Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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Reprint: Anna Poplawska, "Zen and the Art of Haiku"

“‘Tis better to be brief than tedious.”
.........................~ Shakespeare

In March the Jung Institute in Evanston invited David Rosen, MD, a Jungian analyst from Texas A & M University, to present a program entitled, “Haiku, Zen and Jung’s Psychology.” Dr. Rosen considers haiku a spiritual art form that promotes deep spiritual healing among its practitioners (haiku composers) and readers. The art of writing haiku began with Japanese Zen monks; now, however, the form has spread all over the world. In Japan itself, it has become a folk art and a cultural icon. Most Japanese have written haiku, and in a culture more open to creative expression than our own, there are generally at least a few published in every Japanese newspaper.

Traditionally haiku are short poems of three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. Due to language differences, haiku written in English, using this same syllable count, often include more information than would be possible in Japanese. Thus, contemporary American poets are free to write shorter haiku with one to three lines and up to 17 syllables. The shortness of these poems is a reflection of Zen philosophy, which, like yoga, emphasizes being in the moment. Unlike other poetry, haiku generally do not use metaphor or obscure imagery, nor do they reflect the feelings or inner life of the poet--at least in an obvious way. It is rather an expression of egolessness in which the poet turns outward to fully experience and capture the essence of being in a particular moment at a particular place.

Old pond
A frog jumps in–
The sound of water.

Most of us have seen this haiku by Basho (1644–1694). It’s probably the most famous haiku ever written. What we weren’t told by our high school or grade school English teachers is that haiku come out of the spiritual life of the writer, and the best ones speak to the spiritual life of the reader. Dr. Rosen explained that the old pond represents a state of oneness with nature and a mind that has become still, egoless. Then the frog jumps in and the sound of water breaking the silence represents the something happening, satori, the moment of enlightenment. The haiku makes no reference to a past or a future or to a real or imagined self. It describes something that is very ordinary. Yet in the process of capturing it, the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary. The poet and the object have become one.

The spiritually healing effect of haiku derives from their ability to take us out of ourselves. For example, consider another Basho haiku:

On a leafless branch,
A crow comes to rest–
Autumn nightfall.

Dr. Rosen explained that if we are busy, if we are lost in our own thoughts, worrying about problems or planning tomorrow’s activities, we won’t even notice the crow on the branch. On the other hand, if we are alone and wandering in nature, our mind becomes free to contemplate and to be more deeply present in the moment. Haiku are born out of this experience. Traditional haiku were written about nature, but modern practitioners don’t always adhere to this. It isn’t necessary to understand haiku or interpret them. Nor is it clear that all haiku can be interpreted. Rather, as readers, we are invited to share the experience of being in the moment with the poet. Through this, we learn to appreciate the beauty inherent in our own lives. After all, “What is life but a collection of very ordinary moments?” asked Dr. Rosen. He then shared one of his own moments of transcendence:

A field of deep grass,
Its vibrant eruption
Of orange-red poppies.

One of the things that we gain from reading haiku--or any poetry--is a recognition of the universality of experience. This in itself is healing. Often when we have an experience, we think we are the only ones who feel this way. When we are lonely, it’s easy to think that other people have more friends or better friends. When we feel compassion, it’s easy to look around and see how the world is organized and think that other people don’t care the way we do. When we sit down to write a haiku, a poem or a story, we are convinced that there is something wrong with us when we can’t find the right words. But then, we come across a haiku such as this one by Hokushi (1667–1718), and it sets us free from those feelings of inadequacy:

I write, erase, rewrite,
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.

We recognize that even Zen monks who wrote 300 years ago had trouble getting it right. This recognition enables us to accept our common humanity--one of the steps on the road to transcendence. We then sit down to write our own haiku, understanding that we are really no different, no better or worse than Hokushi or Basho. We are merely living in a different century.

Haiku is a form that is deceptively simple. The apparent simplicity is part of the attraction many feel to writing them. We don’t feel intimidated. We don’t feel like we have to twist our brain cells into a metaphorical lotus posture to come up with complex, highfalutin commentary on life. The recognition that writing haiku is something we can do is also a part of the healing effect. The simplicity of haiku is also what gives them the flexibility to be integrated into other related forms. For instance, haiku poets might also write haibun.

These are prose essays that might describe a situation in which healing is called for or the experience that led up to the writing of the haiku, and the haiku themselves are incorporated into the body of the essay. A haiga is a work of art that is meant to be hung on a wall. The haiku is written out in calligraphy and a Japanese brush-painted image is used to illustrate it. Those who feel they need more syllables to express themselves might try writing tanka, which allow 31 syllables.

A tradition among prisoners sentenced to death is to be allowed to choose their last meal. A tradition among Zen monks is to write a last haiku when they know that they are about to pass out of this life. Some of these haiku have been collected into the book Japanese Death Poems by Yoel Hoffman. It includes this poem by Gozan, written on December 17, 1789, at the age of 71:

The snow of yesterday
That fell like cherry petals
Is water once again.

Asked to what extent Zen Buddhism continues to influence contemporary practitioners, Charlie Trumbull, president of the American Haiku Society, explained, “There are people who want to forget about Zen. They say that it’s an American form now, and we ought to let go of the Japanese aspects. But I’m not one of them. Zen itself is kind of spongy and difficult to define, because the moment you think you’ve succeeded it’s not Zen anymore, so you really need to read the haiku themselves to see. I think that the more Zen you find in a haiku, the more successful it’s likely to be. Because if it’s not Zen, then it’s probably intellectualization and wordplay, which are definitely not a part of haiku.” He gave the example of this well-known Zen-like haiku by Jack Cain (1969):

an empty elevator
opens
closes


Dr. David Rosen is the author of Tao of Jung, Tao of Elvis and Transforming Depression, and co-author with Joel Weishaus of The Healing Spirit of Haiku.

Anna Poplawska is a member of the Chicago Art Critics Association.

Her writing about the visual arts, theater, and literature have appeared regularly in a number of publications, including Encyclopedia Brittannica Yearbook, Chicago Artists News, Footlights Playbill, and YogaChicago.

She is the haiku editor for YogaChicago and a member of the Arts & Culture Committee of the C.G. Jung Center of Chicago.

Her own haiku have been previously published in Solares Hill, YogaChicago, and Haiku Headlines, from whom she recieved an award of special recognition.