What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.
Here is such a verse by Sōgi:
The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.
The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different. Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.
This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us. We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern. In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:
A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)
Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.
In that verse the subject is the octopus traps. The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon. One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly. In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.
The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,
Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.
This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water. Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action. But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject. That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.
But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse. In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important. Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting. And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river. That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.
Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence. The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.” In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake. The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment. But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things. Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.
It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:
“Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.”
That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally. The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku. And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual. It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.