Understanding Haiku

in the stillness—
sinking into the rocks,
is the cicadas’ cry 

Let us abandon the self. Let us enter the mind of Matsuo Basho for a moment.

From a distance we see him standing outside his small house in Fukagawa, underneath the famous banana tree given him by one of his students. The tree has grown over the years and now towers over our small group. It bears fruit. Let us now imagine that it is a summer’s day and the sky is blue except for the occasional cloud that shades the sun. Basho and his disciples are discussing the art of the haiku. From our lofty perch let us descend and enter the mind of Basho.

Matsuo Basho: “In Yamadera District there is a scenic temple that was founded almost a thousand years ago. It is located on a mountain top northeast of Yamagata City. Near the top, the way passes by the massive Mida Hora rock, which is shaped like Amida Buddha. I paused in the stillness and listened to the sound of the cicadas.”

Matsuo Basho: “Things, like humans, have qi, (). It is a life spirit, which can be felt. This is the universal force that makes up and binds all things together. It is paradoxically, both everything and nothing.”

Toho [Basho’s disciple]: “How do we learn of this spirit? How do we feel it?”

Matsuo Basho: “The mind merges with the object, which is taken in nature without obstruction. Detach from oneself, enter the object with the mind, feel the subtlety of the thing. Let the mind become the object.

Learn the pine from the pine, the bamboo from the bamboo.”

Toho would later recall this conversation in his red booklet, Akazoshi:

The master said: ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.’ What he meant was that the poet should detach the mind from his own self. Nevertheless, some people interpret the word ‘learn’ in their own ways and never really ‘learn’. ‘Learn’ means to enter into the object, perceive its delicate life, feel its feeling, whereupon a poem forms itself. Even a poem that lucidly describes an object could not attain a true poetic sentiment unless it contains the feelings that spontaneously emerged out of the object. In such a poem the object and the poet’s self remain forever separate, for it was composed by the poet’s personal self.

bamboo

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