Classical Japanese poetry requires a certain formal relationship with established themes taken from classical documents. The adoption of Zhuangzian themes so as to transform haikai poetry from a comedic parlor-game to serious poetry fulfilled this need, albeit unorthodoxically. But was this more than a mere utilitarian usage, or did Basho in fact identify with the deeper significance of these themes? His poems and prose both make clear that he did the latter.

Japanese poetry is full of formal code words whose mention evoke certain concepts and psychological responses which have long and deep precedent in the historical body of previous expressions. Mention of “cherry blossoms” serves to speak of beauty and the experience of beauty. Mention of the “moon” evokes both beauty and the experience of mystery. Yet for Basho, everything is a flower and the moon:

“Those who pursue art through zoka [creation/transformation] have the four seasons as their companion. Nothing they see is not a flower and nothing they imagine is not the moon. If one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different than the birds and beasts.” (Qiu, p 81)

As a barbarian I might take offense at this, but will instead give Basho the benefit of doubt and trust he was only speaking figuratively and on a lower plane. Similarly, I will assume he also understood that being a bird is so being a flower that no seeing is necessary.

The real point is that he understood the Daoist perspective that in the equalization of things all things partake of the same wonder, the same beauty and mystery. Everything is a gate into wonder and mystery. Everything can be joyously wandered in.

Basho’s most famous haiku portrays this:

The old pond
a frog leaps

A frog symbolizes summer. But the most poignant element here is the immediate, momentary, and non-symbolic “splash”. No grand theme is required when the most mundane happening is the gate to mystery. Indeed, because it does not allude to a prescribed symbolism with attendant responses, we are more able to realize its mystery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *