Renew Your Wind-Swept Spirit With Basho’s Poetry

April 5, 2021

Self-Renewal happens in spite of our designs. The sun warms mountainsides. Our cells regenerate.

With Spring—in New York—comes primeval frustration. Friends shout among themselves with a kind of crazed, ebullient impatience, as if encouraging their slow, sleepy lovers to rush out of the house to “come out and play already!” The city cries itself awake.  Heaven holds out its promise of Summer but then retracts it. Yellow daffodils flower under leafless alders. The demiurge pushes through us as it has for centuries. 

Bashō (1644-1694)

We meet in Spring the same wildness that 334 years ago — in 1687 — drove the wandering poet, Bashō, out of his small home to purify his soul with pilgrimage:

“In this mortal frame of mine,” writes Bashō, “which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind.” (The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel). 

Something beyond it—something that makes it—moves our spirit and draws it into Spring. And one who does not follow this spirit, who chooses not to forge one’s life in response to Spring’s call is not one who walks among the living. 
 
Last week, I returned from a retreat with my teacher. Several of us met and were scolded for not living. It isn’t that we don’t eat, breathe, work, and sleep. But that we do not do more to create. The Buddha says, “I always make this thought: How can I make sentient beings enter into the Unsurpassed Way and make them accomplish Buddha’s Body?” (Dharmapundarika sutra) And a Zen Master insists that his or her students be able to do this—to turn their bodies into Spring. One who fails such a demand wanders through life as useless to the living as a ghost. All of the seasons for such a person are equally gray. It is the great compassion of the teacher to vivify life—to accomplish Buddha’s body. 

to follow nature, to be one with nature

Because of Bashō’s  passion and austerity, we have a clue about how to recover our lives:

“All who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year. Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon. The first lesson for the artist is, therefore, to learn how to overcome such barbarism and animality, to follow nature, to be one with nature.” (Ibid.)

Of course, it is immensely difficult for us to see death as a flower, or disease as the moon. And yet we are urged by Bashō and the Buddha to be able to do so. And without knowing it—by self-renewing with Spring—we do. 
 
We are more divine than we imagine. And it is our faith in and our imagination of the possibility of our renewal that touches the essence of Spring. In the American tradition, Thoreau writes, “Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him . . . whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring.” (Walking) Indeed, to make use of and be used by Spring is to live. We celebrate the nature of self-renewal and live a human life. 
 
Now, after a dismal Winter, I pull myself out, “half smothered between two musty leaves in a library” (Thoreau) to live as the Buddha urges: entering the Unsurpassed Way into Spring.