The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.
The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned. But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.
Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku? Part of it is cultural. We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture. We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.
Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity. In hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all. It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth. To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.” To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions. And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.
The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing. Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same. We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still. And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.
That is not just the condition of Nature; it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.
Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle. We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night. We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.
Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us. It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that. It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held. It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies. Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.
That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego. In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires. Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse. When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream. This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.
In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew. Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.
The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction. We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all. In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else. It does not last. We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age. And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves. So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.
When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku. Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry. It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence. Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.
Bags of seeds
That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring. In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change. Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling. A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.