There is a story — likely not even a true story, but one passed around nonetheless as a lot of fictional stories about Bashō are:
One day Zen master Butchō (1642-1716) is said to have questioned Bashō’s giving time to the writing of hokku, on the grounds that it was distracting from a serious practice of Zen. In reply, Bashō is said to have given an explanation of his hokku in keeping with Zen. He supposedly said, “Hokku is only what is now, before one’s eyes,” or as some render it, “Hokku is only what is happening at this place, at this time.”
Well, there is no solid evidence that Bashō ever seriously underwent Zen training. Though his writing is obviously influenced by Zen aesthetics — as was much of Japanese culture — from all appearances he was never more than a dabbler, even though he wore the robes of a monk.
What I want to write about today, though, is that whether the story of Bashō’s remark to Butchō be true or not, it was by no means an accurate description of the hokku of Basho’s day or later, nor even of many of the hokku Bashō himself wrote.
The reason is that often old hokku were not taken from direct actual experience. It was not uncommon for them to be composed entirely from the imagination. Though they likely often had fragments of actual experiences in them, they were nonetheless frequently “literary” compositions, not records of what had actually been seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted on a particular occasion. Buson was particularly notorious for this, making hokku entirely out of mental fantasy.
In daoku, however, we change that. We take the fantasy out of it, and make it the verse of actual — not imagined — experience. In that it differs from many old Japanese hokku.
House lights shining
Through the morning fog.
Because we write daoku from actual experience, it keeps us in touch with Nature. Nature constantly refreshes our writing with new experiences of the senses and the seasons. That is very important in a time when the human population of the planet is increasingly losing touch with Nature — when plants and animals are going extinct all over the world, and the climate is going awry due to human excesses, and land and forests are constantly giving way to more and more building and nature-destructive uses of all kinds.
Being aware of what is happening in Nature is essential to the writing of daoku. Keeping that awareness allows us to have “little enlightenments,” as Blyth would have called them — simple moments of insight into the natural world, experiences that speak of something deeper than the words:
Is a shade of grey.