BASHO AND THE DAO I

This series is inspired by a book I am presently reading: Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, by Peipei Qiu. My observations will be random, rather than systematic, and (as usual) superficial.

Haikai is a form of Japanese poetry very similar to the better known haiku into which it evolved. In my ignorance (which I choose to retain) I take them as more or less the same. The main thesis of the book is that Basho (1644–1694) and other Japanese poets made use of Daoist themes to transform the comic and parlor-game usage of the linked-verse poetry of haikai into serious poetry.

“Serious” poetry has something to say that cannot be easily said—or perhaps not at all. It makes us “feel” something “spiritual”. We are moved, but we are not sure how or in what way. It’s really no different than being moved by the light of a rising sun on a mountain peak otherwise clothed in fog. (Something I saw this very morning.) The point then of this “transformation” is for this form of poetry to move us. And this, as we know from Basho’s haiku, is something that he often does quite successfully.

Basho did a lot of wandering which inspired a form of travel journal filled with poetry. He felt humbled by those (mostly Buddhist priests) who did the same before him. Yet Qiu points out how very different his (Daoist inspired) sensibility was to theirs. As a case in point, she shares a poem by the Buddhist Saigyo:

Why is a heart

attached to cherry blossoms

still in this body

which, I  thought,

had forsaken the world?

This obvious inner conflict is altogether foreign to philosophical Daoism which sees neither need nor has any desire to forsake the world. Indeed, the “spiritual” is discovered in the world of worldly things.  The wonder is always right here before us in every thing and within us at every moment.

I often quote Liu Xianxin (1896-1932) in this regard: “The main principle of Buddhism is Emptiness: nothing is wanted; all is to be abandoned. The main principle of Daoism is vastness: everything is wanted; all is to be included.” (Ziporyn, p 137)

Though Liu questions how these two could possibly be reconciled, Zen (Chan) seems to have done so—and this may be the greatest contribution of Daoism to this branch of Buddhism.

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