shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 


By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:


The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as written:

The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment



A hokku by Chora:


A windstorm;
Rising from the grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

We could also present it like this:

From the windblown grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

Notice what a strong sensory impression is made by this hokku:  we feel the strong wind, hear the loud rustling of the dark grasses in wild movement,  and rising very slowly out of them is the silent moon of autumn.  This interplay between the blowing grasses and the moon exemplifies the hokku technique called “harmony of contrast.”  It is the placing of two contrasting elements together in a verse that when joined, paradoxically give us as sense of unity and harmony.  On the one hand we have darkness and violent movement and sound, and on the other stillness and brightness.

Here is the original in transliteration:

Arashi fuku kusa no naka yori kyō no tsuki
Tempest blows  grass  ‘s midst out-of today  ‘s moon

And now a question to regular readers here.  I would like to know how many of you actually write hokku in English — not haiku, but the kind of hokku I present here.  From time to time I think about reviving a kind of online interactive hokku class.  Of course one could learn hokku from all the information I give on this site, but often people need interaction with a teacher and correction of errors to write it successfully.  So if you are learning to write hokku as I present it here, send me a message and let me know.  To do that, just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the end of this posting.  I will keep all messages responding to this  question private.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


In traditional hokku, dew was a subject for autumn.  The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote:


It is only water;
Safflower dew.

It looks one way when on the colorful safflower blossom with its “cosmetic” reputation, but when it spills from it, it goes back to being simply water.

I have noticed that a number of Internet sites seem confused about this verse — or rather about the flower involved.  When Blyth translated it, he did so as “rouge-flower,” and indeed that is technically correct.  In Japan the safflower has been used for centuries to make a red cosmetic.  But the word “rouge” has misled various people into thinking that it must be dew on a deep-red blossom, and that is not the case.  The safflower, in its natural state, is actually more yellow than red, though one may see ruddy hints near the base of the petals.  Through a special process, its 1% of red coloring is concentrated and made usable.

Because we in the West know the plant more through its use in cooking oil, we are likely to let that color the impression the verse makes on us, whereas in Japan the beni flower — benibana or beni no hana — has centuries of association with red dye and cosmetics valued by the upper classes.

Chiyo-ni’s verse is reminiscent of a verse from another season by Aon:


When night ends,
It becomes an insect —
The  firefly.

The essence of these verses is change.  In one circumstance the dew and the firely are one thing, but in another circumstance they are another, neither being better nor worse than the other.

Blyth emphasizes that from a “Zen” perspective, that is how to understand them.  One could read them as:

When it is spilled,
It becomes just plain water;
The dew on the safflower.


When night ends,
It becomes just an insect —
The firefly.

But the correct perspective — Blyth tells us — is to see things equally, whether the dew is on the safflower or off, whether the firefly is glowing by night or dull by day.

Was that the perspective of Chiyo-ni and Aon?  Perhaps not.

Here’s Chiyo-ni’s verse in transliteration:

koborete wa   tada no mizu nari   beni no tsuyu
Spilled wa ordinary’s water becomes safflower ‘s dew

And Aon’s:

Yo ga akete mushi ni naritaru hotaru kana
Night ga brightens insect to becomes firefly kana



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



As regular readers here know, I am not a big fan of the verses of Issa, but there are a few worthwhile examples among them.  Here is one:


The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

I repeatedly stress that (unlike haiku) it is necessary to study how to write hokku, because it has definite standards and principles and characteristics that must be learned.  It is also necessary to learn how to read hokku.

The history of modern haiku, paradoxically,  is an illustration of that.  Modern haiku began through the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the old hokku.  Western writers read a few examples of hokku, and they focused on its superficial characteristics, without understanding its inherent aesthetics.  They read hokku without understanding what they were reading, and then went on to create modern haiku.  As students of hokku, however, we can see what they missed.

Issa’s verse is an autumn hokku.  That means it should express the season.  Of course it mentions autumn, but does it express it?

A student of hokku will know that autumn is the season of decreasing yang (active, warm) energy, and the increase of yin energy (passive, cool).  And that autumn, in human life, corresponds to old age.  And that in a day of 24 hours, autumn corresponds to late afternoon and evening.

A student will also know that at the heart of hokku aesthetics is impermanence — the knowledge that everything in this world is transient, nothing lasts.  That which is born must eventually age and die.

Knowing these things, let’s look at the hokku again:

The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

In hokku we have the principle of internal reflection, where one element is “reflected” by other elements.  So in this verse we have

The aging of the pine;
The “autumn” of the day (evening)
The implied aging of the writer.

All of these things express declining yang and increasing yin, which is the essence of the season of autumn.  So the autumn evening is reflected in the aging of the pine and in the implied aging of the writer.  Everything in this verse is in harmony, speaking of age and impermanence.

There is also an additional cultural element, which is that in Japan and China the pine tree is an old symbol of age and longevity, but one need not know that to appreciate the verse in an English-language culture.  But one does have to understand how the elements of the hokku work together to express the nature of autumn, and how we see it in the pine and in ourselves.

Here is the verse in transliterated Japanese:

ware [waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
I                     planted pine too aged has autumn ‘s evening

I have noticed that one online modern haiku group has begun presenting a few member verses classified as “stand-alone hokku.”   As one might expect from the haiku site context, they exhibit neither the aesthetics of the hokku nor its correct form in English.  That seems to always be what happens when people attempt hokku without understanding its standards, principles, and characteristics — they just end up writing more modern haiku instead of hokku, no matter if they confusingly attach the title “hokku” to it.  Just calling a verse “hokku” does not make it so.  It must have the aesthetics and standards of a hokku, and those one must learn, whether the intent is to read or to write it.  Otherwise one just adds to the confusion.

By the way, the use of the term “stand-alone” in referring to hokku is largely modern haiku jargon.  A real hokku is a hokku whether it is presented in the context of linked verse, embedded in prose, or used independently.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that Masaoka Shiki invented the independent hokku (which he began calling “haiku”) near the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not true.  Hokku were often used as independent verses by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century, and became quite common.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.


In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:


An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Known by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean more that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:


A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:





Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


There is a very simple but highly suggestive hokku by Bonchō :

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

That is the form in English.

As you know, a hokku expresses a season, either spring, summer, fall (autumn) or winter.  It is not difficult to tell that this is a summer hokku, because the word “summer” is included.  But not all Japanese hokku are that simple.  Different seasons traditionally had their different topics, and these became so complicated that a kind of “season word” or topic guide called a saijiki was used, so writers and readers could make sure what topics were appropriate for a given season.  In modern English hokku, however, we make the seasonal connection by simply labeling a hokku with its season, thus avoiding the needless complexity of season words, which took years to properly learn.

So that is the first characteristic of a hokku: a seasonal context.

The second characteristic of a hokku is a separation between the two parts.  Every hokku has a long part and a short part.  The long part may be at the beginning or at the end.  The two parts in Japanese hokku are separated by a so-called “cutting word.”  If we look at Bonchō ‘s hokku in transliterated Japanese, we can see an example:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
town-center wa thing ‘s smell YA summer’ s moon

The cutting word here is ya, which has no real meaning in itself, but instead emphasizes what precedes it, giving the reader time to experience it.  And what the reader is experiencing here is the town and its smells, which in this case form the longer part of the hokku.  Then comes the separating ya, what we call in English the “meditative pause.”  After seeing and smelling the first part of the hokku, we then see that it is all taking place under natsu no tsuki — under the summer moon.

In English-language hokku, our equivalent of a cutting word is a punctuation mark.  Punctuation indicates the length and nature of the meditative pause.  The most common separating mark in hokku is the semicolon (;),  but other marks are used when appropriate.

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

Note that in English-language hokku, there may be several punctuation marks in a verse, but only one is the real separating mark between the two parts, in this case the semicolon.  Every English-language hokku ends with appropriate punctuation as well.  This was of course not the case in old Japanese hokku, which did not have punctuation, though modern everyday Japanese has adopted it.

The thing to remember, then, is that modern English-language hokku uses punctuation for the separating mark, as well as when helpful elsewhere in a hokku.  And all hokku end with a suitable punctuation mark.

You probably noticed that each line of the hokku in English begins with a capital letter.  This was not the case in Japanese hokku, because Japanese had no upper and lower case letters as we know them.  Instead, it was written in a mixture of characters borrowed from Chinese with Japanese phonetic symbols.  A Chinese character could have more than one syllable, like the word ichi (“town”) in Bonchō‘s hokku.  Japanese phonetic symbols made one phonetic unit each, like na, ka, wa, and so on.  In Japanese, n could also be considered a separate phonetic unit if it ended a word.  So these phonetic units are not precisely the same as syllables in English.

Given that the standard length of a hokku was seventeen phonetic units (though some were a bit more or less), people made the mistake of thinking that they should have seventeen syllables in English.  But that was impractical, because Japanese and English are very different languages.  In English-language hokku, we simply keep our verses brief and very simple, and that fits our language much better than a strict number of syllables.

A very obvious difference between old Japanese hokku and modern English-language hokku  is the lineation — how a verse is arranged in lines.  Old Japanese hokku were written and printed in one vertical line for general purposes.  But in English we separate them into three short lines.  This fits our horizontal writing system far better, and has a more pleasing appearance.

Here is what Bonchō‘s hokku would have looked like in printed Japanese.   I have added a transliteration and further information to the right of the characters and phonetic symbols.
ichi   (town) Chinese character

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

ほ o-    phonetic symbol

ひ -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

So that is a Japanese hokku.  As you see, there was a contrast between the borrowed Chinese characters, each one of which might be pronounced in Japanese with more than one syllable, and the Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana), which could be joined in sequence to form multi-syllabic words.

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

ichi normally means “market.”  When followed by the character 中 naka (center) , it is generally understood to mean “town” — in a town, in the center of a town.  If we wanted to, we could use the “market” meaning, in which case we could read the verse as:

In the marketplace,
The smell of things;
The summer moon.

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

In the marketplace,
The smells of everything;
The summer moon.

I actually prefer the “marketplace” reading to the “town” reading.

Notice that in the first alternate translation, I wrote “smell,” but in the second it is “smells.”  Japanese hokku makes no such distinctions, because it did not have a plural form.  so nioi can be translated either “smell” or “smells,” whichever seems appropriate.

I constantly repeat here that hokku have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  So in hokku, humans are found in the wider context of Nature.  In Bonchō‘s verse, we have the very human town or marketplace, but it is seen beneath “the summer moon,” which shows that the human activities are set in the context of Nature, even though we are in a town.  Keep in mind also that a town in Boncho’s day (he died in 1714) would have been free of the smell of car exhaust fumes.  Everything would have been much more natural smelling, a mixture of many kinds of faint and strong odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Most people know about modern haiku, which developed out of hokku, largely as a Western misunderstanding of its nature and aesthetics.  As such, modern haiku is very recent.  I hope you have noticed the differences between hokku and most everything that is called “haiku” today.  Because haiku is often also written in three lines, many people think they are the same, but they are not.  Though many writers do it, it is important not to mislabel hokku “haiku.”  Haiku as it is practiced today is largely the result of Western writers misunderstanding the hokku in the middle of the 20th century, while hokku is centuries older.

Most modern haiku does not express a particular season (there are a few that still use a seasonal connection, but they are greatly in the minority).

Modern haiku does not necessarily have Nature and humans as a part of its subject matter.  Haiku can be written about anything, including modern technology, romance, sex, violence, strong emotions, personal thoughts and ideas, politics, etc.   Hokku, by contrast, avoids modern technology, violence, sex, romance, and in general things that disturb the mind.

Most modern haiku do not have a definite system of punctuation.  Some use a perfunctory hyphen, others use no punctuation at all.

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

Most modern haiku permit abstract thinking or intellectualization.  Hokku stays with things, rather than ideas about things or using things as symbols or metaphors.  In general one can say hokku prefers the concrete, while haiku permits the abstract.

Hokku in general is non-egocentric, avoiding emphasis on “I,” “my,” or “me.”  Modern haiku often emphasizes the individual — “my boyfriend,” “my girlfriend” — as well as personal emotions and views.  Hokku treats the individual the same way it treats a bird circling in the sky or a smooth stone in a river — objectively rather than subjectively.

Those are a few of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  It is important to know the difference, because hokku has a definite aesthetic approach that one must follow if the verse is to be a hokku, while in modern haiku, the aesthetics vary greatly from individual to individual, with each person deciding what a haiku should be and how it should be written.  Consequently, “haiku” today is a vague umbrella term for many kinds of brief verse, while hokku describes a particular kind of verse in English, with a particular form and a definite aesthetic.  On this site I deal with hokku, mentioning modern haiku only to avoid confusion.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


About a week ago, we reached and passed Harvest Home — Lughnasa[dh] by its old Celtic name.  Harvest Home, the holiday which takes place on August 1, marks the beginning of Autumn.  And Autumn begins at approximately the same time in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars — the first week of August.

It always reminds me of  these lines from Natalie Babbit’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

In my region, Nature seems to closely follow that old calendar.  Right on time, the days have cooled and there is a sudden hint of Autumn in the air.  Of course it is just beginning, but one feels it nonetheless.

Autumn, in hokku, is the time when the active Yang energy of summer begins to wane.  One feels the first hints of the passive Yin energy that gradually replaces it until Yin becomes the dominant force in Winter.  So the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.

Autumn is a very good time for hokku experiences, because Autumn is the time when we most feel the transience, the impermanence, of life.  And impermanence is not only a fundamental principle of Buddhism, but also of hokku.  Everything changes, nothing remains the same.  That becomes very obvious as we see the plants begin to wither and watch the leaves turn color and start to fall from the trees.  Autumn is the time when the energies of Nature begin to withdraw, to “return to the root” as the old saying goes.

Some five years ago I posted an article on the differences between hokku and the modern haiku — how the latter essentially began as a misunderstanding (see

In it I wrote:

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku. Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.”

One should not be confused about this.  The purpose of hokku is not to “express yourself,” but rather to express Nature, and all things — you included — as a part of Nature.  Hokku expresses Nature through your experience of it, but that is not at all the same as expressing your “self.”

One gets a good idea of what it means to express Nature through your experience, rather than “expressing yourself,” by looking at this landscape painting by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), a Daoist artist of the Song Dynasty:


It depicts “mountains and water,” which two words together are actually the Chinese term for a landscape.  It is an impressive painting.  We see the massive, rocky hills and trees growing here and there, and a waterfall plunging from the heights.  But it is only when we look closely that we see a little group of travelers moving through the landscape at lower right:


There they are with their pack horses — a very small part of the landscape, and not really felt to be separate from it.

Compare that with our modern world of busy freeways, strip malls, traffic lights and omnipresent cars and trucks.  Our modern world is out of perspective, which is precisely why our climate and environment are now endangered.  Humans do not see themselves as only a small part of Nature any more, and that is at the root of many of the problems we face today.

Hokku, however, restores the proper balance.  Humans are placed in their appropriate context.  Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Modern haiku, by contrast, tends to put the emphasis on the “self,” which from the old hokku view is putting it in precisely the wrong place.

Do not misunderstand.  That does not mean hokku never talk about the writer, but when they do, it is within and as part of a larger context.  For example, Bashō wrote:


Going out the gate,
I too become a traveler;
The autumn evening.

Kado wo dereba   ware mo yuku hito   aki no kure

Bashō, by placing himself in the context of the season, places himself also in the wider context of Nature, in which autumn is a time of migrations.  The wild geese fly south for the winter, deer seek lower elevations.  And Bashō mirrors this characteristic of Autumn by just going out his gate and becoming a traveler too.

Much of the modern haiku community has abandoned this essential connection between hokku and the seasons, and by doing so, they have created a different verse form outside the wider context so essential to hokku.  By simply mentioning the season of a hokku, all sorts of possible associations are raised in the mind (like the traveling wild geese), and these are essential to the way hokku works.  It works in a much wider context than that of modern haiku, and that is why a seasonal setting and a connection with Nature are essential to it.





Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment