I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku. In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku. That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.
In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with. It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based. But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.
I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.
You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol. It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:
Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe. They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku. Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony. So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang. In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together. When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.
What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms? This is very ancient knowledge.
Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;
That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes. Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang. You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page: the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang. When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin; when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.
As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.
In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection. In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another. In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony: there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast. Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.
We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku. Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:
Let’s start with deepest winter. Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin. And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang. That is exactly what happens. In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow. We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.” It grows and spring begins. So spring is increasing Yang. Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang. Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases. That is what is happening in spring. Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season. The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin. A seed of Yin starts to grow within it. Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining. Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root. We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang. But in autumn it falls — Yin.
Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season. Then the whole cycle begins anew.
This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:
Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring. Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins. One grows gradually older — the autumn of life. And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.
The same thing applies to each day:
The middle of night is deep Yin. Dawn nears and Yang increases. We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds. Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases. Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it. The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows. Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.
So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:
Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;
We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting. Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin. And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place. And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.
In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it. In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.
We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin. So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”
You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is. And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all. That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.
If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku, and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku. You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else. Why? Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku. Most never knew them to begin with. I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.
I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.
Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time. That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.
I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.” Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part. For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku. That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.