5 Things I Love About Basho’s Wicked Sense of Zen

Basho's On Love and Barley

Japanese poet and diarist Matsuo Kinsaku (famous as Basho) is known for reviving a somewhat dying form of literature – the haiku. But he also lived an interesting Zen life that stretches beyond his gift in creating seventeen-syllable masterpieces.


Apart from thousands of haikus, his badass-ery also came from being a compulsive traveler, producing fine poetry and travel sketches (journaling in the Tokugawa era!) along the way. He also joined the service of the samurai Todo Yoshitada in 1656, from which he began writing verses.

The brilliant moniker is another admirable matter. Basho, which is a rare wide-leafed tree in Japan, was believed to resemble the lightness he sought in life and art. The tree was transplanted to all three “Basho huts” that he owned throughout his life.

Basho’s choice of literary form has always been one with Zen. D.T. Suzuki stated,

“Japanese artists… influenced by the way of Zen tends to use the fewest words or strokes of brush to express their feelings. When they are too fully expressed no room for suggestion is possible, and suggestibility is the secret of the Japanese arts.”

On that note, here are 5 (five) ways on how Basho’s work suggested certain thoughts to me about his clever sense of Zen. These were of course revealed through his remarkable haikus, which are actually my favorites from his collection, On Love and Barley.”

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1. How he makes parting sound nobly poetic:

Do not forget the plum,
in the thicket.
(It was said that the plum was Basho himself.)

for support.
(Said to be a parting poem for Basho’s students.)

2. How he can be blunt, sarcastic, and still sound like a legend:

Year by year,
the monkey’s mask
reveals the monkey.
(Monkeys represent human weakness/flaws in Japanese literature.)

Rhyming imitators –
musk melons
whacked to halves.
(Basho had disciples but he was harsh to the mere copycats.)

3. How he cleverly juxtaposes the simple things that surround him:

Come, see real
of this painful world.

Dying cricket –
how full of
life, his song.

4. How he impeccably depicts aging and the passing of time:


Cherry blossoms –
of years past.

Year’s end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept.
(Thorough house-cleaning in Japan happens before New Year.)

5. How he writes about his legendary self:

In my new robe
this morning –
someone else.
(I don’t know about you, but this is genius.)

Mad with poetry,
I stride like Chikusai
into the wind.
(Chikusai was one of Basho’s admired poets.)

These are only 10 of my favorite haikus from Basho’s On Love and Barley. It is also worth noting that the best known haiku of all time, “Old Pond,” was written by Basho.

Old pond,
leap-splash –
a frog.

So, are you down to writing brief yet lucid narratives while counting syllables? Care to share what’s your favorite haiku? Or make one on the spot and leave it in a comment below, and let’s have fun!


Like it? Share this post so your friends can also rekindle (or get introduced to) the great works of Basho! Thank you for reading. (: Here’s a virtual donut as a token of my appreciation:

Share a post, win a friend (me), and a virtual donut (friendship bracelets are so 90s).
Share a post, win a friend (me), and a virtual donut (friendship bracelets are so 1990s). *fistbump*

2 thoughts on “5 Things I Love About Basho’s Wicked Sense of Zen

  1. Much of his poetry was infused by his strong Buddhist beliefs and I believe there are many allegorical symbols in his poems which refer to his relationship with the beliefs of Zen Buddhism. I first came across Basho in about 1968 and followed writing in the haiku form (which has its limitations in a language like English) from then on. One of my first:

    on the edge of mind
    dark shadows become the truth
    an unblinking eye


    1. Yes they do. I think his literary strength was empowered by his Buddhist background more than anything else. (: You sure write a great haiku! I find writing in this form more challenging but you got a really good one there. (: Thank you for stopping by Richard!



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