NO SKY, NO EARTH

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
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

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:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

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:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite
Loneliness.

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:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite
Solitude.

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.

David

FALLING SNOW

Hokku with a psychological element often appear among those of Issa, who wrote near the beginning of the 19th century.  Issa was a psychologically-scarred individual who tended to interpret much of what he saw in terms of the sorrow he endured both as a child and in later life.  Westerners often find him appealing because this “psychological” quirk of his in hokku is something with which they are already familiar with from Western poetry, and also certain of his verses are sometimes perceived by them as “cute” for the same reason.  The result is generally that they overlook what is best in Issa, and go instead for what is worst, magnifying it in their own verses written in imitation of him.

I learned early on as a teacher of hokku that when students turned in verses in which an animal, an insect, or a bird was addressed directly in the verse, that student had taken on one of the quirks of Issa, thinking it somehow worthy of imitation.  I came to call this the “talk to the animals” syndrome, because it was so common among new students, and began to warning against it before it appeared in their work, which inevitably it would if they were not cautioned.

That does not, of course, mean that all of Issa’s hokku are bad hokku, though many of them do tend to lead students off in the wrong direction, into subjectivity rather than objectivity.  That is because people tend all too quickly to perceive something new in terms of what they already know, which is an excellent way to completely misunderstand.  That is precisely why the “haiku” writers of the mid-20th century up to the present were led astray by misperceiving hokku in terms of what they already were familiar with in Western poetry.  The early writers of haiku in English thus completely misunderstood the old hokku, and that misunderstanding gave rise to modern haiku in English — a whole verse category created from mistaken notions, a category that still exists today, not as a continuation of the old hokku but rather as an ersatz replacement created by Westerners who failed to see the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Let’s examine a winter verse of Issa:

Yuki chiru ya   kinō wa mienu   shakuya fuda
Snow falls ya yesterday wa unseen   rent-house sign

Falling snow;
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.

Remember always that the real subject of every hokku is the season in which it is written.  What is said in a verse must be understood in that context.  That is why I take so much time explaining the “character” of a season, and in talking about Yin and Yang.

Winter, as I have said, is the season of want, of deprivation in Nature, of hardship.  It is the time when life — when simply surviving — becomes the most difficult.  It is the most yin time of the year, the time of cold and silence and stillness.  Therefore, when we read a verse such as this, we see it as a manifestation of those characteristics.

Falling snow;
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.

We know this is not for happy reasons.  It means something difficult.  Either someone has had to move because they cannot pay, or someone has had to go elsewhere to find work, or perhaps even someone has died.  These are all possibilities in keeping with the character of the season, but note that none of them are specified in the verse.  That means we are just to get the overall feeling of the unexplained absence of the old tenant or tenants; it is precisely this absence which gives us the “feeling” key to the verse — that and the falling snow.

We see from this that hokku are not intended to tell a story. Instead, hokku simply give us those elements that arouse certain sensations and feelings in us, in most cases without specifying what those feelings are or should be.  Because we are human, they just naturally arise in us when we are presented with a certain thing-event

So when we read this verse, we feel the coldness and austerity of the falling snow; we see the “For Rent” sign and recognize the absence — the emptiness — within the house or apartment.  A question arises within us about what happened to the people or persons formerly living there, but it goes unanswered, and that questioning feeling remains as part of the atmosphere of the verse.

All of this expresses the character of the season of winter.  That is the essence of this hokku

I hope that new readers here are beginning to realize why an understanding of the aesthetic principles of hokku is so important — in fact critically important — to both reading and writing them.  It is because these principles were not known or understood by those who first began writing in the West in attempted imitation of hokku that modern haiku arose as a misperception and a misunderstanding of hokku.  When one does not understand the principles underlying a verse form, it is not possible to write that verse form.

To get back to real hokku then, one must know precisely those things that the early writers of haiku in English and in other European languages did not know or even notice — the aesthetic principles that are the basis of hokku.  And very important among these is the fact that a hokku expresses a season through a particular thing-event that manifests the character of that season, as we see in

this verse by Issa.

David

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year.  Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of  the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

“…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter.  That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter.  I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —

“… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas.  There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others who may not call it by the same name “Merry Christmas.”  The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season.  As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing:  The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity.  To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter.  That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring.  And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol.  Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us.  The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life.  That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality.  It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

God Bless Us, Every One!

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation.  We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean.  But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death.  Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice.  However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life.  It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well.  It is a part of our spiritual journey.

David

SADNESS, OBJECTIVELY

Yesterday we discussed emotion in hokku, and how it is better not to present it openly but rather indirectly, through the objective elements of a hokku.

There are certain old hokku, however, where direct mention of an emotion is found, for example in Rōka’s

Kanashisa ya   shigure ni somaru   haka no moji
Sadness     ya winter-rain at/by dyes    gravestone ‘s written-characters

We may translate as:

Sadness;
Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Even though the emotion “sadness” is stated directly, this is a far more reserved and objective verse overall than the overlong and overdramatic verse of Bashō,

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;
Tears.

What do we learn from all this?  That in hokku emotion should either be indicated by use of certain objective elements in a hokku, or else it should simply be stated directly and objectively, simply and undramatically, as in Rōka’s hokku — which is far better as hokku than the awkward example of Bashō given here.

One further thing to notice in Rōka’s verse.  We talk much about Yin and Yang here, because they are important to the aesthetics of hokku.  You will remember that winter is the most yin season, and that water is yin as well, as are cold and darkness as opposed to light.  Look again at Rōka’s hokku:

Sadness;
Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

The winter rain, the darkening of the letters, both of these are yin and in harmony with one another, as is the lifelessness of the tombstone.  It is this overwhelming yin effect that contributes to the sadness.

David

ALONE AND COLD

In the last posting, we saw a hokku into which Bashō put too much overt emotion, which spoiled it.  How should emotion be expressed in hokku?  Indirectly, as in this verse by Issa:

Hitōri to    chōmen ni tsuku    yosamu kana
One-person   register in marks   night cold kana

“Single”
He notes in the register;
The cold night.

Notice that there is no overt mention at all of emotion, and yet the verse evokes a certain feeling in us as we read it.  That is because the fact that the fellow registering at the inn is single — alone — is reflected in the cold of night.  The cold emphasizes his aloneness, just as his aloneness emphasizes the cold.

This verse teaches us that emotion in hokku is evoked by what it includes, not by stating it openly.  When stated openly — which some writers of hokku attempted from time to time — it usually fails by saying too much and saying it too obviously.

If there is a flaw in Issa’s verse, it is that he focuses on the personal a bit too much.  It reminds us of the “lonely” paintings of William Hopper.  Issa does not exceed the bounds of hokku here, and one comes to expect his verses to be more personal than those of other writers.  Nonetheless, in this tendency we find both the popularity of Issa and his weakness.

David

BASHŌ GOES TOO FAR

As I have said before, only a fraction of the hokku of Bashō are worthwhile, roughly about a fifth of them or less.  This verse is not one of his best:

Ro no koe nami o utte   harawata koru   yo ya   namida
oar ‘s voice waves 0 strike bowels freeze night ya tears

First of all, the verse is awkwardly long in Japanese and even worse in English.  Second, it sounds too literary, as though Bashō had been reading old Chinese verses (which of course were part of his literary background).  Third, it is a bit too dramatic for hokku, which again relates to its literary appearance.

Putting it into English is a bit awkward because of its length, and one has to move elements about, but what it means is essentially

A sound-of-oars-striking-waves-freezing-bowels night; tears.

We could attempt to put it into more normal English as perhaps

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;
Tears.

Visually it is really unbalanced and no matter how one translates it, it is still unsatisfactory as a hokku.  We could try to improve it, but inevitably the addition of “tears” would spoil it by making it too emotional for good hokku.  Hokku are not and should not be about emotions; they are about sensory experience.  Perhaps that sensory experience might bring tears, but to say so goes too far, and takes us back into the realm of Chinese lyric poetry — a kind of devolution of hokku — in spite of the fact that Bashō, as in this verse, sometimes attempted it.  So Bashō here says too much both by using too many words and by adding emotional excess.

It should be a lesson to us neither to make hokku awkwardly long nor too obviously emotional.

David

FREEZING FINGERS

December has begun, and with it has come a deeper cold in my region.  The next few nights are expected to be at or below freezing.

Taigi wrote a hokku expressive of such growing cold:

Tsumetasa ni   hōki sutekeri   matsu no shita
nail-pain at      broom left        pine   ‘s    under

The “nail-pain” of which Taigi speaks is the pain one feels in one’s fingernails when the fingers become very cold.  So what Taigi is saying is that he went out to sweep up the fallen leaves, but quickly found it so cold that the ends of his fingers began to hurt, and so he abandoned his broom beneath the pine tree, and went quickly back indoors.

This is a difficult thing to translate literally into English and still have it sound natural, so we will have to approximate, perhaps something like,

My fingers freezing,
The broom is left
Beneath the pine tree.

The verse expresses well that transitional time  from autumn to winter, when one has not yet realized how cold it has become.  Going out to sweep up the leaves left by autumn, we find that the cold of winter has unexpectedly come, and it has come so strongly that it forces us to abandon our broom and hurriedly return inside — where it is warmer.

Structurally this verse is simple:

Setting:  My fingers freezing
Subject:  The broom
Action:  Is left beneath the pine tree

It is important to remember that the setting of a hokku is not limited just to the wider physical environment.  It may also be a condition in or under which something takes place, and in this verse that condition is “My fingers freezing.”  In English we cannot just say “My fingers hurting,” because the reader will not know why they are hurting, so we must be more explicit and make clear that they are hurting from the cold.

Keep in mind that the point of what we do here — of talking about and translating old Japanese hokku — is just to help you to learn how to write hokku in English, or in whatever your native language happens to be.  Old hokku are enjoyable to read, but if we do not write new hokku as well, the tradition will die out.  So the point of discussing what the old Japanese hokku writers did and how they did it is to show visitors to this site how to continue the hokku tradition in modern times, in modern languages.  It does not matter if that language is English or Russian or Norwegian or Welsh, or any other language.  One can write real hokku in it if one understands the aesthetics and underlying principles and techniques.

David