I pulled my copy of the collected poetry and writing of Matsuo Basho off the bookshelf recently and started to re-read it. This time I approached it a new way.
Basho is probably the greatest poet of the Japanese haiku style, which is characterized by a delightful and ironic styles compacted into just over a dozen syllables in a three stanza structure. Some call him the Japanese Thoreau because, in addition to being the acknowledged master of this poetic form, he exemplified a peripatetic lifestyle that forms the backdrop of his life and work. His poetry emerges from the travels he takes back and forth across the Japanese landscape in the middle of the 1600's. Alone, accompanied by younger poets, on foot or on horseback, he visits shrines, old friends and sites of rare natural beauty.
I had read through his poems and travelogues several times before, but this time I decided to follow them with maps and pictures. I kept my tablet open as I read and whenever he mentions where he is, I tracked it on the map and photo software. Of course the landscape is radically different from his experience. Now there are skyscrapers, power lines and paved multi-lane freeways all across the landscape. Nevertheless, many of the natural sites and temples have changed little, so I can view something of what inspired his poems.
Basho may have been a Buddhist priest or at least presented himself as one, and his style has deeply influenced the aesthetic and subject matter of later Zen poetry.
Yours in the Dharma,
om namo amida butsu