Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:
Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not at snow ‘s falling-ceaselessly
No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Or we could translate it like this:
No sky, no earth;
The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.
Rather literally, the verse reads:
With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.
That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around. Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow. The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared. This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.
Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet. Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain. It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain. Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:
Sabishisa no soko nukete furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s bottom fallen-out falling sleet kana
Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out” is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment. Imagine a bucket filled with water. Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out. That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.
But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect. This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:
Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.
Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:
A very brave attempt! But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku. Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing. Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another. This too must not be misunderstood, however.
If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water. This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter. It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water. No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other. The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish. The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water. The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish. The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water. Each is reflected in the other.
Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation. It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely. Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet. We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.
It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness. Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer. They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside. All are one experience.
One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku. Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:
One can be alone without being lonely. And one can be lonely without being alone. But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence. Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest. That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.
We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.
We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni. The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away. A full moon is in the sky. The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.
You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind. This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.
Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.” The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all. In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust. That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.
But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng. When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.
The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse. In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?
That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.