Breaking the silence
of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped in to water —
A deep resonance.
This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.
I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul. On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.
Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.
Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.
In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.
Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space. Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.
The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.
Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho. Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.
Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue
Asking a blessing on my journey
To talk casually
About an iris flower
Is one of the pleasures
Of the wandering journey.
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.