Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse. Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?
“Zen” has several meanings. Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India. That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.
In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice. But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.
When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.
In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].
It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku. It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic. We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”
Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry. It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.
One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means. It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization. So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.
What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on. The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.
I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku. And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.
“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku. It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer. Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears. It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.
Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature. In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.
That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself. And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.
The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.” That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak. If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.
Thus in many hokku no writer is visible. There is only an experience, a “thing-event.” That is the selflessness of hokku.
In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on. In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.
The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected. With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction. That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer. A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add. And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.
Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen. There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.
This mirror mind takes us back to where we began. That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation. Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.