Although his name has become synonymous with haiku mastery, Edo era poet Matsuo Bashō’s exalted status in Japanese literature is equally indebted to the prose compositions he wrote throughout his lifetime. However, poetry and prose were not mutually exclusive for Bashō, with some of his finest work dabbling in and fusing both forms of written expression.
As Hiroaki Sato reminds us in the introduction to his lucid and engaging translation of Bashō’s greatest achievement, his famed travelogue Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi), the legendary poet struck a balance between the two aesthetic mediums with what he called haibun: a hybrid style of writing that combined the heightened, elegant prose of classical Japanese works such as The Tale of Genji with the elliptical, subtle, and allusive poetics of haiku.
The months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, and the years that come and go are also travelers. Those who float all their lives on a boat or reach their old age leading a horse by the bit make travel out of each day and inhabit travel. Many in the past also died while traveling. In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores…
Kusa no to mo sumi-kawaru yo zo hina no ie
In my grass hut the residents change: now a dolls’ house (41)
Thus begins Bashō’s seminal haibun in which he recounting his five-month journey to and from the north of Japan in the year 1689, with his beguiling prose and delicate haiku juxtaposing and symbiotically complementing one another as the itinerant poet traverses Japan’s rural landscapes, coasts and snowy northern regions.
The north wasn’t usually a destination point for travelers since the weather and landscape could be cold and harsh, however Bashō embarks on this journey with his friend Sora (“my companion on the road”) to visit the poetic places. As he reflects on the natural world around him and its relationship with and likeness to humanity—physically, mentally, and ultimately spiritually—we come to realize that the journey he’s embarked on transcends the worldly to become a Buddhist quest for enlightenment.
Throughout his haibun account, Bashō uses the haiku as a powerful vessel for Buddhist philosophy. For instance, one of the key features of the haiku is that it captures a “haiku moment,” or the moment in which we observe and instantaneously react to an experience. The "haiku moment" might be more precisely defined as the synchronicity of the particular with the absolute—the confluence of the tangible surface-level world with the abstract and ineffable.
In other words, the “haiku moment” is an epiphany, a moment of enlightenment: it arrives, sometimes in a joyous eruption of awareness, other times in a flash of humility that acknowledges the unknowable and oftentimes bleak nature of the world and the human condition.
In this way the haiku often represents the transience and impermanence of things: things as they’re flourishing, things as they’re decaying—things as they simply are in any given moment. All this stresses the acceptance of impermanence, which is a core tenet of Zen Buddhism.
Through these poetic epiphanies we become aware of and have gratitude for all things that pass. If the string of moments we call life is impermanent and fleeting then life has the power to move us. This is why Japanese culture gives such great attention each year to the blossoming of the cherry trees. Cherry blossoms only really last a week, and so people gather to see them blossom in a kind of wave washing over the country.
The sense of transience and a Buddhist quest is underscored by portions of the prose preceding the haiku, where Bashō explains that a kind of irresistible “wanderlust” and “deity of the road” possessed him and made him restless, urging him to leave on his arduously mystic journey to see “the moon over Matsushima”—moons being representative of purity and enlightenment as well as the end of a journey.
Just as he feels this existential impermanence in himself, so too does he observe it in nature:
Mountains collapse, rivers shift, and paths are renewed, stones are buried and hidden in the ground and trees age and are replaced by young ones, the passage of time and the changing world making me see, so far, only uncertain traces of them (75).
Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in Bashō’s haiku that contextualize and heighten what he’s describing in the haibun’s prose, and vice versa.
Experiencing this pilgrimage vicariously through Bashō, we can momentarily become aware of the existential and spiritual sentiments he viscerally expresses through this uniquely Japanese poetic tradition, one that has perhaps endured longer than any man-made structure or natural beauty Bashō ever visited all those long years ago…
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