First Snow and Daffodils

First snow and
the daffodils leaves bend
to nothingness

First snow
the daffodil leaves bend


hatsuyuki ya
suisen no ha no tawa
mu made

The prompt

Today we call them prompts. A word or a phrase that elicits a response.


The prompt is followed by an attempt to sketch a scene in a few words. The goal is to capture the pure essence of an action or emotion. Matsuo Basho and his disciples used such devices to write haiku. From Basho’s frequent use of 初雪や, hatsuyuki ya, or “first snow and” in Basho haiku, we learn that snow was often the subject. There are for example first snow and the great Buddha, first snow and the crow, and many others, including the one above about daffodils.

Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho

Daoism teaches us the paradox of the Way – those who know do not need to speak to show that they know.

How to say a lot in a few words

Haiku are meant to be self-explanatory. Like a sunset or a rainbow, the smile of child, the smell of spring, the first snow of the year when the daffodil has already bloomed.

If not, they should be rewritten. For this reason, Basho often rewrote haiku if he found that it was misunderstood by the common people that he associated with. I apologize for using the term “common people”. It is not a term Basho was likely to use. He was the great equalizer, recognizing that we all have value, that we are all struggling to understand the life we live and find our way in this world.

Knowing the unknowable

Having said that no explanations should accompany a haiku, I will nevertheless try to explain this one as I see it. Others have, sometimes ad nauseum, why not me?

First of all, it is important to understand that “first snow” means the first snow of the lunar New Year. Better to think of this as an early snow in March, one that accompanies the blossoms of the cherry trees, or the flowering of daffodils. When winter has been to soon forgotten…

Next, understand that, although Basho has only spoken of the leaves of the daffodil and not the flower, he is intending both. We learn this from a painting Basho later made to go with the haiku, on that displayed the white daffodil flower drooping in the white snow.

Finally, we are presented with the Kireji (切れ字, “cutting word”), the final three characters, むまで, mu ma de, literally “to the utmost”. The conundrum, which Basho intended, is that a literal translation does not capture the true meaning. Basho uses the character  む, mu, which is intended to be an indefinable nothingness.

How Zen…

Words do not help.

Instead we are left with the vision – daffodils struggle with the weight of the snow bent until blossom and snow become one.


First Snow, Great Buddha

First snow and
there stands the great Buddha
a pillar of strength


Hatsu yuki to
Itsu daibutsu
No hashiradate


The Great Plains in March

It snowed last night in early March. Not an entirely unusual occurrence on the Great Plains, but unwanted to those who long for spring. The morning was gray and bitter cold. Even the dog would not go out willingly or for long. My calico cat stood at the door, looking about, then turned and ran away.

Todai-ji Temple

When Master Basho visited the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, he found the monastery in disrepair. There in an uncovered courtyard, he found the statue of the Great Buddha exposed to the wind and the snow, standing upright.

The meaning of Basho’s haiku is, seemingly elusive. It snows and there silent and stoic stands the Great Buddha in the midst of the snow and cold.

Why not go inside?

Matsuo Basho describes Buddha as “Pillar-like” (の 柱立, standing like a pillar, 柱). Society is supported by principles in the same way that a building is supported by upright pillars and columns.


We can not fathom the Way, just as we can not fathom the mysteries of Nature. The master of the Way fights neither his own body, nor Nature. The forces of Nature are greater than one person. We must adapt to survive.

Master Basho instructs us by example. The Great Buddha does not complain when it snows, nor should we. The virtuous are upstanding.


Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple), located in the city of Nara, contains the Great Buddha Hall which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. At the time of Basho’s visit (1689-1670), the Buddha was still without its head and cover.

Lessons from the Dao

― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37


The Tao never does anything,

yet through it all things are done.


If powerful men and women

could center themselves in it,

the whole world would transform

into its natural rhythms.

People would be content

with their simple, everyday lives,

in harmony, and free of desire.