THE ESSENTIAL FACTS OF LIFE

People who come to hokku and its sub-category daoku by way of modern haiku often do not quite grasp its aesthetic.  They are not used to a verse form that makes a virtue out of such simplicity and ordinariness.

Daoku has inherited from its spiritual ancestry the notion of selflessness, which means that daoku is not about the “I,” the ego.  It is not about romance, or sex, or all the materialism of the modern world.  it is about very basic things, and it approaches them not on the level of intellect — not through analyzing and interpreting and commentary.  It just presents us with sensory events.  As I always repeat, daoku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Here is a winter verse by Buson that illustrates well the aesthetic of daoku:

The sound
Of the dog rolling over against the door;
Winter confinement.

Who in the history of Western poetry would have thought to write such a verse?  Who would have thought there is “poetry” in the sound of a dog bumping against a door in the isolation of winter?

That is the amazing thing about daoku.  It deals with the most basic elements of existence in this fleeting world, and it does it in the most selfless way.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

That is what daoku does.  it faces the essential facts of life, and finds depth and beauty in them.  To do that, as this verse reveals, does not mean we have to go live in the woods.  We confront the essential facts of life every day.  The problem is that we are so wrapped up in our plans and likes and dislikes and hopes and imagination and fantasy — so much into the daily up and down weather of our illusory selves — that we are often not aware of the basic facts of life — like the sound of a dog turning over in its sleep against the door.

That sound is the life that passes us by because we do not pay attention.  We live too much in our minds instead of in the world around us.  Daoku brings that world back to us through the senses — sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing.  Those are the most basic facts of our life.  They happen before we analyze an event, before we think about it, before we add any interpretation to it.

Buson’s verse was written in the context of the old Japanese winter, when the isolating cold and snow meant that people were confined indoors for long periods of time.  No radio, no Internet, no television, no video games.  There is nothing like confinement to reduce life to its basics.

Daoku is like the words of the Bahiya Sutta:

In the seen there is only the seen;
In the heard there only the heard….

Daoku does not add our commentaries or interpretations to events.  It simply presents us with the bare sensory facts of the event.  And here that is being shut indoors during the cold of winter, and in the silence and stillness, hearing the sound of the dog rolling over against the door.

It is not a symbol of anything.  It is not a metaphor for anything.  It has no meaning that we can speak, but nonetheless, we cannot help feeling a deep meaning in it.  And yet it is just the sound of a dog rolling over.

Daoku is noticing these simple, apparently meaningless, yet somehow profound events.  They are our lives.  If we miss them, we miss our lives, caught up as we are in the whirl of thoughts in our heads.  But ignore those thoughts, and suddenly the “dog sound” becomes full of unspoken significance.

Perhaps many of you can feel the sense of winter confinement because of the current worldwide pandemic.  My world has been reduced to about a two-mile radius.  There is home.  There are the visits to the nearby grocery stores.  There are visits to the library.  I spend almost all of my time entirely alone.  Being alone teaches you things, particularly about your “self.”

One of my greatest pleasures has become watching the birds visiting the feeders outside my kitchen window.  This morning there was a great event: the roofs were white with snow when I woke.  Now it is slowly melting in the morning rain.  Such things are the basics of life, and those basics are the subject matter of daoku.

Daoku is not about “me,” about the ego and its wants and aversions.  I often say that the basic aesthetics of daoku are poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.   In daoku we have the same attitude that Emily Dickinson expressed in her poem:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

There is great freedom in being nobody.

David

2 thoughts on “THE ESSENTIAL FACTS OF LIFE

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I’ve looked for poetry like this for most of my adult life and found it a few years ago, when I discovered your blog. “Makes a virtue of simplicity and ordinariness,” I like that phrase very much. When you are raised in a society that values loudness, complexity and being special, this makes you realize that it’s okay not to be obnoxious and overbearing. I like people who are quiet, thoughtful, and who don’t think that they are better than everyone else. I enjoy reading a simple, quiet poem about something ordinary, like water dripping off of a leaf or a cat purring next to you. Thanks for your posts, David. I value them very much.

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