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Matsuo Basho’s travels in 17th century Japan, Haiku and Zen

Is journey one of the ways? For Matsuo Basho, the master of Haiku as a form of capturing the moment, it is.

“The days and months are travellers of eternity, just like the years that come and go. For those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tight by the bridle, their journeying is life, their journeying is home. And many are the man of old who met their end upon the road.” thus begins the travel diaries of Matsuo Basho in “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, his travels to the north of Japan in 17th century Japan.

Matsuo Basho was born into a Samurai family during the Edo Period in Japan but he wouldn’t spend his life inside a military community because he had a more sensitive heart. Twenty seven years of his fifty years long life was spent on the go, walking on bare feet, being hosted in the houses he visited as a pilgrim and gathered hundreds of followers. He sought the ultimate meaning and expressed it in seventeen syllables, three lines. Haiku is a form of poetry which uses images of nature. Poetry was a collective activity in the Japanese society of the time where the social was prioritised over the individual, perhaps with the influence of Chinese culture and teachings of Confucius, and the feelings of duty and responsibility always triumphed over individual interests. The lines of poetry were composed and conveyed orally in the community of poets called Renga. Basho was ‘discovered’ by his master Buccho in the Komponji Monastery. Although he was a natural born warrior, his ability to express turned him into a priest by choice and a poet by skill through fate.

The journey diaries of Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, went beyond the boundaries of Japan. They were translated into Spanish by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. In Turkey, the Garip school of poetry tried these forms. Haiku is a unique form in the sense that it combines the best things about the Far East: Hindu transcendentalism, Chinese materialism and realism, and Japanese simplicity. Haikus don’t have titles and they are not printed on a single page unlike Western poetry: they are always attached into a corner of a painting (a graving) or a diary. Its content too has a certain form: the first line expresses a universal, cosmic, and non-human fact; the second line an event, an accidental happening, and the third line the relation between this event and the unchanging order of the cosmos. The meaning is created through these. An example;

Spring is passing.

The birds cry, and the fishes fill

With tears on their eyes.

Is it possible to understand Haiku separate from the Japanese culture? Actually it is one of the many ways of Japanese way of being: ken-do (sword), kyu-do (archery), haiku-do (poetry), and maybe the father of them all: Zen. Although the means and the forms of the way changed, the goal was always the same: Zen, i.e., the improvised, direct, momentary and natural flow of the mind without thinking.

What is Zen? Is Zen a religion or a philosophy? Actually Zen is the form Buddhism took on when it travelled to Japan. In the 20th century there was a special interest in Zen in the West. Some travellers who were also interested in the traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy and archery during their stay in Japan attempted to describe what Zen is and what relation it has to these arts. That was actually quite a Western approach: that is, only a Western person would have imagined to take an outsider’s perspective and try to narrate these experiences while a genuine Japanese who was in touch with her culture and gained a true understanding of this philosophy was simply living it. Actually a few, now well-known, books to read before travelling to Japan will pique your curiosity: one of them is a book written by the American author Robert Pirsig in the 70’s, which achieved cult status-Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Although it seems to be a motorcycle journey diary, it is actually a book with a highly philosophical narration, which requires slow reading and reflecting on its content, but awards its reader with a genuine insight when its message is understood. Another book is published by the German author Eugene Herrigel in 1948: Zen in the Art of Archery. It narrates his first-hand experience of learning this art. Telling the story of how a physical activity can be rooted in consciousness.

So tells Matsuo Basho; “The journey done to the farthest is the journey we turn to the inside the most.”

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