Mar 10 2014

Basho – The temple bell dies away

Published by at 8:32 am under Poetry

The temple bell dies away
by Matsuo Basho

English version by R. H. Blyth

The temple bell dies away
The scent of flowers in the evening
Is still tolling the bell.

— from Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, by R. H. Blyth

/ Photo by FideNullo /

This haiku evokes a rich scene for me: Twilight in springtime, with evening descending. Basho sitting outside beneath the eaves of his house, and we sit there with him. We don’t hear the temple bell itself, but the sustained reverberation after as it fades into the failing light. Our eyelids half open, we take a deep breath of the evening air and catch the honeyed scent of spring blossoms. That gentle aroma surrounds us and fills all the land as it comes to rest about us. We take another breath, slow and deep in through the nose, and hold it for a moment to taste the sweet world we inhabit. Falling silent in that still moment, we hear a ghost of a sound, a whisper, a ringing, in the inner ear. The nearby temple may have moved on with its activities, but the bell still resonates within us, calling our awareness to the eternal.

Matsuo Basho, Matsuo Basho poetry, Buddhist poetry Matsuo Basho

Japan (1644 – 1694) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Basho took his name from the Japanese word for “banana tree.” He was given a gift of a banana tree by a student and the poet immediately identified with it: the way the small tree stood there with its large, soft, fragile leaves. (See his banana plant haiku.)

Basho was probably born in 1644 in Iga Province outside of Kyoto, Japan. His father was a poor samurai-farmer.

As a teenager, Basho entered the service of the local lord, acting as a page. The young lord was only a couple of years older than Basho, and the two became friends, enjoying the playful exchange of haiku verses.

When Basho was still a young man, his friend and lord died. In reaction, Basho left home, abandoned his samurai status, and took to a life of wandering.

After several years, he settled in Edo (Tokyo), continuing to write and publish poetry. His haiku began to attract attention. Students started to gather around him. At about this time, Basho also took up Zen meditation.

Basho remained restless, even in his fame. A neighborhood fire claimed his small house in Edo leaving him homeless, and Basho once again took up the itinerant life, visiting friends and disciples, taking up residence for brief periods only to begin another journey. It was during this time that Basho composed some of his greatest haiku.

Basho returned to Edo in 1691 and died there in 1694.

More poetry by Matsuo Basho

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Basho – The temple bell dies away”

  1. Gerryon 10 Mar 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you Ivan, for a moment of enlightenment! Showing love to others is showing love to God. My soul responded to this poem and your message in a powerful way.

  2. Hanson 10 Mar 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    thank you for posting Basho. I revere Basho for his ingenious mastery of condensed language. He stirs our intuition with just some sparse words.

    Temple bell dies away – time goes on, practice goes for a break, intentional attention withers.
    The scent of flowers in the evening
    Is still tolling the bell. – But now the sweetness of Self takes over, it’s unobtrusive, yet everywhere, there is no need to follow, concentrate.
    You are wrapped in the subtle bliss of your inherent nature.

    Om svaha

  3. rosellen littleon 10 Mar 2014 at 7:29 pm

    thanks for this

    not sure what it means or is

    but gives hope to poor people

    who may have only
    the blossoms

    to appreciate

    even despite the strange things in this life

  4. Pegon 11 Mar 2014 at 6:26 am

    So appropriate, Ivan. We have a coronal hole magnetically connected to earth right now. And if you listen, you can hear it in your left ear. The sound has a quality of listening to morse code through a conch shell with the sound of the ocean. And, the music of the eternal ever present, ever sounding so we know we are never alone.

  5. Alice Whooleyon 11 Mar 2014 at 11:04 am

    this little haiku and your commentary make my spirit soar…

  6. leeon 17 Mar 2014 at 4:15 pm

    having celebrated the one year anniversary of the death of a loved one this week, this poem had an added dimension for me. We may lose someone precious to us- they cease to toll- but the sweet memory of that beloved lives on, the sweetness of their spirit reverberates from another dimension, still heard within our souls.

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