In the poignant silence of early winter, Matsuo Bashō, a master of haiku, crafts a verse that resonates with the essence of absence and seasonal change:
the shrine is blanketed
with dead leaves
In this haiku, Bashō captures a moment of profound stillness. This isn’t just the normal stillness of winter, but one augmented by the physical desolation of the shrine and a deeper spiritual void left by the absent god converge. Winter inherently suggests a hush, a gradual retreat of the world into silence. The cease of autumn’s nightly insect choruses and nature’s gradual withering deepen this quiet. The belief that the gods have left most shrines to gather elsewhere only intensifies this sense of abandonment and stillness.
This idea that the gods have left is an interesting one. It is said that during the tenth month, gods from across Japan gather at Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. During their absence from the rest of Japan, other shrines feel stark and forlorn. The tenth month on the old calendar is around November on the modern one, so it’s likely Bashō was writing this haiku around this same time, 332 years ago, in 1691.
He was writing during an extended absence from Edo and from his disciples, as a new hermitage was being constructed for him. This haiku may well be a contemplation of his own absence, mirroring the gods’ departure.
This is a lovely reflection on the nature of absence, not only in the physical sense but also in the spiritual and emotional realms. As the leaves fall and the gods withdraw, we are reminded of the ever-changing cycle of life, the fleeting moments of presence, and the profound silence that follows.
There are two kigo (season words) here. Absence of the gods and fallen leaves, both kigo for early winter.