TANUKI IMAGES (Photo credit Wikipedia)
(Photo credit Wikipedia)

Ordinarily, I do not dwell much on specifically Japanese cultural aspects of the hokku, because my primary purpose in talking about hokku here is to teach how to write good new hokku in English, and in a non-Japanese environment.  But it might be interesting for readers to see some of the problems inherent in translating old Japanese hokku, particular those with cultural elements that may be unfamiliar to people in other countries.

Buson, in addition to a few good hokku and a number of mediocre hokku, also wrote some rather peculiar fanciful hokku based on Japanese folklore.  If one does not know anything about that subject, it is very easy to misunderstand or misinterpret these verses.

There is, for example, this one:

Aki no kure hotoke ni bakeru tanuki kana
Autumn ‘s nightfall Buddha into changed tanuki kana

We could translate it as:

The autumn evening;
It has turned into a Buddha —
The tanuki.

Most translators usually render tanuki as “badger,” but the tanuki is not really a badger.  It is actually an odd member of the dog family (Canidae).  An English term sometimes used for it is  “raccoon dog,” but that is a bit long, though the tanuki really does look somewhat like a cross between a raccoon and a dog.  My personal opinion is that when one is translating hokku about tanuki, it is likely best to just use the Japanese term, because chances are one is going to have to explain the hokku anyway, as I am about to do here.

Now if you looked at the translation I gave above, you are likely still wondering what the hokku means.  Is Buson saying the tanuki has become a Buddha, like in some old Zen story?  Or does it mean something else?

It might help a bit to tell you that in Japanese folklore, there are two animals noted for being able to change their form, to “shapeshift,” to take on the appearance of something completely different.  The first shapeshifting animal is the fox, but even better at shapeshifting than the fox is the tanuki.  So when Buson says the tanuki has “turned into a Buddha,” does he really mean that it has transformed itself — shapeshifted — into the appearance of an image of the Buddha?  Hotoke in Japanese means “Buddha,” but its secondary meaning is “Buddha image.”

Before we decide, I would like to give a slightly different translation, now that you know what a tanuki is and does in folklore:

The autumn evening;
It has transformed into a Buddha! —
The tanuki.

By “Buddha,” in this case, Buson would have meant a Buddha image.

In the Japanese version given at the beginning of this posting, I loosely translated  bakeru as “changed,” but it really means to transform one’s appearance, to change one’s form, even to disguise one’s self.

Knowing that, we could try a third translation:

The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha —
A tanuki!

I think I like that one best of all, so far.

Now what inspired this odd hokku?  We might keep in mind that stone or pottery images of tanuki standing on their hind legs, from about one to three feet in height, were (and are) quite popular in Japan, and were often to be found outdoors, including in gardens and near temple sites.

We might then think that Buson was in such a place as the evening darkness was coming on, and that as he walked in the growing shadows, he saw a dark image that he thought at first to be an image of a Buddha, but on getting closer, he was amused to see that it was actually just a tanuki image.

Conversely, we could suppose that Buson perhaps saw the dark shape of a standing Buddha image outdoors near dusk, and fancifully imagined that a tanuki was trying to fool him by taking on that form.

Either interpretation is possible.  Of course it is also very possible that Buson just created the whole scene in his mind for the fun of it, for the effect.  He rather liked to create what he thought were “artistic” verses out of his imagination.

Fact is, however, that Buson left a story connected with this particular hokku.  He tells how he was spending a night on his own at a large, shrub-surrounded house in town, and had just pulled the quilt over himself and gone to sleep when there was a frightful banging and pounding that went on repeatedly.  Buson got up and toddled to the door, but no one and nothing was there.

He had barely gotten back to his bed when the pounding began again.  So once more he got up and checked the door, and once more no one was there.

At this point Buson was so unnerved that he found the caretaker of the place, who told him it was a tanuki, and that if the noise began again, Buson should quickly open the door and chase the tanuki, while the caretaker would be waiting in the shrubs.  But when the noise began again and Buson hurriedly opened the door and the caretaker ran out  from the shrubs, not even a shadow was to be seen.

Now the bothersome thing is that this pounding went on for five nights.  Buson, with bloodshot and bleary-eyes from lack of sleep, had just decided that enough was enough and he and was going to leave the place when a servant of the owner of the house appeared and reported that an old tanuki had been killed in Yabushita village — and that it was probably the one who had been making all the night noise.

And indeed there was no more pounding and banging that night.  But Buson began to think of the unfortunate tanuki that had come to him for five nights, and began to feel compassion for him.  So he called a priest named Zenkubo and paid him to perform a ritual so that the spirit of the tanuki might have peace.

Then, after giving this little story of his experience, Buson presents the hokku we have been discussing.

Knowing this additional information, should we decide that our very first thought that the tanuki might have become a Buddha in some religious or Zen sense was correct? In that case, we could just translate it as:

The autumn evening;
It has become a Buddha —
The tanuki.

Of course the notion that just a ritual could make a tanuki into a Buddha is unrealistic, so perhaps what Buson really intended was a kind of hyperbolic euphemism in which “become a Buddha” really meant “has died.”

Now do you see how tricky translating unclear hokku can be?  A hokku should never require a “backstory” to be understood.  And we should never have to sit and ponder to figure out the meaning of a hokku.  We should be able to grasp it immediately.  That is why, as hokku, Buson’s verse is lacking.  Even knowing all that we know at this point about the tanuki in folklore and about Buson’s experience of pounding in the night, we still are not quite certain what he intended with this verse.

In any case, now you know several possibilities for what the hokku means, and also what a tanuki is.  But the most important things you should take away from this discussion are:

1.  Never write a hokku that requires additional information to be understood.
2.  Never write a hokku that cannot be quickly grasped by the reader.

Given that we cannot determine for certain what Buson meant by this verse, we can safely move on to a more important question:  Which of the possible translations we have seen makes the best hokku?

That is easy.  It would be one based on the notion that Buson either saw a tanuki statue and mistook it for a Buddha image in the twilight, or he saw a Buddha image and imagined that a shapeshifting tanuki had taken on that form to trick him.

So my favorite, with one small change, is still:

The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha image —
A tanuki!

It is a playful verse, nothing serious, but to understand it, a reader would still have to know that in Japanese folklore a tanuki is a notorious shapeshifter.

If for some reason you have been intrigued by the tanuki and want to know more, here is a link to a very useful page explaining the evolution of its folklore and representation in Japan over time:




I could say that I chose today’s poem by Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) because it exemplifies the tendency of Western poetry to “muse” on a subject rather than to just present it as an event without added commentary.  The truth, however, is that I chose it  because of its amusing and unusual title:

Sonnet LXX:
On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic

The poem requires little explanation beyond clarifying some of its old-fashioned words.

Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter’d lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.

Here, part by part, is a simple paraphrase:

Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below;

Charlotte asks us if there really is a “solitary wretch” — a lone unfortunate person — who “hies” — that is, who hastens, to the tall cliff high above the sea with “starting pace or slow,” meaning with sudden, jerky and quick steps or with slow steps, and who then looks on the scene “with wild and hollow eyes,” mentally measuring how far the cliff rises above “the waves that chide below,” — the waves below that gently scold.  Of course waves do not “chide,” but we are not yet in the modern period of poetry, and human attributes were often attached to forces of nature in earlier times.  What Charlotte really intends by “chide” is to convey the repetitious sound of the waves beating against the cliff, and she did it as she thought best in her day.

Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter’d lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?

Continuing, she ask if there is a lonely wretch who lies on his cold turf bed on the mountain above the sea, groaning and partly speaking his lamentations — his expressions of sorrow — to the pounding surf below, just as the gale that arises on the sea chills the poor wretch’s bed on the ground with “frequent sighs” — that is, with sounding gusts of wind.

In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.

Charlotte sees — that is, she imagines — the poor lunatic standing in his impulsive, sad moods on the high cliff — so high it makes one giddy — above the sea.  And in her imagination he is more to be envied than feared.  Why?  Because he has no “nice felicities” — qualities that promote happiness, or rather here, tendencies toward desiring happiness over unhappiness — that cause him to pull back in fright from “giant horrors” such as the dangerous cliff  towering above the pounding waves.  Instead of being terrified by the fearful height, he seems not to know or realize at all the depth of his unfortunate circumstances or how long they are to last.  That is because, being a lunatic, he seems to have no capacity to think and reason about the matter.  In that, our Charlotte says, he seems “uncursed” with the normal human habit of always thinking about one’s sorrow in a bad situation, worrying about how long it is going to last.  And that is why she envies the lunatic wandering on the rocky headland above the sea, even though she sees him only from hearsay in her imagination.

All of that just from being cautioned about the crazy guy who wanders along the cliff above the sea.  One can make a moral from almost anything, it seems, as well as a poem.

There is an Italian poem by a poet whose name I do not recall, which says the same thing Charlotte says about those “uncursed by reason,” only presenting it a different way.  The poem mentions a goose who does not realize its future is to be killed and cooked, and consequently lives from moment to moment unconcerned.  And the point of the poem is that the goose — “uncursed by reason” — is fortunate in that regard compared to humans, who are all quite aware that one way or another, their end is death.

(Since I wrote this, a kind correspondent in Italy sent me the Italian “goose” poem; here it is in the original and in translation)

La differenza
di Guido Gozzano

Penso e ripenso: – Che mai pensa l’oca
gracidante alla riva del canale?
Pare felice! Al vespero invernale
protende il collo, giubilando roca.

Salta starnazza si rituffa gioca:
né certo sogna d’essere mortale
né certo sogna il prossimo Natale
né l’armi corruscanti della cuoca.

– O pàpera, mia candida sorella,
tu insegni che la Morte non esiste:
solo si muore da che s’è pensato.

Ma tu non pensi. La tua sorte è bella!
Ché l’esser cucinato non è triste,
triste è il pensare d’esser cucinato.


by Guido Gozzano

I think and ponder — What does the goose think,
Gabbling on the bank of the canal?
It looks happy!  On the summer evening
It stretches out its neck, raspily rejoicing.

It leaps quacking, dives in playing —
It doesn’t dream at all of being mortal,
It doesn’t dream at all of next Christmas,
Nor of the shining weapons of the cook.

O goosie, my white sister,
You teach that Death does not exist:
One only dies from what one has thought.

But you don’t think.  Your fate is beautiful!
For to be cooked is not sad —
Sad is the thought of being cooked.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”






Every year I like to post this article again, with slight variation, to mark that time when one senses the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter. It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day it will come, but I certainly felt it recently. The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall has begun.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite. And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year. The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August. Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave. And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of hokku. We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event. And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku. In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote some time ago:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it — feel it. Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood? Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku. It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, that everything changes, that nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing. It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows. It is not necessary to tell that to the children.

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer moves toward an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.



In our busy modern world, particularly if we live in a heavily urbanized area, it is good to pause from time to time and reflect on where we are in the Wheel of the Year — the cycle of the seasons.

Astronomically, Midsummer’s Day is precisely that — the middle of summer, when the longest day of the year occurs.  We might think that is the most Yang time of the year, but  actually the real effects of these astronomical events are not felt until about a month later.  Remember that.

Strangely enough, this year near the end of July I began to get a very peculiar but obvious and persistent feeling of a “weakening” in the air, as though the high point of summer had already been passed.  I even mentioned it to a friend who said she had sensed the very same thing.  So for some reason — at least where I am —  the transition time when Yang reaches its maximum and a tiny bit of Yang begins to grow within it seemed this year to be very evident.  harvesters

If we look at the old Hokku Calendar as it manifests in the European-American tradition, we have just passed Lammas on August 1, also called Lugnasadh (pronounced “LOO-nuh-suh”).   In “farm speech” it is called Harvest Home, and it marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.  So it is very appropriate that the feeling of the presence of Yin energy  has already been in the air.

In the old days, Harvest Home was an important country festival celebrating the bringing in of the wheat from the fields, which provided bread, “the staff of life.”  It was the first of three harvest festivals.   The second, now commonly just called the “Harvest Festival” comes near the Autumn Equinox, and the third comes on Samhain, November 1st, the day after Halloween.

In the British Isles it was common in post-pagan times to celebrate the second harvest festival about a week after the Autumn Equinox (September 21/22), on the day called Michaelmas (pronounced MIK-uhl-muhs), which was the feast day of the Christian angel Michael, but it had pre-Christian significance.  The Autumn Equinox is the last day when the length of night and day are equal.  Then the darkness (Yin) begins to overwhelm the light (Yang) as the days grow shorter.  Given that Michael was a powerful symbol of the victory of light over darkness, it was no doubt a common hope that celebrating it on Michael’s day would help ordinary folk through the dark days of winter.

The celebration of the Harvest Festival close to the Autumn Equinox accounts for why the full moon closest to that equinox is called the Harvest Moon.

Well, all of this may or may not be interesting to you, but my point in mentioning it is that the Yang energies in Nature have begun to wane and the Yin energies are increasing.  That will continue and become ever more obvious as we move through August and into September, October, November, and December.  We will feel the changes in the air and in our bodies, and if we follow the old ways, we will adjust our behavior and our food accordingly.

Why our food and behavior?  Because in the time of year when Yin energies increase, our bodily energy, instead of moving outward in exuberance and activity (Yang), begins to move inward (Yin).  So traditionally, we gradually bring what we do and what we eat into correspondence with that inward tendency.  There is a whole system of dealing with the interaction of food and the seasons, which is best exemplified today in Chinese medical theory.  I won’t go into all of that now, but you have probably noticed that people who live close to Nature change their diet somewhat depending on the season and on what is naturally available.  It is good to keep that correspondence in mind as the Yang energies in Nature continue to wane with the season.

You will recall that I told you to remember that the effects of events in the astronomical calendar — the main four points on the old Hokku Calendar –tend to be felt a month later.  We can apply that to the differences in general between the old Hokku Calendar and the modern calendar.  Doing that, we would expect the common notion of the end of summer in our modern calendar to take place about a month after its Lammas or “Harvest Home” ending in the old calendar.  And that is just what happens.   We tend to commonly think of summer as ending with September 1st (or on Labor Day shortly after), a month after Harvest Home.  Of course technically, in the modern calendar, the end of summer is placed on the Autumn Equinox ( September 21/22).




He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

As regular readers here know, I am a strong advocate of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.  As such, it is obvious to me that one cannot have a healthy democracy in any country in which both of those fundamental freedoms are absent.  Nor can one have a healthy democracy if women are denied rights equal to those of men, freeing them from any subservience to or oppression by the opposite gender.

That means, of course, that a healthy democracy also requires the separation of religion and state.  We have abundant examples in history of the disastrous results when state and religion are joined and religious law becomes mixed with state law.   And we are still seeing the catastrophic and unnecessary results of the mixing of religion and state in the ongoing tragedies in the daily news.  There can be no true freedom without government guarantees of freedom of and from religion.

Some never seem to learn from the past.  Sad to say, the Russian government, under the strong influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, has now made it virtually illegal to support equal rights and equal freedom for those whose orientation is toward the same sex.  That is appalling at the beginning of the 21st century, a reversion to the days when the Russian State was the punishing and persecuting arm of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Russian people have been forbidden to simply express a desire for such equality of rights in any public or visible manner.  The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (often seen in photo ops with Putin) has even made the ridiculous and astonishingly intolerant and backward statement that the legalization of same-sex marriage is “a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse.”  That is something that should shock everyone who advocates freedom of speech and expression, as well as universal human equality of rights.

Religion can sometimes be a force for good in the world, but all too often it has placed backward doctrine above spirituality and compassion, and has become instead a deadly force for evil.  We see abundant proof of that every day in those countries combining religious dogma with state law, and it is something that anyone who advocates human freedom and equality should deplore.  Without the separation of religion and state, humanity will simply revert to the doctrine-based wars and persecutions of past centuries, the great difference being that now even the most backward and fanatical of religious dogmatists have access to the most up to date and deadly of technical weapons.

It makes one think of Carl Jung’s statement that the welfare of humanity “hangs by a thread.”  To keep that thread from breaking, it is crucial that an advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and equal rights, along with a staunch advocacy of the separation of religion and state, should be strongly held and publicly promoted by both individuals and governments.  This is of vital importance in a world where so many are daily threatened by persecution and violence incited and supported by those holding fanatical religious and political dogmas of one kind or another.