Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

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Basho is the most famous name in haiku. He began writing poetry when he was nine years old. When he was twenty-two he commenced his instruction in the spiritual discipline of Buddhism at the monastery of Koyasan. At thirty-five he wrote a new style of his own making.

For Basho all art started in the simple cradle of nature.

The beginning of Culture:
in the center of the country
a rice-planting-song.

There was a unity in what he saw and wrote. The most famous haiku ever written came spontaneously. He was sitting quietly in his garden when he heard a splash. To him, it was all one thing, a “frog-jump-in-water-sound.”

“Old pond” equals –
a-frog-jump-in-water-sound.

Basho took literally to the spiritual path. Much of his life was spent in simple walking journeys. Some of these were of great distance. He began the first of these trips when he was forty. Traveling was often difficult and precarious. Yet these journeys were necessary to Basho in his attempt to detach from self-centeredness and to merge with the totality of life. No matter how high he traveled he was searching for a simple life.

On the mountain path,
what is this special thing?
A simple violet.

His quiet travels were part of the spiritual discipline which helped Basho be there at those quick moments when life unfurls.

On the mountain road
first the scent of plums, then suddenly –
the sunrise!

Basho’s roads were both an outer and inner experience. They are roads we all vaguely recognize.

This road
with no one walking on it.
Autumn nightfall.

Here we find that special loneliness which the Japanese term sabi combined with a poverty of expression and symbol (wabi) that, rather than taking a panoramic view, goes deep, like a root, into everyday life. It is this sharp focusing on the simple which seems to produce Basho’s unique spiritual restfulness.

Basho died on a trip, among his friends and disciples. This was his final poem.

Taken ill on a journey
but still my dreams roam
over the dried up fields.