Donald H. Shively: "Basho--The Man and the Plant" in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, v. 16, no., 1-2, 1953. p. 146-161.

Shively's article is a wonderful contribution to understanding the 17th-century Japanese hermit-wanderer and poet Basho. Known chiefly as the founder of the haiku genre of poetry, Basho took his name from the Japanese word for banana plant. While accidental and whimsical, or even "bizarre to the Westerner," as Shively puts it, the author shows how the banana plant embodied key aesthetic values in China and Japan. As a poet, Basho incorporated them in his work.

Forty years old and a middling poet, Matsuo Kinsaku moved to a hermit hut, and his disciples, students, and hangers-on presented him with a banana plant for his garden. The poet liked the plant enough to soon adopt the literary name of Basho. Thereafter, his best poetic work began, as did a series of famous wanderings.

One of the earliest Buddhist texts referring to the banana plant is the Vimalakirti sutra, which uses the image of the banana plant, its frail leaves in the wind, its watery trunk, as a metaphor for the human body and its impermanence. In tropical climates, the banana plant flowers and bears fruit, but in colder Asia would freeze annually, the cold blackening its leaves and turning its stem to mush. While the image existed in some Japanese literature and in the popular saying, "dew of the banana leaf" to refer to life's transiency, the rarity of the banana in Japanese gardens was reflected in the paucity of references in Japan's literature.

But these instances must have been noticed by poets like Basho. A poem of 12th-century poet Saigyo, one of Basho's favorite poets, reads:

When the wind blows at random
go the leaves of the banana;
Thus is it laid waste;
Can anyone rely on this world? 

And a 15th-century No play titled Yokyoku gathers Chinese and Japanese literary allusions to the banana plant to highlight the symbol of frailty, with the play featuring a monk whose prayers save the spirit of the plant.

Basho's motives may have been more aesthetic, but the outer form of his life was characteristic of a Zen monk's simplicity and austerity. He reduced life to essentials, and also poetry, so that nature alone could reveal itself. This, Shively puts it,:

could be achieved through an appreciation of all natural phenomena, but especially through a sympathy for the frailer forms of insect and plant life. The banana plant was one with which he could commiserate.

As mentioned, Basho moved to a cottage in 1180, and the following spring was presented a banana  plant for his garden. At first he was skeptical as to whether the banana would be overtaken by existing plants, but by autumn, with the summer's successful growth, Basho composed the well-known haiku titled "Feelings of My Thatched Hut":

A banana plant in autumn winds –
I listen to the drops of rain
Fall into a basin at night.

Images and sounds intermingle to show the frailty of the banana leaves and the deepening winds and rain, all connoting solitude. The human listener identifies with the sentient banana plant. Of the poem, a disciple wrote that "it holds the whole life of taste," that is, the essential aesthetics of haiku, but also of Basho's philosophy of life. The poem contains, as Shively puts it, Basho's

affinity to the banana plant, which like himself was lonely and defenseless, torn by the storms of this world. It symbolized the frailty, the transiency, of his own life -- as he like to picture it.

Shively elaborates:

To Basho this life seemed by a momentary resting place in a world of suffering. Solace could best be found in nature where solitude and discomforts aided contemplation,. He was a man of small build and frail health, and occasionally became ill on his journeys,. He seems to have derived some ascetic satisfaction from the miseries of the trips, as if the cold rains, the sleepless nights in poor accommodations, and the dangers of the road gave him new insights into life and nature.

The basho-an or "banana-plant hermitage" stood in sight of Mount Fuji, and when Basho left it for his first travels, a disciple named Chiri captured the mood of departure:

Departing Fukagawa,
 entrusting the banana plant
to Fuji

The hut was destroyed two years later by a fire., the fate of the banana plant unrecorded. Basho had to escape the conflagration by wading across a river. Reluctantly he returned to the same Edo plain, his pupils reconstructing a hut and planting a new banana.

The basho-an was not to be his only hermit's hut. Two others followed, the last graced by five banana plants, all transplants. On this occasion, two years before his death in 1694, Basho composed a tribute (in haiku form) titled "Words on Transplanting the Banana Plant." Behind the short work was Basho's sentiment that his journeys had ended, that he was "transplanted" back to his basho-an. Here is the essay in full:

The chrysanthemum flourishes by the east woven fence. The bamboo is the gentleman of the north window. The merits of the red and white tree-peonies are soiled by the dust of worldly judgment. The lotus does not stand on the ground, and unless the water is clear, it does not bloom.

Whatever year that was when I moved my lodging to this place, I planted one banana plant. This must have been a climate and soil after the banana plant's heart. It sent forth several stalks; its leaves grew luxuriant and numerous, crowding the garden until it hid even the thatch at the edge of my roof. People gave its name to my thatched hut. It was loved by old friends and pupils; they plucked its shoots and divided its roots, and year after year these were taken here and there.

One year I decided to take a journey on foot to Michinoku, and since the Basho-an was already about to fall apart, I moved the banana next to the brush fence and gave instructions over and over to the people in that neighborhood to cover it whenever there was frost and to enclose it whenever there was wind.

In the fugitive pastime of the brush I left writings about it. When I slept on my journey far away, concerns welled up in my breast that the plant had been left alone.

Separated from many companions and longing for the banana plant, in extreme loneliness I passed the springs and summers of three years, until at last I shed tears once again upon the banana plant.

This year in the middle of the fifth month, when the fragrance of the mandarin orange blossoms was not far off, the promises of my friends also had not changed from of old. I could not part from this neighborhood. Quite close to my old hut they built a suitable thatched hut eighteen feet square. The cedar pillars are cleanly planed, the door woven of bamboo twigs is pleasing, the reed fence is built thick. It faces the south looking out on the pond, and to me it is a water pavilion. The site faces Fuji; the brush gate standing aslant enhances the view. The tide of Che-chiang river brims full in the stills of the "Three Forks" of the Sumida River; and as this is a fine aid for viewing the moon, from the new moon on I detest clouds and deplore rain.

To enhance the prospect during the autumn full moon, first of all I transplant the banana plants. Their leaves are broad, adequate to cover a lute. Sometimes they are blown and broken in the middle, and I lament this damage to the phoenix tails; and when the green fans are torn, I deplore the wind.  Occasionally a flower blooms but it is not florid. Their trunks are thick, but they are not struck by the axe. They are in a class with that category of mountain trees which are not of useful quality, and this characteristic of theirs is fine.

The monk Huai-su made his brush fly on them, and Chang Heng-ch'u saw new leaves and considered them incentives for his studies. I do not take these two courses. I just take my ease in their shade, and only am fond of them that they are easily torn by wind and rain.

The essay contains many allusions to Chinese poetry: the lute, mandarin oranges to represent old friendships, "phoenix tails" and "green fans" referring to banana leaves, "ram's horns" referring to the banana fruit. Huai-su was a Chinese Buddhist monk and hermit of the 7th century, who planted hundreds of banana plants in the fields around his hut. He used the leaves as writing paper, calling his place "Green Heaven" and his hut "Planted Paper." The 11th-century neo-Confucian Chang Heng-chu composed a poem about the banana plant Unfurled leaves remind the poet of cultivating new virtues and new knowledge. Shively notes other Chinese poets alluding to the banana plant and its characteristics. Indeed, Basho's own attitude toward the plant embodies the attitude of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, of whom it is written:

Chuang-tzu, traveling in the mountains, saw a great tree whose foliage was luxuriant. A woodcutter was stopped by it, but he did not take it. When asked the reason, be said: "There is no way in which it can be used." Chuang-tzu said: "This tree by not being of useful quality is able to complete its natural years."

Of particular interest are paintings of late Japanese artists Watanbe Kazen and Kano Shoei depicting banana plants and linking them to Basho. Kazen shows the frazzled fronds of a banana plant with the Basho poem "The Feelings of My Thatched Hut" in calligraphy. Kamo Shoei shows Basho sitting in front of his basho-an, working on a bamboo and paper hat. The front of the hut is ringed by thriving banana plants.


Shively concludes:

Although it may have been an accident that first brought the banana plant into Basho's life, it was a providential one. It suited him so well that he not only accepted it as a symbol, but identified with the plant to an extraordinary degree.