Why I am called Bashō

Autumn 1692

A banana leaf
Hanging on the pillar
And the moon over my hut

芭蕉葉   を柱に懸けん  庵の月     bashō ba o / hashira ni kaken / io no tsuki

banana-leaves

Why I am called Matsuo Bashō

“[T]he bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly followed the bark with his brush to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the bashō leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Bashō, 芭蕉, in English, is the banana tree, not the yellow fruited kind we are familiar with, but of similar stature, tall and leafy. “Useless,”  Bashō called the tree, its flower plain, its stalk thick, but one no axe-man cares to fell.

A banana tree grows in Fukagawa

By 1680, Matsuo Bashō, having achieved some fame,  moved from Edo’s bustling city center across the Sumida River to the quiet and rural Fukagawa district. A disciple brought Bashō a banana plant as a gift and it thrived, growing tall and strong, sprouting other saplings. Bashō admired its resilience in the wind and the rain.

In time disciples took saplings to plant as a sign of respect.

In the spring of 1689, Matsuo Bashō tired of Edo and decided to take a journey north which would eventually become a book which would further enhance his fame. He sold his hut wrote a well-known haiku on his departure and left.

Bashō returned to Edo in the autumn of 1689. His disciples then built him a simple hut of three rooms near where the old one had been. It had a simple bamboo gate, a reed fence and a view of Mt. Fuji.  Pillars of Japanese conifer stood guard at the entrance. A single banana leaf was attached to one of the pillars.

New banana saplings were planted in the garden.

His disciples had take a bashō leaf and written eight haiku on its backside. This was then placed on the pillar at the entrance to the hut. Overjoyed by the gift and the thought, Bashō imagined watching the autumn moon through the swaying leaves of the newly planted bashō trees.

“What year did I come to nest in this area? … My new thatched roof hut, near my first one, fits me well with its three small rooms… I’ve transplanted five banana (bashō) samplings so that the moon when seen through the leaves will be beautiful and moving. The bashō’s leaves are over seven feet in length. When the wind rips the leaf to the leaf-spine, it is as painful as seeing a phoenix with a broken tail, as pitiful as a torn green fan…

Like the ancient mountain trees, the bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly brushed the bark to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Sources

Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, selected haibun, page 135

 

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