R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.




I hope many of you paid close attention to the recent articles here about the hokku calendar.  Here is where we are now as we move toward autumn’s end:


Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.

Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.

End:  The evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

As you can see, in the formal “Western” hokku calendar, Halloween marks the end of autumn.  And the next day, Samhain — the first day of November — is the beginning of the winter season in the wheel of the year:


Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.

Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  — Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.

End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

This year — at least where I live — things seem very much on schedule.  The leaves of the trees at present are yellow and gold and deep red.  But tomorrow, if the weather report proves correct, begin at least five days of rain.

The old Japanese writers of hokku would have called such a rain shigure, their term for the cold rains that fall in late autumn and early winter — precisely the period we shall soon enter.  We will call those rains simply “cold rain” in the verses translated here:

Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

When we write about an emotion in hokku, there are two ways of doing so.  First, we can present a thing-event that evokes the emotion and leave the emotion itself unmentioned; or second, we can simply mention the emotion, treating as we would something we see in the external world — treating it, in other words, objectively, as Rōka does in the verse just given.

Those of you who have been paying attention for some time here (how many of you are there, I wonder?) will readily note what this verse is in terms of Yin and Yang:

Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Sadness is a very yin emotion.  Rain (water) is also yin.  And cold rain is even more yin.  And of course a tombstone is associated with death, which is very yin.  So altogether, this is a very yin verse, quite different from a verse which has elements of Yang, such as joy or heat and warmth and light.  When one piles such yin elements together like this, it makes for a very yin verse, in keeping with the season.

Late autumn and early winter, you will recall, are the times when Yang is steadily declining toward its weakest period, and Yin increasingly predominates.

Here is a verse very similar in feeling by Bashō:

Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Here again we have the yin of cold rain.  Added to that is the cut stubble left in the fields, withered and dead — Yin.  And now with the cold rain that stubble begins to decay and darken.  That too is a yin event.  So everything in this verse, as in the first, shows the nature of late autumn and early winter.

These are verses for the time when the bright leaves of autumn have fallen, the skies are grey, and the cold rain falls.  And that time is very near.



I would like to share with you a new web site begun by the Buddhist monk Shravasti Dhammika.  He calls it “Guide to Buddhism A to Z.”  I have always enjoyed his sensible approach to things on his regular “blog” site, Dhamma Musings, and in this new one he provides a similarly sensible approach to Buddhism and how it applies to life.

In addition to large amounts of information about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings, the new site also deals with modern social issues — so it is inclusive and very helpful for people who want to know the traditional Buddhist attitude to things as represented in the Tipitaka — the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Theravada tradition.  Of course one should always use one’s head no matter what one is reading.

Here, for example, is the entry on charging for Buddhist teachings, which of course includes charging for teaching meditation, an entry with which I agree wholeheartedly.


The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Puṇṇa was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or even worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, return to their homelands and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. In doing so such people turn the precious Dhamma into a commodity although the Buddha clearly said: ‘One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma.’ (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: ‘The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts’ (Dhp.354), he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold.

During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (ācariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). There is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called ‘sponsorship’ or to announce that a ‘donation’ of a certain amount is expected, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.

And here is the entry on the teacher-student relationship:


A teacher (ācariya or garu, Sanskrit guru) is a person who imparts skills or knowledge, and a disciple (sāvaka) is one who learns from a teacher. In some religions, and even within the Vajrayāna branch of Buddhism, the disciple is expected to dedicate himself or herself totally to the teacher and obey him unquestioningly. This is very much at odds with what the Buddha both taught to and required from his disciples. He advised that before learning under a teacher, and even while receiving instruction, the disciple should maintain a respectful but questioning and discriminating attitude. First, the disciple should investigate (vīmaṃseyya) the teacher by watching and listening to see if his or her behaviour is consistent with what is being taught. Continuing to investigate over a period of time, the disciple should try to see if the good qualities the teacher appears to have are internalized or only the result of making an effort or trying to impress. Other things that might indicate a teacher’s true worth are seeing if they act differently in public than in private and whether they are affected by fame and success (M.I,318-20).

The Buddha approved of respect and reverence by a disciple towards a teacher. He said: ‘A teacher should look upon his student as a son. A student should look upon his teacher as a father. United by this mutual reverence and deference and living in communion with each other, both will achieve increase, growth and progress in this Dhamma and discipline.’ (Vin.IV,45). However, the truly sincere teacher wants the disciple to attain the same level of virtue and knowledge as himself or herself or even to surpass it, and this can only be done in an environment where questioning and free expression are encouraged.

The new site does not hesitate in criticism where criticism is due.  For example, the entry on human rights, after discussing how they are supported in Buddhist teaching, ends with this declaration:

Despite this, Buddhist civilisations never developed the concept of human rights, probably because from an early period they adopted Hindu political theory in which the king was considered divine. Today, most traditional Buddhist countries have had an uneven or poor human rights record.

The site is also helpful in providing a sensible perspective on issues such as homosexuality.  The entry for this says in part:

Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. In the Buddhist scriptures homosexual males are called asittapaṇḍaka and females are called women of uncertain femininity (sambhinna) or masculine women (vepurisikā, Vin.II,271). Today the first are called gays and the second lesbians. Today male homosexuals are called gays while females are referred to as lesbians. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (tṛtīya prakṛti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, by the intention behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept. If a homosexual avoids the sensuality and license of the so-called ‘gay scene’ and enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.

While not all entries seem quite adequate as they now stand (and of course more entries are to be added), it will be interesting to see how the site develops.  But just from its criticism of those who charge for Buddhist teaching, the site looks to be a healthy dose of medicine.

Here is the link:



A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.