Today in my “Blyth Made Easy” summary, we will look again at his volume Eastern Culture — specifically beginning with Section 1: The Spiritual Origins of Hokku” Remember that for reasons previously given, when Blyth writes “haiku” I will generally use the more historically accurate “hokku.”

In this section, Blyth introduces the reader to “the historical development of the Zen state of mind in the creation of hokku by Bashō and his followers.” He tracks this development “from its origins in pre-buddhistic thought in India, through Chinese culture, into the Japanese world-view and the poetic expression of it” — how that is expressed in Japanese verse — particularly in hokku.

Blyth traces the spiritual origins of hokku through several converging lines of influence:


Blyth then takes us back to the beginnings of “what ultimately became the simple directness and instantaneous perception of hokku” in pre-Buddhist Indian thought. We may think of it as Upanishadic thought — found in the ancient Upanishads of India. Blyth gives several examples, but all can be summarized in the Parable of Svetaketu and the Nyagrodha Tree:

The Story of Svetaketu

When Svetaketu was twelve years old, he was sent to a teacher with whom he studied until he was twenty-four. After learning all the Vedas, he returned home full of conceit in the belief that he was consummately well-educated, and very censorious.
His father said to him, “Svetaketu, my child, you are so full of your learning and so censorious, have you asked for that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived and know what cannot be known?”
“What is that knowledge, sir?” asked Svetaketu.
His father replied, “As by knowing one lump of clay all that is made of clay is known – so, my child, is that knowledge, knowing which we know all.”
“But surely these venerable teachers of mine are ignorant of this knowledge; for if they possessed it they would have imparted it to me. Do you, sir, therefore, give me that knowledge?”

“So be it,” said the father… And he said, “Bring me a fruit of the nyagrodha tree.”
“Here it is, sir.”
“Break it.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see there?”
“Some seeds, sir, exceedingly small.”
“Break one of these.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see there?”
“Nothing at all.”
The father said, “My son, that subtle essence which you do not perceive there – in that very essence stands the being of the huge nyagrodha tree. In that which is the subtle essence of all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you Svetaketu are That.”

“Pray, sir”, said the son, “tell me more.”
“Be it so, my child”, the father replied; and he said, “Place this salt in water, and come to me tomorrow morning.”
The son did as he was told.
Next morning the father said, “Bring me the salt you put in the water.”
The son looked for it, but could not find it, for the salt, of course, had dissolved.
The father said, “Taste some of the water from the surface of the vessel. How is it?”
“Taste some from the middle. How is it?”
“Taste some from the bottom. How is it?”
The father said, “Throw the water away and then come back to me again.”
The son did so; but the salt was not lost, for the salt existed forever.
Then the father said, “Here likewise in this body of yours, my son, you do not perceive the True; but there, in fact, it is. In that which is the subtle essence, all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you, Svetaketu, are That.”

Hokku, Blyth adds, are the “You are That”: “when a man becomes a bamboo grove swaying in the windy rain, a cicada crying itself and its life away,” then he is That. And in this all genders are included.

One concept that came into the life and thought of the Japanese through Indian ➛ Chinese ➛ Japanese Buddhism was that life is sorrow and suffering. He adds “there is more than a tinge of this in Bashō and Issa; but Buson and Shiki, in their objectivity, feel the meaningfulness of things more deeply than their evanescence.”

“In Buddhism, ignorance is the great evil of the world, rather than moral wickedness. The great problem of practical, everyday life is thus to see things properly, not to valuate them in some hard and fast moral scale of virtue and vice, use and uselessness, but to take them without sentimental or intellectual prejudice.”

The Japanese, in their animistic ancient polytheism, had many gods, but they were not thought to be far from humans in location or status. Further, there was no definite separation between humans and non-humans, but as in the Buddhist notion of rebirth, there were higher realms and beings and lower realms and beings, and humans were placed in between them — in the middle. The result of this was a certain sympathy with beings both above and below that of humans, which manifests itself in hokku as a feeling of kinship with birds, beasts, insects, etc.

Blyth says the Mahayana Buddhist teaching that things are both the same and simultaneously different “sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does.” That explains why Buddhist experience and Japanese verse were so deeply connected. And though Buddhism “is in a sense pantheistic,” the All which is One is not thought of as a person, but as something that is neither personal nor impersonal. All things — even stones and rivers — have the Buddha Nature, meaning they are the same Self as everything else, humans included. That “lays a foundation for a spiritual and practical democracy” that Christianity by its perceived gulf between humans and other things could never provide.

In the next posting on this topic, I will discuss Blyth’s presentation of Zen.

I again want to note that Angelico Press now offers reprints of Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku set:



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