digest way.

Buddha’s Death Day

This “Buddha’s Death Day” haiku has a little of the previous two. The meaning can be obvious or quite deep depending on how you see it personally.

“Buddha’s death day,

Wrinkled hands join

The prayer beads sound.” [9]

This haiku depicts a group of monks commemorating the Buddha’s death by praying with their prayer beads. Clearly, it points to the doctrine of anicca or impermanence, one of the three marks of existence. This is mainly because of the reference to death. It reveals that all beings are impermanent, even the Buddha, and even highlights this truth  with the detail of the monks’ “wrinkled hands.” that the monks’ hands are ‘wrinkled’.

Soldier’s Dreams

The next haiku in our collection isn’t directly Buddhist, but like some others can be seen and interpreted to have Buddhist connotations.

“Summer Grass,

The only remains

Of soldiers’ dreams.” [10]

Reichhold writes that Basho seems to have been looking over a battlefield covered by summer grass. This haiki seems to speak to the futility of war and fighting. It poetically evokes the feeling that no matter how much humans fight and kill each other, the world and nature will move on with or without our participation. Of course, it speaks to the first Buddhist precept — to abstain from killing — and the doctrine of ahimsa.

According to Reichhold, Basho’s companion Soro wrote that Basho shed tears after he had written this poem.

Four Gates

Our last highlighted Basho haiku Basho’s has a strong Buddhist connotation:

“Moonlight,

Four gates and Four Sects

Just one.” [11]

 

Riechhold says that at the time of writing, Basho was at Zenkoji temple. This temple has a bloody history; different sects used the same temple — which had four gates for each cardinal direction. The fact that Basho finishes with “Just one” points not just to the silliness of splinters, sects and schools in Buddhism, but also the idea that there is only one true interpretation of Buddhist teaching. Another spin on this profound poem can be the ideas of conventional truth (four gates and four sects) and ultimate truth (just one.)

Modern Buddhism does have many schools and paths — identified as the 84,000 doors —  Theraveda, Mahayana, Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, Secular, Nichiren and more — but ultimately there is Dhamma. The four gates and sects might relate to personal understandings, personal biases and skillful teaching means, but ultimately, there is one truth. [For a feature story on the 84,000 doors of Buddhism, see>>]

Haiku — wisdom in three lines

There is something very special and vivid about Haiku. To distill Buddhist wisdom into three short lines — just a few syllables — is incredible, beautiful and profound.

These are only a few of the beautiful poems of the immensely talented man known as Matsuo Basho, and if you like them then there are many more to discover. Sometimes, Basho simply just wrote exactly what he saw and no more — there isn’t necessarily a Buddhist theme, other than he lived his life as a Buddhist.

Nonetheless, many of his Haiku do convey — in simplicity and vivid images —  Zen teachings.

No matter how you personally interprete Basho — and after all, that is the purpose of poetry — and whether you see the poems as Buddhist or not, what cannot be denied is that this simple lay monk, travelling around the countryside centuries ago, created a form of poetry that was genius: elegant, simple, yet so powerful. His name is now  known all around the world, far from the beautiful shores and culture of his Japanese homeland.

Basho, however, had not use for fame; he preferred living simply and naturally.

 

NOTES

[1] Haikuapprentice.com ‘Haiku, Basho and Zen’ at http://www.haikuapprentice.com/2013/02/haiku-basho-and-zen.html [Accessed 31st August 2018]

[2]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 9

[3]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 75

[4]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 59

[5]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 230

[6]Eknath Easwaran (trans) ‘The Dhammapada’ (Nilgiri Press: California,United States, 2008) P.205

[7]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 97

[8]Shulamit Ambalu et al ‘The Religions Book’ (Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, UK 2013). Pp.160-163

[9]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P. 212

[10]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P.137

[11]Matsuo Basho/ Jane Reichhold (trans) ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ (Kodansha USA, Inc, New York, United States  2008). P.121

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Lee Clarke | Contributing Author

Author | Buddha Weekly

“I’m a Buddhist, Quaker, Humanist, existentialist and pacifist. Budding professor of religion. Love many subjects, bilingual third year uni student.”

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