Learn from the Pine: Matsuo Basho on the Essence of Haiku Poetry

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One of the most influential Japanese poets of all time, Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) elevated haiku from a mere literary pastime into an exquisite poetic craft.

Leaving his hometown of Ueno behind, he moved to Kyoto, where he studied poetry and Zen as a young man and later became a Buddhist monk.

This, perhaps, is why his verses are marked by wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that evokes seclusion, melancholy, imperfection and leans towards modesty, simplicity, and transience of all things. The Essential Haiku collects his most delicate and vivid poems along with his intimate thoughts on the art of one breath-long exclamation of delight that became the sole purpose of his life.

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Basho writes:

Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.

The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.

Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of things — mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity — and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves.

The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.

One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.

In this mortal frame of mine, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept spirit, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.

Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter.

For a person who has the spirit, everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into a moon. Those who do not see the flower are no different from barbarians, and those who do not imagine the moon are akin to beasts. Leave barbarians and beasts behind; follow nature and return to nature.

Every form of insentient existence — plants, stones, or utensils — has its individual feelings similar to those of men.

When we observe calmly, we discover that all things have their fulfillment.

One needs to work to achieve enlightenment and then return to the common world.

Complement these enlightening passages from The Essential Haiku with our article on how to read a haiku.

Kanji with text overlay: Matsuo Basho on the essence of haiku poetry.

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