Hirshfield on “Basho as Teacher”

January 17, 2017

The links between Basho (1644-1694), haiku master, and zen have occupied many a scholar. I recently came across a fairly old Tricycle (Spring 2002) article by poet Jane Hirshfield, “Basho as Teacher,” in which she articulates Basho’s core teaching as interconnection.

How odd. As a child I was exposed to poetry, and also to haiku, mainly through their techniques: rhyme, 5-7-5, simile, and metaphor.

Hirshfield’s essay does not dwell on technique. Instead she says to look to Basho’s own teachings on poetry: “see for yourself, hear for yourself, enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing and all things will speak with and through you.”

“Through” is the key because it eliminates the possibility of separation between poet and object. As for technique, we read that Basho counseled his students, “some poems are made by technique, others arise as if of themselves, the poet virtually becoming the thing observed.” Technique (mastery) was a literal dead-end in Basho’s eyes, “if we were to gain mastery over things, we would find that their lives would vanish without a trace.”

By foregoing mastery we are not, however, invited to engage in superficiality. Concentration, a key part of the process for removing separation, remains. Moreover, if “all things will speak” through the poet, it is unnecessary to seek extraordinary destinations because what is already at hand is enough. “Plainness and oddity, Basho counseled, are the bones of haiku. The poet seeks out not the exotic for its own sake, but the ordinary for its surprising revelations.”

Hirshfield places Basho squarely in a Zen Buddhist context, “Basho’s haiku are the record of what the world placed in the open begging bowl of his perceptions. Had the poet’s mind been filled with an idea of self, an idea of world, there would have been no room for what he saw to find new life in his words.” This points to a classic zen understanding of interconnection. For the world to speak through Basho, he can neither see all things as one (self, Basho), nor as two (separate from self, world). As Hirshfield puts it, ““not one, not two” is the core flavor of Basho’s haiku, the dynamic of its insight and its transmission.”

Some of Basho’s dialogues with his students were recorded, and Hirshfield describes one mu-like encounter that articulates how a poet is best advised to lose the ‘idea of self’ and the ‘idea of world’ in order to ‘find new life’.

“Basho instructed, ‘The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.’ ‘Don’t you mean too subjective or objective?’ his student asked; the teacher clarified, simply, ‘No.'”


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