Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.




2 thoughts on “AGE

  1. john budan

    David — reading some Alan Watts curious that out of 40000 entries in Japan Airlines haiku contest ,he was the judge and the winner happened to be someone he was aquainted with,J.W. Hackett who wrote “zen”haiku and runner up Lorraine Harr received submissions of Watts own haiku shortly afterwards.It seems to me Watts in his writing borrowed heavily from Blyth but Im wondering,in your opinion did Watts OVER EMPHASIZE the relationship of zen to Hokku?

    John —

    To answer your question one has to go first to Blyth, and ask whether Blyth overemphasized the Zen-hokku relationship. That is a question to which the wrong answer — or an incomplete answer — is often given. Usually the answers fall into these categories:

    1. There is a strong relationship.

    2. There is a weak relationship (“Did Blyth overemphasize the relationship of Zen to hokku?”)

    3. There is no relationship.

    The correct answer is that historically and culturally, there is a relationship. Japanese culture and Japanese arts were heavily influenced by Zen aesthetics, and that included hokku.

    That does not mean everyone who wrote hokku had Zen in mind, or practiced Zen meditation, or was even a Zen Buddhist. So we can leave all of that — “organizational Zen” aside when we think of Zen and hokku. Some who wrote hokku were Pure Land Buddhists, etc., and we see that influence strongly in — for example — Issa. And of course Shiki, with his change in terminology but still often maintaining the old hokku aesthetic — or at least parts of it — was one for whom there were “no gods, no Buddhas.” So that is not what is meant by the relationship of hokku and Zen.

    So what is the relationship precisely, and why did Blyth emphasize it so strongly?

    The answer is simply this: Blyth recognized the aesthetics of Zen, and when he read hokku, he saw those aesthetics — at least in the best of hokku, hokku at its best. So in presenting hokku, Blyth presented it through Zen aesthetics — through what he saw in hokku — because in that lay its universal value.

    Another person, unfamiliar with or uninterested in Zen aesthetics, would likely de-emphasize the relationship with Zen, seeing other characteristics in hokku and its history (and I have to say, when the Zen is removed, a discussion of hokku can become rather dull). Even some Japanese writers may see the whole body of hokku in a wider context, with different emphases, while for Blyth what stood out — what was valuable — was the relationship of hokku to Zen.

    The Zen of hokku, for Blyth — is that “the poet is dissolved in the object.” If one wants to really understand what Blyth meant by Zen in hokku, we can look at these words:

    …for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

    And also, as he wrote:

    Lawrence said, ‘Religion is an uncontrollable sensual experience.’ ‘Uncontrollable’ means that it is involuntary, beyond the conscious will; ‘sensual means non-rational. We may substitute the word poetry for religion, and haiku for poetry, and see clearly the relation between Zen and haiku [hokku]. In both there is this experience of the irreducible individuality of ourselves and the things around us, and at the same time, and only at this time, of the blending, fading, universal nature of the perceiving subject and the perceive object.”

    That blending of subject and object in hokku, while simultaneously individuality is retained, is the Zen Blyth found in hokku, and it was hokku expressing that characteristic that Blyth celebrated.

    What all this means is that seen from that perspective, there is such an essential relationship between Zen and hokku that without the Zen there may be technically a hokku in form, but it is hokku without the spirit. That is why it was such a disaster when the Western “haiku” movement began disassociating the practice from Zen aesthetics, leading to a devolution of the form.

    So that is the answer to the necessary first question — whether Blyth overemphasized the relation of Zen and hokku, and the answer is (from the perspective of Zen aesthetics) — no.

    But to your question specifically – did Watts — who seems to have basically gotten his information on hokku from reading Blyth and Daisetz Suzuki — overemphasize the relationship? Well, he was primarily a showman, and I would have to revisit all his writings and talks to say precisely — but I can guess that to the extent he reflects Blyth accurately, he does not overemphasize, and when he goes beyond Blyth, he may well. That is why one has to ask the more important “Blyth” question first, and understand what he meant by the relationship of Zen and hokku. Then one may say where Watts was correct and where his enthusiasm for public presentation may have led to excessive emphasis or exaggeration.


  2. john budan

    Thanks David I think the confusion in Watts is that he wrote Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen and maybe the confusion is Watts later interpretation of what Zen was. Some interpreted it as a rejection excuse of traditional values rather than a rejection of our conventional way of thinking?

    That is correct. The “Beat Period” in general completely misunderstood and misrepresented Zen as the freedom to do whatever one wished. It was not understood that Zen was a transcendence of conventional ways of thinking — not just a rejection of them to “do one’s thing.” Part of the problem was the Western presentation of Zen in that period minus Buddhist ethics, which always led to trouble — even in Japan.



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