“There came a day when the clouds drifting along with the wind aroused a wanderlust in me, and I set off on a journey to roam along the seashores.”
– Basho
Prologue to Narrow Road to a Far Province

In the early centuries of Japanese history, there was a strong tradition of pilgrimage, particularly among poet-monks. This can be seen as a parallel to similar movements in medieval Europe and in America.

Some of the best known poet-monk-travelers include Sogi (1421-1502) and Saigyo (1118-90), as well as the Chinese poet Li Po (705-762). But it was the Japanese poet Basho (1644-94) who perhaps had the greatest influence on those who followed him. This is because Basho is credited with reviving an art form that was expiring to superficiality at the time — the haiku.

Born outside of Kyoto, Matsuo Kinsaku was the son of a low-ranking Samurai. Little is known of his early years. However, after writing verse as a child, Matsuo moved to Edo (present day Tokyo) where he worked towards establishing himself as a writer. He quickly became a central figure in the burgeoning literary scene of Edo, writing numerous hundred-verse renkus (with another poet), presiding over haiku contests and producing anthologies of verse.

By the age of 34, Matsuo was recognized as a master and a circle of poets began to form around him. Ironically, it was at this time that Matsuo began to recede from the scene. He moved to modest dwellings — a gamekeepers hut — outside of town. It was there that he received an unexpected gift that changed him — one of his students gave him a banana tree, or basho. The banana tree is a broad-leaved plant that tends to dwarf other plants around it. It also was an exotic tree, uncommon to Japan. Perhaps for these reasons, from that point on, Matsuo (who had used other pen names before) became known simply as Basho. Every hut he inhabited the rest of his life included a basho tree and he often traveled carrying one with him.

Basho’s studies had begun to widen, encompassing much Chinese literature. He also shaved his head and began work as a lay-monk. He developed a love for solitude and it was then that his true poetic form began to present itself. He began to combine his influences, particularly the traditional forms of Japanese poetry with Zen-inspired aesthetics.

In his lifetime, Basho wrote well over one thousand haiku and numerous travel sketches of his pilgrimages. Here are several examples:

Banana leaves hanging
Around my hut-
must be moon viewing

Listen! A frog
jumping into the stillness
of an ancient pond!

On the dead limb
squats a crow-
autumn night

Skylark on moor-
sweet song
of non-attachment

Monks, morning-glories
how many under
the pine-tree Law?

Four temple gates-
under one moon,
four sects

Spring air-
woven moon
and plumb scent

The crane’s legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain

Unknown spring-
plum blossom
behind the mirror

Morning-glory fading-
all day the gate-
bolt’s fastened

Summer moons-
clapping hands,
I herald dawn

It’s not like anything
they compare it to-
the summer moon

Early autumn-
rice field, ocean,
one green

Not one traveler
braves this road-
autumn night

Squalls shake the Basho
night my basin echoes rain

All through the night
I listened to the autumn wind
in the lonely hills

Ah me! What a time
to rain-the night of Harvest Moon.
Oh, fickle northern clime!

Sadly, I part from you-
like a clam torn from its shell,
I go, and autumn too.

First winter rain-
I plod on,
Traveler, my name

Sparrows in eaves,
mice in ceiling-
celestial music

Reeling with sake
and cherry blossoms,
a sworded woman in hatori

Boozy on blossoms-
dark rice,
white sake

Winter solitude-
in a world of one color
the sound of wind

A snowy morning-
by myself,
chewing on dried salmon

Much is known of life as a poet as his followers took care to record as much about Basho has they could. They sensed his mastery. And in his last nine years of his life he experienced his most fertile period as a poet.

During this period, he also began his period of life on the road. He gave up virtually all his possessions and took to countryside of Japan. He kept record of his travels in what he called his “sketchbooks”. These included everything from direct recordings of the day’s events, to haiku composed along the way, to fictionalized stories that he thought of as he traveled.

Basho achieved a realization during his travels, a satori where he sensed muga, which is the elimination of the self and the absorption of the self into what one is writing about. Of course, the master himself put it best. One of his disciples, Doho, wrote: “The master said, ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk.'”

Basho taught that the poet should always detach the mind from the self and enter the object, “sharing its delicate life and feelings.”

Each time Basho set off on a pilgrimage he would sell all he had, fully expecting that each trip would be his last. He referred to it as setting off into eternity. But each time he returned safely, with sketchbooks full of newly composed haiku and travel stories. And each time he returned, his disciples would provide him with a home that included basho trees planted in the garden.

In 1694, Basho truly set off into eternity, this time on a trip to Japan’s southwestern provinces. He grew gravely ill shortly into his trip and died of dysentery at the ripe old age of 50. He was buried in a temple at Otsu overlooking the lake he loved to gaze at, Lake Biwa.

This was his final haiku, written for the friends he was staying with at the time of his death:

Sick on a journey-
Over parched fields
Dreams wander on

A detailed Basho lifeline is here.

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