View Full Version : ARTS: Zen and haiku

05-11-2019, 01:49 PM
This is a recent blog post of mine which I thought might be useful here in a modified form.

Whereas the significance of Zen in haiku writing can often be overstated, it is certainly true that the two have had links in Japanese culture. The haiku master Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was a student of Zen, as was Santōka Taneda (1882-1940) who ordained in the Sōtō school.

Even in Kyoto
longing for Kyoto

Going deeper
And still deeper
The Green Mountains

Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831) was another Zen monk who practiced calligraphy and wrote poetry, including haiku, living the life of a Buddhist hermit in his Gogoan hut. In his later years he met the young nun, Teishin, and they exchanged haiku poems. She remained with him until his death.

Left behind by the thief
The moon
In the window.

Haiku often use images from nature in order to point to certain truths such as the impermanence of all things and interconnectivity of life. These truths are central to Buddhism and especially Zen. Of particular note is the use of cherry blossom imagery the intense beauty of the flowers is brought into sharp focus because we know how quickly they fade. Bashō himself comments similarly on the song of the cicada:

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they are
about to die

The endpoint of Zen practice is to achieve satori, or enlightenment, the realisation of the true nature of life and oneself. Haiku may both express such insight and play a role in precipitating it. Not all haiku express such Zen insight but it is not uncommon.

In more recent times, the Rinzai Zen teacher Robert Aitken (1917-2010), and author of our precept study text The Mind of Clover, has analysed the poems of the great haiku masters from a Zen perspective in two books which respectively explore the work of Bashō (A Zen Wave (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15849297-a-zen-wave)) and Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki (The River of Heaven (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10490258-the-river-of-heaven)).

Mitsu Suzuki (1915-2016), the wife of revered Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, was a noted writer of haiku as was Soen Nagakawa (1907-1984), the abbot of Ryataku Monastery and teacher of Robert Aitken.

Valley temple bell
with the last ring
a new century
Mitsu Suzuki

One hand
waving endlessly
autumn ocean
Soen Nagakawa

Former American Zen monk, Clark Strand, writes and teaches haiku in the Hudson Valley region of NY. His book Seeds from a Birch Tree (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/873462.Seeds_From_a_Birch_Tree) is a spiritual guide to haiku writing much loved by modern poets.

The dogwood blossoms
mean nothing particular
by the color white
Clark Strand

As well as Zen haiku writers, there have been several notable poets with connections to Pure Land Buddhism. The most important of these is Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), one of the 'Great Four' men considered masters of haiku (the others being Bashō, Buson and Shiki), who was a lay priest in the Jōdo Shinshū sect. He wrote a very famous haiku, still much quoted today, in which he reflects on the nature of reality after the death of his daughter:

This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .

The most famous female haiku poet, Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), became a Pure Land nun at the age of 52, taking the name Soen. She started writing haiku at the age of seven and continued throughout her life.

my fishing line --
the summer moon
-- Chiyo-ni

In order to produce good haiku, I believe that learning to notice the small details of life, especially in relation to the natural world, is very important. This skill is very similar to that whch is developed in meditation practice. There is no striving to achieve this but it happens very naturally as thoughts drop away and even the notion of the separation of our own self and the rest of life.

Being able to convey this in verse is a very lovely thing.


05-12-2019, 06:43 AM
Thanks, very interesting

Sat today, Lend a Hand

05-12-2019, 07:58 PM
All of these verses are so evocative Kokuu, it never ceases to amaze me what can be brought forth from just three lines of words.

Valley temple bell —
with the last ring
a new century
— Mitsu Suzuki

This says so much to me, I can see the temple and I can hear the bell ringing out clear across the valley. But so much more than that - as I read the words I felt nostalgia, tenderness, connection to the movement of time and this world, and a surge of hope. Beautiful.

Perhaps this would be a good space in which to post our favourite Haiku?

Thank you again for bringing us this beauty.
satwithyoualltoday lah

05-13-2019, 12:29 AM

Thank you for this thread, and your informative introduction to Haiku. This is the first time I have begun to understand what it is. I have never attempted it for this reason.

Now I can begin to contemplate it.


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05-13-2019, 04:42 AM
Thank you, Kokuu, for this thread and for all your lessons on Haiku.

just sat