Bashō Joins Our Struggle

The first step to peace is to stand still in the Light.
—George Fox

Matsuo_Basho_by_Sugiyama_Sanpu_wikipedia_commonsThe founder of the Religious Society of Friends wrote this in 1653. On the other side of the world, a nine-year-old boy who was to become known as Matsuo Bashō was growing up in a Japanese castle town. In 1689, he went on his famous journey to the Deep North of Japan’s Honshū island. That same year, England passed the Act of Toleration, ending decades of persecution of Friends. George Fox died in 1691, and his Japanese contemporary died three years later.

Bashō is famous for poems expressing reverence for life in terms of frogs, insects, and loneliness, though he also wrote verses of deep reverence for humanity. His impersonal nature poems and sad lonely verses have been translated, but not his humane verses, so Bashō has gained a reputation for being “impersonal, detached, and objective.” Bashō’s poems on women and children, work and home life, and compassion for people are a powerful legacy which could nourish any person on Earth—if only anyone knew of them.

I have studied Bashō for 30 years, gradually discovering several hundred humane poems, prose passages, and letters which other scholars neglect. I hope to spread an awareness of Bashō’s poems on war and peace to Quakers because I believe Friends now and in the future will most deeply appreciate Bashō’s insights and apply them in their struggle to end war and realize peace in this world. Although Bashō never left Japan and never met a Quaker in his life, I hope Quakers reading the poems and commentaries in this article will find they speak to Friends testimonies, beliefs, and hopes.

Do not think that Bashō poetry is “literary” and requires background knowledge of Japanese culture. I encourage you rather to see these verses as expressions of our common humanity transcending the distance and time between Bashō and us.

In the poems that follow, boldface is used for words of Bashō, and italicized text is used for words of other poets.

Those even slightly familiar with Bashō’s work may know the poem he wrote at the site of a twelfth-century battle where the great hero of Japan, Yoshitsune, was betrayed and defeated, and where he killed his wife, daughter, and himself before the enemy could take them. Bashō wrote in his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands. Bashō quotes the verse by Tang-dynasty poet Li Bo as a lead-in to his masterpiece on the essential nature of war:

Yes, in this High Fortress,
Yoshitsune and select retainers took refuge —
great achievements of the moment
to become clumps of wild grass.

Nations torn apart
hills and rivers remain
Springtime at the castle
the grass shall be green

Summer grasses —
great warriors, the traces
of their dreams

Since that epic tragedy came to pass, the hill has grown green and withered 500 times. All that remains of the high fortress are some stones scattered in the grass. These stones are physical remains of Yoshitsune and his retainers (and his wife and daughter who also fought and suffered). Bashō sees not only what is physically there, but also what is hidden in time, the “traces of their dreams” lingering among the grass.

I was surprised to see that haiku scholar William Higginson believes that this verse “glorifies war” and assumes that his readers will see it that way too. I have never considered such an interpretation. The whole point of the verse, as I see it, is the vanity of war—the vanity of male achievements in comparison to the fertility of the earth (“summer grasses”), similar to the sentiments written in Ecclesiastes 1:14:

I have seen all of the works
that are done under the sun and behold,
all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Scores of interpretations of this haiku appear in various books and Internet sites, however I have yet to see any hint in English that Bashō wrote anything else on war—and yet he did. The following pair of stanzas from a linked verse written by a team of poets in 1687 also highlights the vanity of war. The first stanza is by a poet named Koeki, the second stanza by Bashō.

In the cold wind
at sunset, long-drawn-out
cries of hawks

foretell the heads to fall
in tomorrow’s battle        

Koeki’s verse is magnificent by itself, but even more stunning is the way each element—the wind, the sunset, the “long-drawn-out cries”—feeds energy into Bashō’s ode to fate. Each time I read the verse I am again surprised by the direction Bashō chose. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into that great question of existence which can never be confirmed: is the future ordained or free? Today’s soldiers no longer chop off their opponents’ heads, but I believe those who meditate on this stanza-pair will find in it the tragedy of war today.

Bashō’s stanza is pacifist because of what it does not say. If it said “foretell which side will win” or “foretell who will kill the most enemy,” then the stanza would be competitive and war-mongering. The way Bashō wrote it, there is no sense of our side being better than the other, no feeling of competition, no concern for winning: all who die are equal in tragedy.

This pair of stanzas conveys the inhumanity of war without portraying a human individual, the next stanza pair is more intimate and personal:

After the years
of grieving, finally
past eighteen —
Day and night dreams
of Father in that battle

The young person grew up under the weight of the grief for a father who died in war. Now, in the prime of youthful vigor past 18, he or she looks back over those years of dreams set in a moment on a battlefield never seen in reality. Although written more than 300 years ago, every word is fully relevant to children who have lost a father to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. I hope those who counsel bereaved children will pick up the verse and use it in their counseling.

From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, a series of civil wars in Japan continued to destroy lives, houses, crops, and businesses. By the early seventeenth century, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu brought peace and relative prosperity, so that by Bashō’s time, travel on the roads was safe. Money and packages could be transported safely, people were more prosperous, and they published and read more books. On his journey in 1689, Bashō visited the Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō (meaning “sunlight”) dedicated to Ieyasu, who was considered an avatar of the sun goddess. Here Bashō wrote:

His Honorable Light now shines
everywhere under Heaven and benefits
overflow to the Eight Corners of the Land,
so in the lives of the four classes of citizens
there is reassurance and calm.

By 1689, the peace and social order established by Ieyasu had lasted for eight decades, so people felt reassured that it would continue. Bashō continues with this haiku:

How glorious
young leaves, green leaves,
light of the Sun

With no scientific training at all, Bashō captures the glory of photosynthesis.

Today again
on the stone to worship
the rising Sun

When George Fox tells us to “stand still in the Light,” he means the Inner Light in our hearts, whereas Bashō meditates in the light of the Sun, yet both tell us to find in Light the way to peace. Another Bashō verse fits in with Fox’s statement:

New Year’s Day
sun on every field
is beloved

The Sun (goddess) at New Year’s is weak and cold while the rice fields are barren expanses of withered rice stubble in the frost—yet she shines with the promise of warmer light to come, and so Bashō loves her. Here is another Bashō haiku I see as pacifist:

On Life’s journey
plowing a small field
going and returning

Before the fields receive the rice seedlings, the farmer lets in water from irrigation ditches. With horse or ox pulling the plow, he goes up one row and down the next, breaking up the clumps of earth and raking the mud smooth. In “Summer Grasses” we saw what happens to the great achievements of men: they become clumps of wild grass. Would that each man forego ambition leading to war, and instead ‘plow a small field’ so the women and children go and return in peace.

Bashō wrote his masterpiece on peace in 1690 when he was asked to name a newborn girl. The name he chose, Kasane, is ordinarily not a personal name, but rather a verb meaning in space “to pile up in layers” and also in time “to occur again and again in succession.” He wrote this verse to his godchild:

Blessings unto Kasane:
Spring passes by
again and again in layers
of blossom kimono
may you see wrinkles
come with old age

The word peace does not appear, however the double and triple meanings throughout the verse overlap in Bashō’s profound wish for peace for all female children. The “layers of blossom kimono” are the two layers of kimono fabric plus an under-kimono: the succession of kimono one woman wears from bright to sedate as she ages, and the succession of each kimono to her daughter, the next layer of herself. For Westerners, the blossom kimono can be a girl’s one special party dress, the dress she wears once a year, then stores away until next year’s celebration.

Speaking to the newborn spirit, Bashō prays: may our nation remain at peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.

In his few simple words Bashō speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children—the conditions of peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. In five short lines, the poem encapsulates the existence of one woman from newborn to old age. It transcends the boundaries of literature to become something greater, an ode to life.

There is one poem that compares in simplicity and depth to Bashō’s verse. It was written by a four-year-old Russian boy in 1928 and later set to song. The lyrics never caught on in translation, but the refrain became an internationally known prayer for peace.

May there always be sunshine
May there always be blue sky
May there always be mama
May there always be me        

Both the poems of a 46-year-old poet and a 4-year-old boy make a wish that our current peace will continue. The little boy speaks only of the environment, mama, and himself, while Bashō looks ahead to future layers.

Whether you are sitting silently in weekly meeting, studying social concerns, or demonstrating against nuclear weapons, recall and be inspired by these works from George Fox’s contemporary in Japan. Also I pray you introduce these verses to children and teenagers at home and in the schools, so the wisdom of Bashō will come alive in young minds today.

Jeff Robbins

Jeff Robbins lives in Japan where he designs, builds, and sells developmental play equipment for children, and studies and translates the works of Bashō on humanity. He has attended various Friends meetings, but never joined. You can contact him at

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