Editorial – Truth and Ego, the Two Awkward Entities

December 2003 Editorial


shiya semashi sezu ya aramashi to omou koto wa ohkata sezu ga yoki nari

(Kenko Yoshida c1283-post1350, Tsure-zure-gusa, “If one is not sure whether to do it or not do it, generally it is best not to.”)

I never saw any good that came of telling truth.

(John Dryden 1631-1700, Amphitryon, 1690)

Plain truth will influence half a score of men at most in a nation, or an age, while mystery will lead millions by the nose.

(Henry Bolingbroke 1678-1751, Letter, 1721)

The truth which makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.

(Herbert Sebastian Agar 1897-1980, A Time for Greatness, 1942)

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

(The Holy Bible, KJV, John, 8:32)

Trouthe is the hyeste thiyng that man may kepe.

(Geoffrey Chaucer c.1340-1400, The Canterbury Tales, 1387)

When in doubt, tell the truth.

(Mark Twain 1835-1910, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar)

I myself have told truths and have been made to suffer from doing so.

I believe in the freeing power of truths. Of course, in the Bible Christ is talking about one ultimate truth and ultimate freedom. Here, I am referring to truths in the secular sense and in everyday life but each in its ultimate form. I do not dismiss the power of the masses however true Henry Bolingbroke may be in his shrewd remark. But again it is the ultimate power of the masses one is talking about here. Haiku belongs to the masses. It is the literature of the masses. That is why we, the World Haiku Club, exist. However, haiku is not religion, Zen, or a cult to entertain the masses either. Good haiku poems point to truths. Basho’s “fuga no makoto” says it all. We must be truthful and tell the truth in our haiku activities, however hard, painful or risky it may be to do so.

Many have been jailed, killed, ex-communicated, jeered at, misunderstood, victimised in skulduggery, or sent to Coventry for the simple act of telling the truth in societies where “truth-tellers” are singled out and punished while liars or “truth-hiders” are left at large to flourish and do their mischief. Therefore it needs true courage for one to tell the truth at any given time in any given place. So, in spite of my conviction, I always hesitate before telling the truth. I have been influenced by Kenko Yoshida, one of the wisest persons Japan has ever produced, too much not to do so. I am sensing that hesitation now as I have another truth I want to tell you. Today I have decided to follow Mark Twain.

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

If this Cartesian dictum points to the essence of Western thought, perhaps “I think, therefore I do not exist” would indicate the essence of Japanese mindset, especially that of the Zen way. The Cartesian doubt obviously proved untenable when it was applied to human consciousness, as it is the latter who does the very doubting. He who doubts cannot be doubted. However, I wish to concentrate in this editorial not on human consciousness in the way Descartes presented it but simply on the subject of his dictum, i.e. the “I”.

The question of “ego” seems to have beset Western haiku poets ever since the genre was first introduced to them, especially after the World War II, while apparently there has never been any such bother in Japan. So, it must follow that it is a Western problem. Like an illness, haiku strikes different people in different ways. Therefore, it may only be natural that it should have struck these Westerners in a Western way.

Essentially, the Westerners thought that, simply put, haiku was such a humble and ego-less art that its authors should lose, or at least diminish, their ego in their haiku. This doctrine appears in all its manifestations. That a haiku author must not be in the poem is one. That the pronoun “I” should not be used in haiku, or at least should be used either in lower case “i” or sparingly, is another. Teaching against anthropomorphism abounds. “Don’t tell, show” now seems to be a stronger gospel than a religious precept. Readers of haiku are regarded as being far more important than writers of it. Of course there are other good reasons for these teachings but this sentiment, or haiku convention, about ego is still very much present and strong among Western poets and seems to appear in almost all haiku lessons, seminars, books or do’s and don’ts edicts and pontifical lectures. Why is this?

If the truth be told, asking Westerners to lose ego is like asking a Japanese samurai to drop his sword, or demanding democracy to be stripped of freedom or equality, or most relevantly, individualism—or asking someone to eat sashimi without raw fish. It is simply neither possible nor desirable, at least in normal circumstances. And, ironically, haiku should be written in normal circumstances rather than at the height of Zen enlightenment or in one of these rarest or non-existent Haiku Moments. That is why it has become a major problem among Western haiku poets. So major did it become that one could even go so far as to say that it is no longer a major problem. No, this is not a Zen koan. It is simply because all “problems” are assumed to be capable of being solved in the West once they are recognised as such. In my Eastern eyes, the real problem appears to have only started (but not yet recognised). The dichotomy between what some Western haiku poets strive to be (i.e. ego-less beings) and what they are (i.e. ego-filled individuals) has been creating all kinds of distortions, contradictions and artificialities, which are even more harmful than what they are trying to expel: ego. If I were a Westerner I would rather keep this offending “ego” and get rid of these distortions, contradictions or artificialities any day.

Why is this obsession with losing ego? It is almost denying one’s existence itself, because ego is the essence of individualism which is the foundation stone of Western societies. The greatest suspect of course is the Zen craze and the equation of Zen with haiku. Haiku is Zen = Zen is haiku. This mistake was so profound and widespread that it is still seen in many guises of which the requirement for an “ego-lessness” in haiku is one. As ridding haiku of ego in the West is all but impossible, such effort is bound to fail. It is painful to see some of those Zen zealots cum haiku poets who have managed to discipline themselves for a long period of time only to become the most self-centred and egotistic individuals I have ever encountered. Ironically, they have become the opposite beings to what they thought Zen followers should achieve. Their haiku often lacks the true elegance inherent to real haiku despite the superficial or artificial appearances of having no ego.

Individualism with all its properties, self-assertiveness in a competitive society, denial of higher or larger being than ourselves except for that in religion, misguided anthropocentricism, materialistic value system based on greed, all have contributed to encourage ego to become the “be-all and end-all” of our lives. Little wonder that it is a tall order to ask a person like that to lose ego for once when writing haiku. Haiku is a way of life and if one’s life is based on ego haiku cannot but carry ego with it. To do otherwise is a form of falsehood. We witness so many haiku poets who, back in their life away from haiku, act most selfishly. More surprisingly, we also witness as a matter of routine grotesque display of selfishness even when, or perhaps especially when, these people are mingling with other haiku poets, be it a haiku conference, kukai, ginko, journal or  a mailing list on the Internet. Some leaders of the haiku community are nothing but the embodiment of ego. We at WHC are not immune to this and have had a few members who paraded up and down showing a spectacular display of ugly egotism.

Ego question emerges in less obvious ways too. For instance, why do we have haiku competitions and prizes? Why are we so hasty in telling others about our award-winning haiku or that which has been selected and published in a prestigious haiku magazine? Why do we not fail to show our own haiku when we see a similar haiku by others? Why do we cap someone else’s haiku with our own? Why do we have our own haiku anthology published? Why do we give ourselves a haiku name? Why do we print these little leaflets bearing our masterpiece haiku poems? Why are we so precious about our own haiku by, for instance, slapping the copyright claim for each of our beloved haiku? Why do we masquerade as haiku teachers or masters? Why do we have to start our own haiku sites or online magazines? Why do we talk about haiku masters or haiku issues in a knowing way?

All these questions are there for no other reason than that “ego” has been, and still is, regarded as bad. If it were thought to be good, then everything mentioned above would instead be praised sky high. So, ego is bad then. One effective way to show that ego is bad is to list some of the words made of “self” or “ego”: Self-aggrandisement (-applauding, -appointed, -asserting, -centered, conceited, -dramatising, -importance, -interested, -opinionated, -righteous, -satisfying, -serving, -willed or –worship); ego-centric (-ism, -mania, -tism, or -trip). Of course, there are also words which mean good things, such as self-composed or self-effacing.

However, is “ego” really bad? Or to put it more searchingly, is it not too naïve or simplistic to think of ego in such black and white terms? Are we not making some fundamental mistake here? Surely, there must be some confusion or muddle. Do we not need to be a little bit more sophisticated and careful in our thinking when it comes to the ego question in haiku?

In fact, I have, so far, been “thinking aloud”, as I myself have no definite answer to this question yet. For example, I have created numerous haiku competitions, most notably the R. H. Blyth Award and the Hoshino Takashi Award, which ostensibly means that I endorse such competitions even if at bottom I have mixed feelings about them. Competitions are, after all, contests of egos. Also, despite administrating haiku competitions myself, I have virtually never submitted my own haiku to any such competitions, be it Itohen, HSA competitions, or Kusamakura. Nor have I submitted my works to any haiku magazines including Modern Haiku, Presence or Frogpond, except for my “home” magazines of Hototogisu and Tamamo. This is precisely because, inter alia, the ego question discussed in this editorial prevents me from doing so.

So, where do I stand in this ego question? Whereas I clearly and definitely condemn such ego-based act by a haiku poet as would harm other haiku poets, I commend other such ego-based acts by a haiku poet as would result from praise-worthy personal efforts, which would help him/herself, and/or indirectly others. For instance, to climb up the “haiku ladder” purely for the sake of self-aggrandisement by kicking and bullying others out, often by resorting to underhand methods, should be universally condemned. In reality, it seldom is even mentioned openly, let alone condemned. On the other hand, someone who works very hard and makes ceaseless and tireless efforts to improve his/her haiku and wins a prize should be duly praised and credited. Also, there are those altruistic people who try their best for the benefit of other haiku poets and of haiku itself.

Between these two extremes lie all manner of cases in which ego plays positive or negative roles or bit of both.

We have now arrived at the point where loose use of the word “ego” is no longer allowed if we were to develop this argument any further. This is because I am not really discussing what ego is or isn’t but that which concerns me immensely in the haiku world and which I have so far explained by using “ego” for want of better words. “Personality” or “individuality”, or “selfhood” might be a better word. What I am talking about is the whole personality which makes an individual with all the component, factors and elements, i.e. “warts and all.”

The word “ego” is in fact a technical term of philosophy or psychology and the sense in which we normally use it colloquially is merely a fraction of the word’s meaning. We need a philosopher who is able to choose or invent a new term which signifies what I mean by “ego” in this editorial. However, this is not a workshop in philosophy.

Let us use the word “self-hood” for the purpose of this editorial. As I have already mentioned, haiku is a way of life and because of this it cannot and should not be divorced from the rest of one’s life. This very rest of one’s life is lived by one’s self-hood. Therefore, if one’s haiku does not reflect one’s self-hood, it is not really one’s oeuvre but sheer falsehood, fake, pastiche, imitation or artificial non-entity. Furthermore, if one’s haiku does not reflect one’s self-hood, there is basically no point of writing haiku in the first place. This is the most important point.

Thus it is that self-hood (alias “ego”) is not only not bad but essential in haiku composition. No self-hood, no haiku. To put it conversely, we see too many haiku poems today which do not reflect the self-hood of the author. They are boring, disappointing and meaningless. Haiku is not an apple or a pair of socks or a bus ticket. Haiku is utterly and totally useless. Its only raison d’etre lies in its poetic merit which can only be derived from the poet’s self-hood. It cannot possibly be derived from non-self, namely the lack of “ego”.

So, what, then, are we talking about? First, we have detected that there is some fault-line in the fashionable and widely-held doctrine that “ego” must not enter into a haiku. We have recognised that somewhere we have got it wrong in this argument. Secondly, we have realised it is the abuse or loose use of the term “ego” which seems to have caused that fault-line and one solution is to come to articulation of what we mean by “ego”. Thirdly, we have understood that we must not throw the baby (positive “ego” which is what makes an individual) with the bath water (negative “ego” such as selfishness). Fourthly, we have grasped the notion of the whole personality and for want of better words provisionally call it “self-hood”. Fifth and lastly, we have considered that without this self-hood reflected in one’s haiku, it is really meaningless to write it as the outcome can only be falsehood or worse.

This “brain-storming” or “thinking aloud” may not produce an instant answer to our enquiry “Is ego bad?”, but could at least make the reader think and concentrate the mind, especially if he/she has never thought about it. It is hoped that it could lead to useful discussions on the subject.

As a Zen-koan-like hint, let me give you two examples for you to ponder upon with me in connection with what we have been discussing, hoping it would serve as some kind of food for thought. I too will carry on thinking.

The First Example:

I met a man in Matsuyama who was 95 years old. He had been a farmer all through his life and writes haiku for himself as a hobby. Asked who his haiku teacher was, he replied, “I used to meet Takahama Kyoshi often. He was my teacher but of course he didn’t know.” The old man has never submitted his haiku to the Hototogisu or any other haiku magazines. He has never belonged to any haiku associations, clubs or societies. He has never entered into any haiku competitions. Not a single haiku by him has ever been published. I became extremely curious and asked him to show me his haiku poems. As far as I could tell, they were better than most of the haiku poems I had read in these magazines for a very long time.

The Second Example:

I receive copies of many haiku books, anthologies, booklets etc. sent to me from poets across the world. One of the latest gifts is a nicely produced booklet called Nature Morte, which of course is a French phrase for still life (painting), but in this case it is a pun which is meant to mean literally “dead nature”. Under this clever title, twenty protest haiku poems are presented with a photo of newspaper headlines plus a few lines of its text, reporting the killing, threat of extinction or other exploitation and atrocities against cod, mountain gorillas, whales, wolves, songbirds, rain forests, sturgeons, cormorants etc. The booklet is obviously a product of labour of love. It is quite possible that the whole thing including the last penny for postage is financed by the author alone who is unlikely to be a militant ecologist or aggressive animal welfare campaigner but possibly a quiet intellectual and a genuine lover of poems including haiku. However, these things are not what I want to say. What I want to say really, in connection with this editorial, is that this booklet has no author’s name, editor, publisher or publication place or country, printed anywhere, let alone preface, foreword or introduction. The only thing which is there in place of such arguably and intrinsically inessential information is the letters of “ARTIST’S PROOF”, with a fingerprint, “Edition of 500” and, ironically, the copyright symbol with “2003”. Does any haiku poet want to have his/her anthology published without his/her name?

This entry was posted in Editorials, Vol 3-2 December 2003 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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