The practice of hokku is a lifelong process of learning. This is true whether one is a student or teacher, because even the teacher is also a lifelong student.
Today I got a valuable insight into one reason why some people misunderstand and reject the notion of a connection between hokku and “Zen,” something I usually just call the inherent connection between hokku and spirituality.
This particular category of misperception lies in thinking that the writers of old hokku consciously intended to transmit an experience of “enlightenment” — that their intention was to pass such a “Zen” experience on to the reader, much as a student of traditional Zen is given a koan — a paradoxical word problem — by a Zen teacher in order to lead the student to enlightenment.
The truth is that such a conscious intent was unlikely to have been held by the writers of old hokku. And the fact is that hokku does not transmit the same level or quality of enlightenment that one achieves through Buddhist practice.
What one does find in hokku is a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, a “little enlightenment” that is both momentary and transitory, a temporary removal of the boundary between self and other. And the fact is that in the greater number of cases, this transmission of the “little enlightenment” experience happened not because of any conscious intent on the part of the writer of hokku, but rather because that writer worked from a culture that provided him (or her) with the unconscious “paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism,” as R. H. Blyth rightly puts it. Because hokku and the other contemplative arts were steeped in this unconscious aesthetic like fishes in water, it happened that the hokku — which manifested this aesthetic in a condensed and concentrated form — was and still is remarkably capable of permitting and transmitting this “little enlightenment.”
We cannot assume it was the conscious intent of the writer. Not all writers of old hokku had a direct connection with the Zen sect, but all had this unconscious cultural background, just as Americans have a shared cultural background that is also largely unconscious but quite perceptible to people of other nations as something distinctively American.
But that was old hokku. It is no longer true of Japanese culture as a whole, and of course this spiritual approach to verse is something quite unfamiliar to most in the West. That is why in talking about the intimate relationship between spirituality and hokku, we must now speak of it quite openly and plainly when teaching hokku today — which was something generally not done or necessary in the old days of hokku — otherwise the crucial part of the hokku aesthetic — which is precisely this spiritual background — will be missing, and without it, it is impossible to understand or read or write hokku with any degree of perception.