A summer hokku by Shōhaku:
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.
That is a good example of the simplicity and purity of hokku.
When we read it, we feel the silence. And in that silence, we observe a chestnut leaf sinking down through the clear water.
Now to many people, I suppose, this must seem quite a pointless verse. “What does it mean?” they ask. The answer is that it does not mean anything. It is just the perception of the quietness, and in that quietness, of the leaf sinking in the water.
We could analyze it according to Yin and Yang: quiet is yin, sinking is yin, and water is yin. So it is a very “yin” verse. But we need not do that, because we already intuitively feel these relationships without the need of labeling or speaking them.
But beyond all this, the hokku is a “word recording” of an experience that takes place in the mind when we read it. In that experience there is an observer, but no thought. There is no analysis or judging of the experience — there is only being and experiencing it.
I often emphasize the importance of selflessness in hokku — the absence of any emphasis on “I,” “me,” and “my.” This is in great contrast to much modern poetry, even brief poetry, which often places the “I” at center stage.
In hokku, however, the more the “I” disappears, the more we get to the essence of what to me is the deeper significance of hokku. In Shōhaku’s verse, there is no “I” at all — nothing that has a form and a name. There is only perception.
In so much of modern life, the “I” with its whims and wants is all important. In hokku, however, it is just the opposite. But how to go behind this superficial “I” to something deeper? One has to realize the difference between perception and thinking. Our consciousness is like the clear sky. Thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky. Sensory experience — such as seeing and hearing — does not require thought. It just happens. Then thought intervenes and begins to try to interpret or comment or judge and compare. But if we get that far, we have gone beyond the stage of the hokku experience, which is perception without the added thinking.