Searching for the heart of haiku through Allan Ginsberg and Basho.
Allan Ginsberg, the poet, first introduced me to haiku. “There are four great Japanese haiku writers,” he declared, holding up a finger for each one as he named them, in front of the class in summer 1976. We were at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki.”
No women? I thought. Okay, I’d take the boys on and learn what I could from them, sure there were some women hidden in history.
He also told us that the formal five syllables, then seven, then five, often taught in Western schools, does not necessarily work in English. In Japanese each syllable counts. They don’t have the, an, that, those articles of speech, so he encouraged us not to worry about the count if we write or translate haiku. Only make sure the three lines make the mind leap.
“The only real measure of a haiku,” Allen told us that one hot July afternoon, “is upon hearing one, your mind experiences a small sensation of space”—he paused; I leaned in, breathless—“which is nothing less than God.”
Now, on the cusp of age 66, I am about to search for a grave near the foothills of Mount Hiei: Buson’s. The eighteenth-century painter and haiku master. I found Buson to be the least accessible in translation of the four named by Ginsberg. Only one or two books of his work have been translated into English.
Buson, who was born three years after Basho died, was deeply inspired by him. Buson considered Basho his haiku master.
The temple I plan to visit on the outskirts of Kyoto, where Buson is buried, is also famous for Basho’s hut, though it is not clear if Basho, with his walking stick, actually slept at that precise place on his wanderings while he circumambulated Mount Hiei, “shading the dust from his eyes”—the Zen way of saying “seeing clearly.”
But when Buson visited the hut years later, the grass room was only a pile of dirt. Buson engaged friends to rebuild it with him. He was a social man, though he, like Basho, had spent time—five years—practicing in Buddhist temples as a lay priest. But he did not seem to have the desire for purification that drove Basho. Buson had a wife and daughter, and in his 60s, through the success of his paintings, was able to own a house in Kyoto.
After rebuilding Basho’s hut, Buson and his friends, as a way to honor Basho’s art, all vowed to meet there without fail twice a year to write haiku together and drink sake.
Before Basho, hokku, which later became the basis for the independent structure of haiku, was the starting verse of renga, a Japanese linked collaborative poetic form of at least two stanzas used for humorous entertainment at parties, to flirt with a courtesan, to display one’s cleverness. Basho took that first verse seriously, connected it to life and death, to a spiritual path, piercing through the blinding activities of daily life in the regimented society of sixteenth-century Japan to express the true muscle of a person’s being.
What is the way of haiku? Bare attention, no distractions, pure awareness, noticing only what is in the moment. Being connected to seasons, unconnected to self-clinging. And then, out of that, composing your experience in three lines that go beyond logic, that make the mind leap. In the center, a taste of emptiness. A frog, a crow, a turnip—the ordinary right in front of you is the realm of awakening. Pure Zen but not Zen.
“If you write five haiku in a lifetime, you are a haiku writer. If you write ten, you are a master,” Basho said. He didn’t mean don’t practice, don’t try, but he was saying
the stakes were high. In writing a real one, the world drops away, mind and body shatter, and the only thing left is the crow cawing. You’ve dropped the old yellow coat of yourself, your sorrow, desire, indifference—the world has stepped forward and you have stepped back, another way of coming home. To put this experience down in three lines is to transmit a taste of what is possible and pass it on. Great generosity. You penetrate down through the generations.
right up to death
longed for a haiku
Though Basho and Buson studied in monasteries, they never became monks; they took their lives outside the cloistered walls into the immense world of nature. Both brought their understanding into poems that were passed down, but the haiku poems were not always immediately understandable. I contemplated Basho’s most famous one for a long time:
in old pond
I’ve seen different translations— for instance:
frog jumps in
frog jumps in
sound of the water
I’ve also seen this haiku made fun of maybe because it’s simple yet painfully elusive. You know there is something there, but what? I feel the frustration:
Old poet jumps in
Frog jumps out
Was it morning, as I was munching toast outside? Or turning a corner in the car? Or glancing at my watch, about to go to an appointment? Yes, that was it—reaching for the knob, the door casing, the single window in the green-painted wood, I stepped over the threshold—his mind was empty, that’s all there was, sitting or standing by the water—the flash movement of the frog, then the sound, the sound, the sound, filling his ears, his mind and heart. Nothing else in the whole world. The realization poured through me like a waterfall, rushing to the bottom.
It might have been a dentist appointment. Piles of People magazines, two stray New Yorkers, a white paper cup of half-drunk tea on a table, the round impression of another one on the glass surface, hum of a drill in a room beyond the waiting room. I was no longer waiting. I had arrived in the middle of a famous haiku, no longer left out, outside, wanting in. No in or out. No nothing. Something. The old pond of the mind finally quiet.
Here’s another translation:
At the ancient pond
A frog plunges
Here Basho is that frog.