Kay Millikin

From Ancient Japan to Contemporary US:
A Comparison of the lives and haiku of
Vincent Tripi and Matsuo Bashô

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

From Ancient Japan to Contemporary US: A Comparison of the lives and haiku of Vincent Tripi and Matsuo Bashô

After doing a thorough analysis of the haiku of Vincent Tripi and his transcendental writing style, I find it especially interesting to compare him with another great haiku writer who shared some of his common goals, though through another culture and practice. Vincent Tripi lives in the United States today and follows the goals of transcendentalism in practice and writing, and yet his haiku are not altogether different from the great Japanese master of haiku, Matsuo Basho. Basho lived in Japan and practiced the beginnings of haiku writing in throughout his life from 1644-1694, following the studies of Zen Buddhism along with his writing. Although the two are from completely opposite ends of the world, are 400 years apart in age and have completely separate cultures, their haiku are not entirely different. In terms of style, use of nature, and views of the common person they are quite similar, and their lifestyles have many parallels as well.

In the course of their lives, both Tripi and Basho have been very dedicated to their life practices: Tripi mainly to transcendentalism and Basho to Zen Buddhism. The two are actually not very different at all. Zen Buddhism in China and Japan focuses on enlightenment being attained through intuition, self-contemplation, and meditation (Bookshelf). Transcendentalism in the United States focuses on intuition over logic, a united bind between all beings, and the inherent goodness of all people (Merriam-Webster’s). Basho practiced his philosophy through travel and isolation, while Tripi has studied his through meditation, time in nature and isolation as well. Tripi often touches on Zen Buddhist references throughout his writing, indicating he shares Basho’s practice at least to a small degree. Both writers are very self-reflective, intrigued by nature, and drawn to the intuitive nature of humans.

Both Tripi and Basho have also used their life practices to experiment with other types of writing and with teaching. Basho was a well-known teacher throughout his life for a great many disciples of haiku in Japan. Tripi has taught yoga and meditation since 1980, indicating again a similar practice to Basho’s Zen Buddhism. In their other types of writing, Basho and Tripi especially have similarities in haibun. In Tripi’s book Haiku Pond he reflects on his surroundings in a journal entry through imagery-filled prose, then ends with a haiku in a typical haibun style of writing. Basho was also well known for writing excellent haibun and prose, as well as other styles of poetry. Tripi and Basho are both strong writers who are able to write in other forms, but today are known for their contributions to haiku.

In their haiku writing, Tripi and Basho have a very similar style, which is also reflective of their life-philosophies. Their strong nature haiku especially are often very detached and simple, painting a vivid image and mood in nature. Here is an example:

Pale moon the flight of the crow to its nest

(Tripi ...the path of the bird)

On a bare branch
A crow is perched—
Autumn evening

(Bashô 44 Matsuo Bashô)

Both haiku are very dark in image and lonely in tone. In Tripi’s, we see the pale moon lingering in the dark night sky, and the black crow flying up into the nest alone. Basho’s haiku also uses the darkest bird, a crow, and shows us this bird on a lifeless branch on a dark, autumn evening. The tone is very Zen in its detached voice and ego-less description. It is simply a portrait of nature, focusing on the same bird in its representations for darkness.

Tripi and Basho wrote often about birds as a focus for their haiku, both being such lovers of nature. In another haiku about birds, they also reveal their similar style:

Autumn colors
breaking through the trees
the wood duck settles

(Tripi ...the path of the bird)

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white

(Bashô 48 Matsuo Bashô)

These haiku again are very detached in their description, and very simple. In Tripi’s we see the reds, yellows and browns of autumn leaves, and then breaking through all of these colors comes the multihued wood duck, to settle in with his magnificent multi-colored feathers. Basho’s haiku captures almost the opposite image of color in a more black and white scene, but still uses the bird as the focus for the color. We feel the coolness of the sea darkening after sunset, and then in the distance, the wood duck’s honk, which is so pierced and sharp it is like the image of white cutting through the darkness. Both writers again use birds to convey a spectrum of colors for a rich image, although evoking little emotion in their detached forms for these haiku.

Not all of Basho and Tripi’s haiku are completely emotionless, however. Basho has one haiku in particular that he is noted for with a more emotional style, and several of Tripi’s reflect a more personal tone. These haiku show a greater range of style for the two writers:

We hold each other
tight around her deathbed

(Tripi somewhere among the clouds)

Should I hold it in my hand
It would melt in my burning tears–
Autumnal frost

(Bashô 26 Matsuo Bashô)

These haiku are very similar in the great intensity of emotion. Both deal with death and are very personal in their expressions of grief. In Tripi’s haiku we see a couple with their arms around each other at the deathbed of someone they have loved greatly and lost, probably a young child due to the reference to the rosebud. The rosebud shows us the young, tender loss, and a symbol of youth even in death. It is a very powerful, sad feeling. From what we know about the historical context of Basho’s haiku we can see a man with cupped hands wanting to hold a tuft of hair from his late mother. Basho is so sad at the loss of his mother that he knows the tuft of hair his brother hands him would not be able to sit in his hands, because his tears would melt it. The use of autumnal frost also gives this haiku a background season of loneliness, with autumnal frost that is settling in and killing off everything once and for all, leaving Basho alone. Both of these haiku are very distressing and emotionally stirring haiku that show Tripi and Basho’s styles in another form.

Besides having comparable styles, the most obvious similarity between the two writers is the use of nature. Basho was obviously very dedicated to nature in his haiku, having a nature or seasonal image in each haiku he wrote. Tripi is also just as strict with including nature in his haiku. Following the practice of other Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, he isolated himself in nature for long periods of time. Both writers feel a strong connection to the natural world, and show it well in their haiku that expresses the joys of nature:

Around the entrance, floor
everywhere in the bear’s den
cherry petals

(Tripi 26 between God & pine)

Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms

(Bashô 59 Matsuo Bashô)

These two haiku are very much alike in their full images of cherry flowers being all over the scenery. Both are invitational in their use of the cherry blossoms as well, showing a friendly side to nature. Basho’s scenery is a picnic, set up with all different kinds of food and then emphasizing that surrounding him everywhere are cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms make the scene also more inviting, as they are sharing the scene with him and seem to encourage others to do so as well. Tripi’s haiku is set in a bear’s den, which has cherry petals draped all its inside. Tripi uses the word "everywhere" as well in this haiku, showing that the cherry blossoms have invited themselves, making the reader feel invited into even this bear’s den, which is normally off-limits to everyone except the bear. Both Basho and Tripi capture the fondness of cherry flowers and use them to create a welcoming scene. They use nature in a happy, joyful way, showing their deep love and attachment to it.

Besides showing the joys of nature, Basho and Tripi also show the insightful qualities of nature that can teach us something about self-reflection and meditation, ideas that are very important especially to Tripi’s philosophy of transcendentalism. Here are two examples of nature haiku that Tripi and Basho use to show qualities of self-reflection in nature:

My reflection...
remembering the name
of the stream

(Tripi 20 between God & pine)

The sound of hail—
I am the same as before
like that aging oak

(Bashô 25 Matsuo Bashô)

In these haiku we see Tripi and Basho using nature to reflect upon themselves. Tripi’s haiku gives us an image of the author looking at his own reflection in the stream, and coming to realize that by looking at himself he can remember the name of the stream. This reflection shows that the stream is part of Tripi’s on self, and its name is hidden within him. The concept behind this haiku of being one with another object is very transcendental. It is a very important lesson to the transcendentalist, and one that only nature can teach him. Basho’s haiku is equally self reflective. We can picture the great haiku master sitting at his window, listening to the sound of hail, and realizing that he has not changed; he has remained the same man over many years like the aging oak he sees in his neighbor’s yard. The tree remains the same even after hundreds of years, and Basho realizes that he has stayed in the same likeness as well throughout the years. This haiku is also very transcendental in the way that Basho reflects upon himself as being like an oak tree. The sound of hail dries him to this self-contemplation, and again we see how Basho nature to meditate and learn about life.

Not only do Tripi and Basho use nature in a way that reflects Tripi’s philosophy of transcendentalism, but both also use nature in haiku that fits into the concept of Zen Buddhism as well. Both use haiku that can be meditated on as a study for Zen Buddhism:

On the pond

(Tripi 21 between God & pine)

old pond…
frog jumps in
water’s sound

(Bashô 9 Matsuo Bashô)

These haiku are very similar in their reflective setting at a pond, and in showing its deeper qualities. This most famous haiku of Basho’s is often studied by Zen philosophers as a way to look at Zen. It portrays nature in a very detached, serene study, and in its simple form: a frog jumping in and making a sound in the water. No human enters into the haiku, it is just a simple study of nature being as it is. This haiku of Tripi’s is also very Zen-like in its detached and a simple image: wild geese are flying over the water, giving a beautiful sight that shines on the pond. No author or human voice enters the scene; Tripi simply presents an image that we can use for meditation and reflection if we choose.

Besides using a similar style and representing nature for their selected methods of practice in their haiku, Tripi and Basho both portray humans in their natural element with exceptional skill. Both have the ability to take a common person, no one out of the ordinary, and show them in a way that makes them more than just regular people. They capture the beauty of everyday life and people in their haiku, especially in similar ways with these two:

Moth outside—
the midwife works
by candlelight

(Tripi between God & pine)

Azaleas in a bucket
And in their shade, a woman
Tearing up dried codfish

(Bashô Matsuo Bashô)

These haiku are very similar because they are portraits of two women, probably elderly, doing "common" work, yet each of their jobs are portrayed as something unique. In Tripi’s haiku, a midwife is the central person, someone whose profession is nothing that calls for great respect from society today. She is just a common person, making a small living. In this haiku she is aiding in a birth, and Tripi helps convey the mystic wonder that this woman has in her job (no matter how unimportant it is to society) by portraying her next to candlelight, and a moth that is attracted to come close to her because of it. It gives off a feeling of antiquity, in the candlelight, and the old-fashioned method of giving birth. The woman is almost mystical. Basho depicts a woman who is just tearing up dried fish, not doing any special or noble job. Most likely she also has a very humbling life as well, but nevertheless she is working under a bucket of Azaleas that are hanging on the wall and probably bursting with beauty in full bloom. It has a sense of beauty for the common woman doing an ugly job. The woman is almost beautiful under the bucket there. Tripi and Basho portray these common women in a much deeper sense than what we would usually view them in, and display images that we often fail to see in these haiku.

Tripi and Basho both revel in the simplicity of life, from the common person to the state of nature and to a style that is also clear, concise and can be either detached or very emotional. Although they come from very different cultures and times, they still manage to have a bind between them as haiku writers. Tripi would agree with this, in his transcendental views of a common unity between all beings. Basho might not agree, stating he is merely an existing writer, but if he were alive today he could not deny the overwhelming influence he has had over the movement of haiku. Many great haiku authors can be compared to Basho, because he has influenced their style in his very practiced form of writing. However, not all haiku authors have as many similarities in philosophy and style. Basho’s practice of Zen Buddhism has carried far into Tripi’s culture and affected him in his study of transcendentalism as well. The two authors will never know each other, but both are bound by the elements that make up great haiku, and this, as Tripi’s transcendental idea suggests, unites them.


Higginson, William and Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook. New York: Kodansha International, 1985.

"Transcendentalism." Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of English Literature. Springfield, Merriam-Webster, 1995.

Tripi, Vincent. between God & the pine. 1997.

Tripi, Vincent. Haiku Pond. San Francisco: Vide Press, 1987.

Tripi, Vincent. . . . the path of the bird. Wisconsin: Hummingbird Press, 1996.

Tripi, Vincent. somewhere among the clouds. 1999.

Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashô. New York: Kodansha International, 1970.

"Zen Buddhism." Microsoft Bookshelf 98. 1997 ed.

—Kay Millikin


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors