In the West, we have a vague sense that poetry is good for our ‘souls’, making us sensitive and wiser. Yet we don’t always know how this should work. Poetry has a hard time finding its way into our lives in any practical sense. In the East, however, some poets—like the 17th-century Buddhist monk and poet Matsuo Bashō—knew precisely what effect their poetry was meant to produce: it was a medium designed to guide us to wisdom and calm, as these terms are defined in Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in Uego, in the Iga province of Japan. As a child he became a servant of the nobleman Tōdō Yoshitada, who taught him to compose poems in the ‘haiku’ style. Traditionally, haikus contain three parts, two images and a concluding line which helps to juxtapose them. The best known haiku in Japanese literature is called ‘Old Pond’, by Bashō himself: