Haiku Enlightenment, Part 1


A Haiku Path – Gabriel Rosenstock

Part 1

The dynamic pause. In haiku, we pause for a few concentrated seconds. Not to escape from the helter-skelter — or tedium — of existence but to enter into the life of things in a dynamic way.

The haiku moment refreshes us, focuses, strengthens and encourages us to continue on a pathless path which reveals itself uniquely to us all:

midstream halt –
the horseman looks up
at the falling stars

H F  Noyes

These pauses ground us in the mystery of being as we open ourselves to new vistas. They allow us to be attuned to the rhythm, colour, sound and dynamic of life, from season to season, whoever, whatever or wherever we are.
Touch and savour. The haiku bids us to savour phenomena:

autumn –
now the slow bee allows
stroking of fur

         George Marsh

Momentous events often appear small, insignificant happenings take on a new and delicate meaning for the reader and writer of haiku. The jaded palate finds that what it longs for is not the sweet, the sour, the piquant or the robust but the possibility of all of these and more, the coolness of water, the headiness of wine, the comfort of old port. Many unexpected pleasures await those who stroll on the haiku path. Many contradictions, many odd juxtapositions await. And haiku will resolve them, make everything whole again.

Haiku is the great reviver of the senses, senses governed by enlightened insight. In the above haiku, the shift of attention is to the bee. It is as if the bee slows down, for our sake, to appreciate it — to see it — in a new mood, a new light. Its summer of antics is all over. We are invited to savour another dynamic, one as real as that which went before and that which is yet to come. All of nature, and our own, comes alive. The microscopic focus of the haiku reveals the inner order and beauty of existence, over and over again. We cannot tire of good haiku. It is a distillation of all that is real in life. It is, as you will see, an elixir of enlightenment, always available.

The naturalness of it all. Our last pause will be death. For the haikuist, death is another perfectly natural phenomenon, not something divorced from life or signifying its end:

necklace of bone.
ants have finished
with the snake

Margaret Manson

Many haikuists have written until their very last breath. Death-bed haiku of haijin (masters) — such as Shiki — are justly famous. We can be in awe of anything, even our own demise. Everything is of cosmic magnitude, here and now. F Scott Fitzgerald says in The Great Gatsby:

Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window.

The haikuist would not argue with that.

Effortless attunement. By working at haiku and by living haiku — through reading and composition and through acquiring the haiku instinct, or knack – effortless attunement is the natural and inevitable result. This ability becomes the unfailing groundwork for sudden enlightenment. It can repeat itself  — over days, over centuries. David Burleigh published this haiku in 1998:

trapped inside a pot
at the bottom of the sea
the octopus dreams

Basho wrote the following in May, 1688:

octopus traps –
fleeting dreams beneath
a summer moon

This may be mere coincidence, or it may be evidence of the cosmic mind at work, or it could be an example of honkadori, allusive variation. If so, hunkey dorey!

Mr. Burleigh kindly responded to an enquiry by stating that it did, in fact, allude to Basho’s verse in the Travel-Worn Satchel but that his own haiku was inspired by the confined space of urban living.

Confined no longer! Each successful haiku is a breath of freedom. The seventeen syllable, traditional form was adjudged to be a breath span. And, just as Keats said that poetry should come as naturally as foliage to a tree, or not at all, so we say that haiku is an exhalation, a breath of freedom, a sigh.

It is a plunge. In the way of haiku, we cannot know what is next to be revealed. We are not soothsayers. Nor do we dabble in magic. What will be the next haiku moment? Anticipation is foolish. Each moment is as unique as your fingerprints, your iris, and as fleeting as your breath. The haiku moment will not happen without you. You must be there for it to happen. And it occurs in such an intense, pure form that it appears to have happened without you. That brief, piercing insight, that moment of haiku enlightenment, has stripped you of the thousand items that are the jig-saw of your ego. Then we’re back again in the duality of the world and its routines. But we know that another surprise awaits around the corner, whatever it may be.

The surprise of unity. Everything about our existence seems fractured from the time our umbilical cord is cut. But haiku offers us a direct route towards unity. It is put well by Jonathan Clemens, in The Moon in the Pines (Frances Lincoln Limited,2000):

Haiku seeks, in a handful of words, to crystallize an instant in all its fullness, encouraging through the experience of the moment the union of the reader with all existence. The reader side-steps conventional perception, startled into a momentary but full understanding of the poet’s experience. By locking reader and poet into the same reality, haiku helps us perceive the ultimate unity of all realities.

The aliveness of haiku is one of its most remarkable gifts:

everything I pick up
is alive –
ebb tide

(Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master, Patricia Donegan & Yoshie Ishibashi, Tuttle 1998)

Newness and aliveness. Haiku practise leads to a feeling of newness and aliveness. Can one feel enlightenment? Let us be a little inscrutable about this and say that feelings may or may not be part of the experience. Sudden enlightenment is a liberation – from feelings, from cognition. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists enlightenment as ‘the state of being in harmony with the laws of the universe’ (Taoism) and also ‘the realization of ultimate universal truth’ (Buddhism). Haiku practise is not at variance with these goals. And here is a lovely Christian manifestation of haiku truth:

April snow-
the lightness of the Host
in my hand

Adele Kenny
(Frogpond, No. 3, 1998)

This particular haikuist is a member of the Secular Franciscan order and believes that writing haiku means

. . . using words reverently to express the sacredness of God’s universe – in moments of isolation, in moments of communion – alone and yet united with the Creator and with all creation. (ibid.)

And this creation that we speak of is everything, not just mountains, rivers and deserts:

I sleep. I wake.
how wide
the bed with none beside

Chiyo, 1703-1775*

Creation is presence – and absence too:

Autumn – I look at the moon
without a child
on my knee


It is meeting, and parting:

I have got to know
the scarecrow
but now we must part


It is not one thing, but many things together, in a strange harmony which the haikuist intuits:

night disappears
behind the mountain –
deer’s bellowing


It is fierce:

the autumn squall
blows the eagle
over the edge of the crag


It is gentle:

mist about the grass,
rain silent,
evening calm

It is holy:
putting his hands together –
reciting a poem


*(The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology, ed. Faubion Bowers, Dover 1996)

The haiku highwayman: He will stop us again on the road, take our clothes, our money, our watch, our identity papers, leaving us dumbfounded, looking around like a newly born. He gives us time to wonder at our nakedness, at the universe, to look at the sky, at the moon, for the first time. Then he throws everything back at us again, laughingly. And as we pick ourselves together, we know the world has changed. We have changed.


End Part 1. The next 5 installations of Haiku Enlightenment will in subsequent issues of World Haiku Review.

This entry was posted in Article Series, Haiku, Vol 2-1 March 2002 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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