About a week ago, we reached and passed Harvest Home — Lughnasa[dh] by its old Celtic name. Harvest Home, the holiday which takes place on August 1, marks the beginning of Autumn. And Autumn begins at approximately the same time in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars — the first week of August.
It always reminds me of these lines from Natalie Babbit’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:
“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.”
In my region, Nature seems to closely follow that old calendar. Right on time, the days have cooled and there is a sudden hint of Autumn in the air. Of course it is just beginning, but one feels it nonetheless.
Autumn, in hokku, is the time when the active Yang energy of summer begins to wane. One feels the first hints of the passive Yin energy that gradually replaces it until Yin becomes the dominant force in Winter. So the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.
Autumn is a very good time for hokku experiences, because Autumn is the time when we most feel the transience, the impermanence, of life. And impermanence is not only a fundamental principle of Buddhism, but also of hokku. Everything changes, nothing remains the same. That becomes very obvious as we see the plants begin to wither and watch the leaves turn color and start to fall from the trees. Autumn is the time when the energies of Nature begin to withdraw, to “return to the root” as the old saying goes.
Some five years ago I posted an article on the differences between hokku and the modern haiku — how the latter essentially began as a misunderstanding (see https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/bad-beginning-bad-ending/).
In it I wrote:
“One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku. Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.”
One should not be confused about this. The purpose of hokku is not to “express yourself,” but rather to express Nature, and all things — you included — as a part of Nature. Hokku expresses Nature through your experience of it, but that is not at all the same as expressing your “self.”
One gets a good idea of what it means to express Nature through your experience, rather than “expressing yourself,” by looking at this landscape painting by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), a Daoist artist of the Song Dynasty:
It depicts “mountains and water,” which two words together are actually the Chinese term for a landscape. It is an impressive painting. We see the massive, rocky hills and trees growing here and there, and a waterfall plunging from the heights. But it is only when we look closely that we see a little group of travelers moving through the landscape at lower right:
There they are with their pack horses — a very small part of the landscape, and not really felt to be separate from it.
Compare that with our modern world of busy freeways, strip malls, traffic lights and omnipresent cars and trucks. Our modern world is out of perspective, which is precisely why our climate and environment are now endangered. Humans do not see themselves as only a small part of Nature any more, and that is at the root of many of the problems we face today.
Hokku, however, restores the proper balance. Humans are placed in their appropriate context. Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature. Modern haiku, by contrast, tends to put the emphasis on the “self,” which from the old hokku view is putting it in precisely the wrong place.
Do not misunderstand. That does not mean hokku never talk about the writer, but when they do, it is within and as part of a larger context. For example, Bashō wrote:
Going out the gate,
I too become a traveler;
The autumn evening.
Kado wo dereba ware mo yuku hito aki no kure
Bashō, by placing himself in the context of the season, places himself also in the wider context of Nature, in which autumn is a time of migrations. The wild geese fly south for the winter, deer seek lower elevations. And Bashō mirrors this characteristic of Autumn by just going out his gate and becoming a traveler too.
Much of the modern haiku community has abandoned this essential connection between hokku and the seasons, and by doing so, they have created a different verse form outside the wider context so essential to hokku. By simply mentioning the season of a hokku, all sorts of possible associations are raised in the mind (like the traveling wild geese), and these are essential to the way hokku works. It works in a much wider context than that of modern haiku, and that is why a seasonal setting and a connection with Nature are essential to it.