Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.
That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense. It is not about dogmas and beliefs. It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.
We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events. Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant. But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return. Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.
In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events. Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience. We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.
On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else. It is not a metaphor. It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret. There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion. We are simply to experience it. And that experience is hokku.
Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.
Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false? That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract? There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying. We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing. A thing is an event, and without things there are no events. So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.
Not everything is hokku, however. Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.
On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
But why do we feel this unspoken significance? We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony. Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.
There is no writer present. When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening. If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is. The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.
That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment. That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact. If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.
We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched. So there is nothing mysterious about this. But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.
Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know. They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”
Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku. One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice. Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development. We must not repeat that mistake.
We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else. It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season. So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku. Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season. It might be stated directly:
The summer moon
Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.
The morning glory
A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.
Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject. But over time this system became too complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well. The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.
Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen. It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction. That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter. The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject. This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.
When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context. That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse. Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain. In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract. There is only
By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku. How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!
If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections. Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else. Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.
This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement. To have an arrangement of Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season. It would be like Halloween in May. Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.
A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events. Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.
Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same. In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season. That is a harmony of identity. But there is also the harmony of contrast. In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts. That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s
A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.
So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast. A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast. Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.
Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season. Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student. It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season. And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.
The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality. Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion. If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate. And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.” Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.
Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature. It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.
That is hokku.