Haiku enlightenment, part 2

WHR July 2002

A Haiku Path – Gabriel Rosenstock

Part 2

Dublin, Ireland


The Heraclitean truth. ‘You never step into the same river twice,’ is a truth lived each day by the haikuist, one that is essential to the aesthetics of haiku consciousness:

the autumn wind –
letters emerging one by one
on the wet gravestone

  Yamazaki Hisao

On one level, any unexpected revelation, however ordinary, can be the stuff of enlightenment. On another level, our readiness to absorb the revelation, our ability to be struck by some “epiphany” (as James Joyce used the word) becomes the real  stuff of enlightenment. There are no steps to enlightenment. Steps lead to further steps and so on. There is only the plunge, the awakening. No ashram or yoga needed here, no prayer or mediation. The garden is your ashram, the public park, the highway; the haiku is your prayer, your meditation. You can make the plunge any hour of the day or night. You won’t hear the splash, but the ripples are real. They will change you and the world.

Instant enlightenment. Many haikuists, but not all, are familiar with Zen. ‘Familiar’ is not the best word, as part of the Zen thing is the shock of the familiar seen in unfamiliar light. Caroline Gourlay, one-time editor of Blyth Spirit, Journal of the British Haiku Society, recalls how deeply impressed she was with these lines found in The World of Zen, an anthology edited by Nancy Wilson Ross:

        The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection.
The water has no mind to receive their image.

Haiku happens in this world of daily miracles and is a perfect prism through which Nature herself enlightens us. But, instant enlightenment? Surely not! How many people have spent their lives – many lives – in such a quest! This book is a plea to lower your sights, somewhat, to focus your vision. Many people set themselves such an impossible task that they inevitably loose sight of their goal, blaming themselves needlessly.

This little book, containing haiku by practitioners from all over the world, ancient and new – and the new are as  ancient as the ancient are new — this book will open up a universal path which you may have been walking already, as it happens, without knowing it! Page after page, you will notice what little adjustment is needed — if any — to our antenna in order to receive enlightenment. Our tendency to self-aggrandisement diminishes the more sensitively we respond to the spirit of haiku, until it is with a smile of recognition that we realize why Tarao Kobayashi changed his name to Issa, meaning a single bubble in a teacup — gone before you have raised the cup to your lips.

Grandeur in little things.

old pear tree
now laden only with

      Philip D. Noble

This haiku (from the 1998 Mainichi Haiku Contest) is not concerned with some grand, amorphous or Romantic concept of Nature. In haiku, we discover, see and breathe, for a moment, those interstices, those fleeting moments of reality which are as substantial or as insubstantial as a rock, as ourselves. The haiku bears witness to the non-judgemental aspect of our humanity, that instinct for self-expression which drove the ancients to illuminate their caves with spectacular representations of the animals with which they shared this earth, long before philosophy, theology and economics became possible.

Primitive enlightenment. Yes, haiku enlightenment is a primitive form of enlightenment. As a literary device, it has endless sophistication. But literature is not our main concern here. We are talking about awareness. Followers of the mystic traditions of East and West, devotees of Krishnamurti, Osho, Meister Eckhart or Rumi, can and should follow the haiku path. This path does not contradict Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or any other religion. This path is not a religion or a cult. It can be profitably pursued by the atheist, sceptic and believer alike. It can adapt to any language, any culture:

summer drought –
the dazzling stars
all become pale

Marijan Cekolj

summer fog
moonlight blowing
from tree to tree-

   Dave Sutter

Nothing to invent. With practice comes assuredness, boldness. (Note the verb “blowing” above). But the haiku path has nothing to invent. It recreates what is already there. What you seek is at hand. Obviously it is not going to work, for you or for anyone else, if your statement is something flat, without insight: ‘a seagull flies over the roof’. This is just a hum-drum statement. You have not even begun to see, you have not struck the note, the note that is struck by haiku-seeing. The configuration of three lines and – initially, before trying free-style haiku, seventeen syllables, 5-7-5, will in itself be a discipline to help you to see and to structure the haiku moment, to recognise it, instantly, when it happens.

Haiku lets go of concepts, of thoughts, of presuppositions, of opinions, prejudices and all the burden of the mind:

in the waters of spring
a certain thought
flowed away

       Sekishi Takagi

A time for every purpose under heaven. The above three haiku allude to seasons. Seasonal allusion was, until recently, a necessary ingredient in Japanese haiku. A word that places you in a particular season is called kigo. The German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, claimed that the best songs of summer are composed in front of a roaring fire in winter but what may be true of poetry is not true for haiku. Generally speaking, those haiku which deal with a particular season are written in that season, are experienced in that season and belong to that season. In this respect, haiku enlightenment is a very grounding experience. Fantasising is out of the question. There is no need to fantasize. The haiku moment is as exactly as it should be, right here and now. This is its time and place, no other.

In the haiku moment, time is frozen, suspended, yet bursting with life. We are primordial once again, innocent, all senses alive, truly at one with our surroundings, truly human, strong and vulnerable, in a state of grace:

looking together
across the frozen lake
the heron and I

Jan van den Pol

Openness to openness. Haiku encounters the truth in an open, natural state of mind and that openness is rewarded by enlightenment. ‘Deep answereth unto deep, love respondeth unto love.’ and, let us add, openness to openness. Because enlightenment is opening up to see the light. The haikuist is a seer. Though blind, the haikuist still sees. It is the spirit that sees.

While often seeming to concentrate on or probe the almost imperceptible, haiku is an opening up to the world and this trust is rewarded from day to day. The haiku is a returning to the world, a returning to reality, a teshuva wrongly translated as ‘repent’. Let us see the wisdom in the following:

To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always, and in relation to which every scientific schematisation is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, Humanities Press, 1962)

Shapes of emptiness. In our bustling, noise-polluted world, chock-full of garish images, the haiku way of living alludes to the void, the silence at the heart of it all; deep, inviolable stillness in ourselves. Robert Bebek, the Croatian haijin, gave the title, Oblici Praznine/The Shapes of Emptiness, to his highly distinguished second book:

warming even
an empty room, a
beam of morning sun

                     Robert Bebek

The enlightenment pool. As the initiate becomes accustomed to reading, writing and recognising good haiku, there arises an intimate sharing of the haiku moments of others. Enlightenment becomes pooled. French poet Yves Bonnefoy said,

At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence.

sickle moon

                                    Gabriel Rosenstock

How rich the haiku harvest is once we become poor in spirit. Walk this lonely, companionable way with us:

wet west Muskerry –
drying the clothes

      Seán Mac Mathúna

Yes, that is a little bit crazy. But let’s not forget that haiku was once dubbed kyóku, crazy verse!

Learning selfhood. The magic of the Mac Mathúna haiku is that it appears to happen without the interference of human agency. But it only appears that way. The human imagination is actively at work, transforming a reality into another reality. The human spirit is at work, as effortlessly as the trained Inuit shaman travels to the moon.

Learning the way of enlightenment is learning selfhood.
Learning selfhood is forgetting oneself.
Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all things


(Quoted in Introduction to Kensho, The Heart of Zen by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, 1997).

When you are old and grey and nodding by the fire. Traditional societies respected their elders. Some even worshipped them. The concept of ageism, the neglect of the elderly, prejudice against the elderly – are these products of a youth culture which came to the fore in the 1960s, or products of a society which evaluates our usefulness as mere worker-bees?

The haikuist sees beauty in the aged person – or thing – in the gnarled:

dangerous pavements,
but I face the ice this year
with my father’s stick

Seamus Heaney

grandma and grandpa
side by side on the couch –
wearing each other’s glasses

    Lee Gurga

This, too, will pass. Estrangement, alienation, displacement, these are some of the pathologies of the 21st century. But living haiku does not suffer estrangement. In joy or in wistfulness, in sadness, pain, or in sorrow, the haikuist is at one with friends, family, strangers, the stars above, seeing the mutability and vulnerability of all beings, and of ourselves. This oneness is an all-redeeming illumination:

in the old temple
even the snake has shed
his worldy skin


(The Spring of my Life and Selected Haiku, Kobayashi Issa, Trans. by Sam Hamill, Shambhala 1997).

Why furry, feathery creatures are our relations. Diane Wolkstein, writing in the influential journal, Parabola, shares with us the wisdom of the oral tradition of the now extinct Karraru People from Australia. It could be the Haiku Gospel:

All around you are your relations – the crawling, moving, feathery, and furry creatures – the water, the grass, the hills, and the wind. This is their place. Now it is your place, too. Where you were born is your Dreaming. You must always take care of that piece of land. Care for the land for your grandmothers and grandfathers, as well as for your grandchildren. I travelled every step of the earth and it is alive.

Which one of us would not like to feel the truth of all that for ourselves? With haiku we can and we do. What? Think like that? Proclaim feathery, furry creatures to be our relations? Thomas Berry, also writing for Parabola, challenges our scepticism and insists that,

The outer world is necessary for the inner world. The greatest and deepest tragedy in losing the splendour of the outer world is that we will always have an inner demand for it.

Without the natural world, he claims, our integral spiritual development can never take place.

Crafts people and artists in all disciplines go to Nature, not to copy Nature, but to find something new:

Nature is the eternal creator where each art comes to be renewed, where the eye of every thinker and artist reads a different poem.

                                                             Emile Gallé

(Quoted in Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Duncan, Eidelberg, Harris, Thames and Hudson, 1998).

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

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