Saturday, February 2, 2013

Haiku, Basho and Zen

Haiku and Zen

inazuma ni / satoranu hito no / tattosa yo

In a 1690 letter to his disciple, Kyokusui, the mature Basho praises the virtues of sincerity and strong character for haiku poets. He underscores his points with a haiku:

"A high priest says, 'A superficial knowledge of Zen causes great harm.' I appreciate his comments.

with lightning
one is not enlightened
how valuable"
(# 685, JR)
Shotei - Thunderstorm at Tateishi


Is Haiku Zen?

Many books in English about Haiku, and about Basho in particular, seem to emphasize a connection between Zen and Haiku which I believe is misplaced, or at least over-exaggerated. Some examples that have sat on my own bookshelf include Blyth's "History of Haiku" (2 volumes) - in which all haiku poets and the quality of their haiku are measured against Basho's supposed Zen benchmark; "River of Heaven" by American Zen master Robert Aitken; "Haiku Mind" by Patricia Donegan, and many English haiku anthologies ... all put either a deliberate, or perhaps at times unconscious Western-Zen-enthusiast slant onto the works and intentions of Basho, and on haiku in general. 

R.H. Blyth - English-born haiku translator and popularizer
Now these are all fine books, and their translations and commentaries are insightful and beautiful. I personally find the Zen interpretations sometimes quite inspiring, deepening greatly my appreciation of the mysteries of life and nature. But the overwhelming effect of them is to overemphasize this one particular influence on Japanese haiku.

Robert Aitken - American Zen Master and haiku translator
This is even the case for Jane Reichhold's "Basho The Complete Haiku", which is an admirable work of genuine scholarly value, systematically translating all Basho's haiku; yet in her introductions and commentary she is not free of this "Zenification". For instance she asserts that it is because of Basho's "nobility", and "his high spiritual development", that "haiku and Zen are often closely linked." (Is there no other type of nobility and spirituality than Zen?) She goes on to say: 
Jane Reichhold - author and haiku translator
"Basho never actually became a monk, though he studied Zen for many years and when he traveled he shaved his head and wore to robes of the order. At one point he seriously considered taking vows, but this would have meant giving up poetry, which was something he simply could not do." (Reichhold, Basho, p. 9)

Is Haiku Holy?

Nevertheless, for an enthusiast like Reichhold, the flavor of Zen masks everything. She says that because Basho "had assimilated the precepts and teachings of Buddhism, his poetry is infused with Buddhist ideas and ideals to a degree not found in the works of most other writers" (leaving one to wonder, how can it be claimed that haiku is naturally connected with Zen, if it does not pervade the art of every haiku poet?). Certainly many Japanese poets - before and after Basho - have failed to find a necessary connection between haiku and Zen. But clearly for Reichhold, haiku, and especially Basho, belong to Zen Buddhism, and she refers to "the holiness and sublime atmosphere of a haiku." She is welcome to her spiritual interests and devotions, and I am sure Zen Buddhists indeed can find great spiritual inspiration from many haiku. But I consider Reichhold and the others do haiku a disservice by asserting such a dogmatic and absolute connection between haiku and a particular religion. Particularly when they imply without this Zen character, it is not "real" haiku.

Online English-language haiku associations and publications similarly emphasize the more Zen-like "haiku", and even publish them separately from the less profound, more human "senryu" (poems written in the same form as traditional haiku, but deemed not to be sufficiently "serious" to be called "haiku").

Is Your Haiku "Real"?

Not that I am opposed to Zen, or any other spiritual tradition, employing the haiku form. But I think it is unfortunate for newcomers to be left with the idea that unless they have Zen-like experiences, they cannot write haiku, or if they don't write a "Zen-like" poem, it won't be "real" haiku.

From personal experience, I know early in my haiku apprenticeship I was influenced this way, trying to make my poems more Zen-like, resulting in a lot of very poor, inauthentic poems, rather than focusing on capturing any and all experiences, and rendering them authentically.

The Blindness of the Enlightened?

I believe this Zen "connection" is not just overstated, but is simply wrong. Historically - as demonstrated by development of haiku in Japanese both prior and subsequent to Basho - there is no consistent and systematic school of haiku writing emphasizing Zen principles. The interpretation has come about, it seems, largely because the early translators and popularizers of Haiku in English such as Blyth, writing in the 1940's and 1950's, were themselves enthusiasts of the exotic aspects of Japanese culture, and of Zen Buddhism in particular. Art critic and historian Ernst Gombrich, points out a common human weakness when he says "The artist will tend to see what he paints, rather than paint what he sees". In a similar way, these English-speaking Zen enthusiasts are prejudiced, blinded, and they do not so much "write about what they saw, but saw what they wrote about" - and it seems to me that what they saw and liked so much was a Buddhist Zen culture - a religious tradition very different from their own Western cultural heritage with its dominant Judeo-Christian mindset and set of prescriptive theological and moral dogmatism.

Of course, it is very difficult for most English speakers to access a wide range of classic Japanese haiku, on account of the effort required to learn the Japanese language. So, at least initially, they rely on the translations of enthusiasts like Blyth, Aitken, Reichhold, and they pick up without realizing the Zen-bias in the translations.

Again, without denigrating adherents of Zen, I do think this artificial and unnecessary "zenification" of haiku is detrimental to the widest encouragement, and to the ongoing development of the haiku "art" in English. How many writers suppress their enthusiasm and delight at exploring the versatility and flexibility of this form, thinking they have to make profound statements or observations? How many don't even engage with the form, because they believe it would mean committing to a religious outlook they don't share?

Haiku in Japan Today - No za-Zen Here

Patricia Donegan - author of Haiku Mind and Buddhist commentator

Interestingly, Donegan in her "Haiku Mind", after talking about her personal introduction to haiku through various Buddhist retreats and meditation (including one led by by Zen author and haiku enthusiast Robert Aitken) recounts her surprise when she went to Japan in 1986 to study with a Japanese haiku master, Seishi Yamaguchi, and found to the contrary of her "romantic notion to find a Zen-like haiku master", that in Japan, haiku is not about Zen. She continues:

"It was in his weekly group class, where we all presented out haiku for correction by the teacher, that I learned how subtle and ordinary haiku really was - and that because it is so ordinary it seems extraordinary. In our discussions about haiku the teacher and the other Japanese poets were puzzled why I even mentioned the subject of Zen, because for them haiku was about ordinary life; just that, nothing special, that there is absolutely no separation between the mundane and the sacred, things as they are. I then realized that to search for the so-called Zen mystery in every haiku is a mistake and to do so takes away the depth of their personal flavor and ordinary mind context." (Donegan, Haiku Mind, p. xiv)

Haiku Theory in Japan - Shiki

This is precisely what the poet Shiki taught. He was writing at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, and is arguably the most influential Japanese haiku critic and theorist, as well as himself being listed among the pantheon of the four acknowledged greatest Japanese haiku poets. He emphasized that haiku is about everyday life, everyday actions, but most importantly, authentic experiences. 

Masaoka Shiki wrote influential haiku criticism and and theory, as well as some of the greatest haiku in Japanese, from his sickbed, while dying from tuberculosis

No one doubts that authentic Zen experiences can make for beautiful and powerful haiku. But that should not be our goal in writing haiku (or our expectation in reading haiku). Such authentic Zen haiku might arise a mere handful of times in a lifetime of writing by a prolific poet. Basho warns his followers: 

"The masters of the past took such care in composing [haiku on natural scenes] that they created only two or three in their lifetime. For beginners, copying a scene is easy, they warn us."
(quoted in Kenneth Yasuda: "The Japanese Haiku": Tuttle, 1957, p. xviii; himself referencing a book only available in Japanese edited by T. Komiya and S. Yokozawa: "Basho, Haikai Ronshu" (Collected Haiku Theory), Iwanimi, 1951)

The composing of an authentic Zen haiku, one suspects, he would consider an even more difficult and rarer achievement.

Haiku and Spirituality

Having said all this though, I do believe haiku can indeed be a spiritual art form, and many of the greatest haiku indeed have a spiritual power, and many haiku poets practice their art as a spiritual discipline - but that the spirituality of a haiku poet does not have to be Zen.

So I would also argue that Basho is not really a Zen writer either, but a spiritual writer - and even then, not always.

What do I mean by spiritual? "Spirituality" in my experience might be defined as a search for, or an openness to, "transcendent encounters" - that is to say, encounters that engage more than our natural awareness of cause and effect, encounters that trigger a greater sense of connectedness and causation, something that we emotionally feel, but struggle to define in words.

Philosophers call this an "immanent" experience, and it is the universal consensus of spiritual writers that such encounters, such immanent experiences, such a sense of "spirituality" is not well suited to be communicated through conceptual descriptions or logical discourse, but is apparently best able to be communicated through sharing the experience. Which is precisely what all religions, but also many artists strive to do - to "re-produce" an experience or bring about an intimation of an immanent experience: either through a shared ritual, or through certain meditative practices in religions; or through the medium of aesthetically arranged words (poetry), musical sounds, pigments on a background, or some other art-form in the case of spiritualized art.

Basho the travelling poet. Woodblock by Yoshitoshi

Basho, in my reading - particularly his travel journals - was just such a spiritual person; someone constantly searching for and open to such immanent and soulful encounters. But he was also someone who strove to capture and preserve these spiritual experiences, and then to share them with others. And to achieve this he used the art-form most familiar to him, and with which he was already most adept - hokku poetry. He found this abbreviated form best suited to the myriad brief encounters of spiritual mindfulness that he cultivated. He crafted his art and moved away from the traditional use of hokku as part of a witty game, to make it an immanent art form. He used it to sketch brief emotional encounters with life, with nature, with culture; authentic human experiences which we can call spiritual.

Shinto and Zen

A Torii Gateway to a Japanese Shinto shrine
These spiritual experiences of Basho were naturally shaped by the two culturally influential spiritualities of his place and time - Shinto and Buddhism. The native Japanese Shinto religion, with its myriad gods and shrines testifies to an opportunity to encounter "kami" - spiritual energy - anywhere and everywhere - especially in awesome natural features, such as mighty trees, waterfalls, mountains; but even in ordinary events - such as the song of a bird marking the change of seasons. In Shinto, anything which can stimulate a sense of mindfulness is understood to be charged with the "ki" or power of kami.

A spectacular scenic location in Japan, Shirakumo waterfall, in a woodblock print by Shotei - such awesome natural spectacles were frequently the sites of shrines in Shinto religion. The sense of awe was attributed to the power of kami, and associated rituals brought adherents to share in the power of the kami or gods.

Basho also clearly was influenced and inspired by the practices and ideas of Zen Buddhism, to the extent he is known to have undertaken some training in the techniques of Zen mediation from a local master. Also, a number of poems do refer to Buddhist beliefs and practices. I believe his Zen instructions enhanced Basho's spiritual sensitivity, his mindfulness, and provided this highly literate writer a more intellectual and philosophical grounding for his spiritual experiences, his sense of the mysterious in the world (something lacking in Shinto, which is highly ritualized and directly experiential, rather than intellectual and doctrinal). 

Bodhidharma - the bringer of Zen Buddhism to Japan. Woodblock by Yoshitoshi

Haiku and Satori

In particular the Zen concept of "satori", enlightenment, occurs several times in Basho's poetry, including the one quoted at the start of this post. According to the renowned Zen authority Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, (D.T. Suzuki) satori is a particularly Japanese interpretation of Mahayana Buddhist doctrines of enlightenment. "Satori has a specifically Buddhist ring about it, for it is to penetrate into the truth of the Buddhist teaching concerning the reality of things or the mystery and meaning of life". It is an intuitive mode of understanding that "consists in seeing directly into the mystery of our own being, which according to Zen, is Reality itself. Zen thus advises gain an inner experience which is to take place in the deepest recesses of one's being...Without satori there is no Zen. Zen and satori are synonymous." 

Japanese Buddhist and Zen author, D.T. Suzuki

Satori is the "idea that the ultimate truth of life and of things generally is to be intuitively and not conceptually grasped." According to Suzuki, "The supreme moment in the life of an artist, when expressed in Zen terms, is the experience of satori. To experience satori is to become conscious of the Unconscious".  (Suzuki, "Zen and Japanese Culture", (1959) Tuttle, pp. 218-221)

Is Haiku just a Zen Koan?

According to Suzuki, there are established methods in Zen Buddhism for provoking the realization of satori - for instance the master confronting a student with a paradoxical koan. A well known example, of course, is the classic koan question: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"
And it seems to me that the brief, juxtapositional nature of some haiku - somewhat akin to these traditional Zen koans - has lead to the enthusiastic appropriation of haiku by Zen practitioners.

Real Haiku - Just Poems of Authenticity

But I think the poem already quoted can be read as a warning to us haiku apprentices, as it was to his disciple Kyokusui, not to reduce haiku to Zen satori. Another translation of the same poem, this time by Sam Hammill:

"How very noble!
One who finds no satori
in the lightning flash"

Thunderstorm. Woodblock by Shotei
Basho is above everything a believer in authenticity. The truly authentic poet would indeed be one prepared to admit they found no satori, no enlightenment, in a lightning flash, even though it would appear the perfect and natural trigger for an enlightened moment!

These two cultural religious backgrounds - Shinto and Zen Buddhism - combined with Basho's personal spiritual temperament to produce the unique poetry we recognize as Basho's mature style. Basho is not a nature poet, or a Zen poet. He is, I believe, a mindfulness poet. He is open to a transcendent experience in any moment or incident. But unlike a Zen monk, it is not with the aim of ultimate enlightenment, but simply to encounter the mysteries of existence in all their mundane as well as exhilarating variety.


Basho and the Frog - The Old Pond Haiku

His 1682 "Old Pond" poem was in his own view the definitive example of what his haiku style should be like. It is a mindful encounter. Readers who are attracted to Zen Buddhism tend to interpret it as a satori moment. Here are some translations that would appear to emphasize a Zen interpretation:

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

"Into the ancient pond
A frog jumps
Water’s sound!"
(trans. by D.T. Suzuki)

"old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water"
(# 152 - JR)

"The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water."
(Trans. by R.H. Blyth)

These Zen-inspired writers try and imitate the zazen-like juxtaposition that Basho appears to have constructed. Instead of "what is the sound of one hand clapping?", here we have the implied question: "what is the sound of water?"

Here is my own translation:

A familiar old pond
Suddenly a frog jumps in The sound of wetness

My own interpretation of this poem is one of a mindful encounter; not necessarily a Zen moment of enlightenment, but simply an awakened sensitivity to the transcendent potencies in the world. The familiar is transcended with a new appreciation - in this familiar, mundane setting, the frog has allowed Basho to hear something unexpected - the very wetness of the water. And it also contains a hint of what Basho came to emphasize and teach to his students - something he called "karumi" or "lightness". It is not quite humour, but a simplicity and not taking things - and especially not taking poetry - too seriously. In the case of this poem, the ending is like a splash - indeed that is how it is translated by some writers.

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
(Trans. Alan Watts)

The Beautiful Light of Haiku

As we have seen in our first quoted poem, Basho himself seems to advise against making haiku a search for satori - that is to say, Zen enlightenment. Another poem from 1688, during his "Visit to Sarashina", records his visit to a temple, and seems also to show how Basho - far from sectarian - sees different religions as equivalent, from his more elevated calling of haiku:

tsuki kage ya / shimon shishu mo / tada hitotsu

Shotei - Torii of Miyajima under the moonlight
in the moonlight
four gates and four sects
become one
(trans. Stephen Addiss)

The moon, of course, is frequently a subject of Japanese poetry. The moon, for them, is one of the three great natural beauties to be appreciated in the world (the others being cherry blossoms blooming, and stars). It seems to me that the moonlight in this poem is haiku, poetry itself, and from the viewpoint of a haiku poet, there is no other religion - the gates and the subtemples lose their distinctions, only the beauty of haiku exists.

None of this is to say one cannot find satori and capture it in haiku. But that is not all of haiku, and that is not all of Basho. Haiku for Basho starts with an authentic, mindful (or spiritual) encounter with some - indeed any - aspect of reality, and is crafted into a brief poetic form which will hopefully reproduce the emotional experience. The brevity of form is critical, since it prevents over-explanation, and avoids dogmatism. It invites instead the reader to participate, and bring to the encounter their own repertoire of experiences and interpretations, to complete the poem in their own way. A Zen devotee may well bring a Zen mindset and interpret a haiku as a zazen or satori. A non-religious reader might find a different emotional experience. But if the reader experiences a mindful encounter, an authentic response, then the poet has succeeded.

As I have stated repeatedly, I have no problem with Zen enthusiasts and devotees practicing haiku, or using haiku for zen practice. But I strongly reject the attempt by some religious-motivated writers to appropriate haiku, and Basho in particular, for their particular religion.

Haiku Univeralism

Jane Reichhold says Basho decided not to become a Zen monk because he could not renounce his poetry. This is a critical message for all haiku apprentices, I believe. Not only must we remain alive to the poetic impulse that is, for many of us, an experience and expression of spirituality. We should not renounce any aspect of spirituality. We should remain open to Zen-like moments, but also to comedic moments, and to moments of pathos, and to moments of physicality, and to moments of aesthetic beauty. We should allow our brain to bring forth poems at any time on any subject. We can then be amazed at our own insights when we re-read them later, or in a different mood.

This then, for me, is the lesson of the Old Pond for the haiku apprentice:

Mindfulness. And lightness.

To be open to encountering a different, a transcendent, a fresh sense of reality, at any moment. To then strive to capture that moment authentically. But also to leave the reader free to re-encounter and reinterpret the experience afresh. Hopefully inspiring others, as Basho did, to be more mindful and open themselves, and to hear not just the sound of wetness in the leap of a frog into a common pond, but the full range of mystery and mundanity and power and pathos of life and nature. And yes, the humour - the appreciation of which is surely one of the defining characteristics of true humanity.

In my experience, a haiku apprentice, coming from the Western tradition, will probably be a spiritual person, and someone who will often try to employ the techniques of haiku in exploring or capturing moments of spiritual power or insight. But the haiku apprentice should not be religiously dogmatic. Or even spiritually dogmatic. And we should not suppress our humanity, our lightness, our humour - even in the midst of profound spiritual insight.

Haiku is not fundamentally a Zen art, or even a spiritual one. It is a poetic art. But to be an art, it must be about an authentic experience. A haiku may have a Zen insight, or not. A Zen haiku may be authentic, or not. But for the apprentice what is important is to be free in our haiku writing, and not constrained by any particular spirituality. A haiku poem is genuine when it is human (that is to say, a human encounter with something) and authentic (capturing a genuine experience, not enunciating a position or striking a posture that is thought to be "poetic" or even worse, "enlightened").

The more we write, the more we practice capturing these instances of mindful encounter in life, the more likely we will sometime produce something truly great and lasting - something to which we ourself will want to return and savor, quite apart from whether anyone else will ever read it. 

My Haiku Photoroll

A haiku apprentice, it seems to me, should therefore write haiku like they would use a digital camera phone - frequently exploring settings, capturing any and all the moments of daily life, and hopefully sometimes capturing something special. We should not expect to write great poems often - if at all. As quoted earlier, Basho himself said, 
"The masters of the past took such care in composing [haiku on natural scenes] that they created only two or three in their lifetime. For beginners, copying a scene is easy, they warn us."
(quoted in Kenneth Yasuda: "The Japanese Haiku": Tuttle, 1957, p. xviii)
From what I hope will be a lifetime of poetry, what I want to achieve is to have a record of a rich set of authentic experiences from life. If I manage to write even a handful of great haiku spiritual encounters among that record, that will be a rare and privileged achievement. But they will certainly not be Zen.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. Dear Haikuapprentice

    in your post on Saturday, February 2, 2013 you show an illustration of a frog with Japanese calligraphy in the background. Do you have more information on the artist or name of the work? I very much liked it.

    With kind regards

    1. Dear Stefan

      Thank you for visiting my page. Unfortunately I don't get to post nearly as often as I would like. The picture is in the public domain, you can find some details here:


  2. In your post, you mention how authentic haiku expresses ordinary and even mundane life experiences. Well that is exactly was Zen is about too.

  3. From my 35 years of studying Basho, I believe he studied Zen for the 18 months from winter 1680 to summer 1682 when the priest Butcho was staying nearby, but was never interested in the self-discipline of Zen; he was far more interested in Chuang Tzu, and Zen priests were the experts in Chuang Tzu.

    I have an article on Basho and Zen, including his linked verses and letters about Zen, at
    Friends in Zen




Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!