As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:


Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among




A repeat of one of my favorite old winter hokku, by Hashin — clear, direct, simple, and very effective:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

For those who may not have experienced a good snowstorm, this hokku is an excellent description. The boundaries of sky and ground disappear, and one feels as though standing in the midst of a vast, cold universe of falling snow. One even has the sensation of floating upward while standing still, due to the motion of the snow.

Often people try to use too many words in writing hokku, try to say too much when, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Remember that one of the characteristics of hokku is simplicity.

Here is the transliterated original and a rather literal translation:

Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikeri

Heaven too earth too are-not at snow’s falling-incessantly



In a previous posting, you will recall, I said that one may have a verse in the outward form of a hokku, with everything in it correct, and still not have a hokku.  That is because to be a real hokku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of hokku.

Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in Peb...

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere of hokku.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every aspect of hokku aesthetics must be seen or included in every hokku.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of hokku aesthetics as the “taste” or the “fragrance” of a hokku.  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single hokku or a collection of hokku.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall hokku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of hokku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of hokku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The hokku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a hokku does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Hokku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, hokku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A hokku should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this hokku the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in the verse.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I have talked about Yin and Yang in relation to hokku in other postings, and I will talk about them again in future postings, because they are something I often mention in my teaching of hokku. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in hokku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  That means the writer should not “stand out” in a hokku.  Hokku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of hokku aesthetics is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice of hokku there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives hokku another characteristic, which is something that is almost loneliness, but not quite, something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of hokku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse,

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience, please remember, is a sense of time passing.  That is why in hokku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience of hokku is also why every hokku is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of hokku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of hokku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every hokku, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of hokku.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really hokku and not some other kind of short verse.

Hokku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in hokku aesthetics is the overall subject matter of hokku, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing hokku.  So even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write hokku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.



Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.


ADLESTROP: Significant Simplicity

There are some poems that seem initially lightweight, but nonetheless remain in the mind because that hasty impression is wrong.  In fact the first somewhat negative judgment may be just the reflection of a cultural prejudice that a poem must be about something very significant or important.  But perhaps it is simply that our society has an odd and somewhat distorted idea of what is significant and important.  We see that, for example, in the ongoing destruction of our natural environment, carried on in full knowledge of the likely disastrous results.

Imagine a memory — perhaps little more than a minute in its origin — that remains with you for some inexplicable reason.  That is what we find in the poem I discuss today, written by (Philip) Edward Thomas, who lived from 1878 to 1917;  not a great many years, but long enough to give us this poem.

To appreciate it, we must think back to what in some respects was a quieter time — the year 1914, to be precise — but a time in which life nonetheless was changing rapidly from what it had been.  The writer is on a train — a steam train in those days — that made an unaccustomed (“unwonted”) stop, and out the window on one side was the signboard of the station:


Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one was left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

For some reason unexplained, the express train made an unexpected stop at a station in the Cotswolds, the low, rolling hills of Gloucestershire.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one was left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name…

The steam is of course the steam of the train engine.  We are left, for the moment, in what seems to be an interval in time.  A passenger takes advantage of the pause to clear his throat.  Out on the platform no one exits the train, or boards it.  The station is bare.  And the writer, in this interval of emptiness, sees the signboard giving the name of the place — Adlestrop.

But notice how he does not stop even for moment with that image of large letters on the signboard, but adds to it immediately — linking to the next stanza without even a mark of punctuation separating —

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

He sees willow trees and spires of willow-herb — which we call fireweed in America, but to Thomas it is “willow-herb” because its long, narrow, pointed leaves look like those of willow trees; and he sees meadowsweet, with its tufts of creamy-white flowers that bloom from June onward.  And he sees haycocks in the fields — conical mounds of hay left to dry in the warm sunlight so that when they have lost their moisture, they may be carried in wagons to the barns and stored there as food for the beasts in winter.

Note how Thomas is able to appreciate the beauty of such things, calling them

No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

This stillness of plants and clouds and haycocks reflects that of the bare station platform, but adds to it a warmth and a life that has its own simple beauty, as lovely, yet as beautiful in their loneliness –“no whit less still and lonely fair” — as the scattered small clouds in the blue sky over the fields (“no whit” means “not even the least bit).”

 And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

In that interval at Adlestrop — that time that seems out of time — the song of  a blackbird is heard nearby, and Thomas hears the sound as the closest of  — he notices it now — a great many, singing birds farther off, yet all around, whose multitudinous songs grow fainter and less distinct as they extend into great distance.  And Thomas realizes he is hearing, behind and around the nearby blackbird,

 …all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

This is really a love poem to a moment past, made all the more poignant by our knowing that Edward Thomas died in France on the 9th of April, 1917.

If we were to approach Adlestrop very chronologically, we might say that the emptiness of the station has nothing at all to do with the war and the resulting absence of men — and indeed there is nothing in the poem to say it did.  Thomas noted in his journal a stop at Adlestrop on the 23rd of June, 1914; slightly over a month later, on July 28th, the First World War began.   The poem, however, was not published until 1917, at which time it was very easy to read into it the absence of men gone off to war.   And it seems to have actually been written after the start of the war, in January of 1915.  So this is one of those cases in which it is best to just go with what the poet himself offers — an empty station platform — without assuming reasons for it other than those the poem itself offers:  that it was a hot afternoon; that it was an “unwonted” stop of the train.   But it is inevitable that a reader noting the time of actual writing will see the poem against the background of an England very much at war, very much under great stress, and that makes the peaceful interlude at Adlestrop, with its evocation of the British countryside in its plants and trees and singing birds beneath a blue sky dotted with small clouds all the more meaningful.  To me, Adlestrop is a look through a train window at the peace of pre-war England — England before the great upheaval that took the flower of its youth.

Thomas was born in England, the son of Welsh parents, and the Welsh, as everyone should know, love poetry and song.  The remarkable accomplishment of Thomas, in this verse, is to recognize the significance of what to most would have been an insignificant moment in an insignificant place, a mere unexpected stop on the way to matters of importance.

Thomas preserves for us the signboard, the empty platform, the hissing of the train, the blooming flowers nearby, the haycocks in the field, the little clouds scattered in the blue sky, and the chorus of birds heard from a single blackbird nearby to all the birds of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.  And he has made, oddly enough, the sound of an anonymous passenger clearing his throat into timeless poetry, with all the rest.

It is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see and think of no importance.

Given the “significant simplicity” of Adlestrop, perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Edward Thomas used to go on long walks with a visitor to England at that time, the poet Robert Frost, and that Frost was a significant factor in Thomas taking up the writing of poetry.

There is a striking line in Stella Gibbons’ otherwise light novel Nightingale Wood that expresses what one feels about the birds heard in Adlestrop:

The country through which they moved was chiefly grazing land with some under wheat and barley, and it had the unconventional charm of Essex landscapes; the little hills with oak coppices climbing them, now in early rose-brown leaf, the loops of a river shining in a wide, tree-hidden valley to which all the roads seem to lead, and the near and distant cries of birds like the country itself singing.




Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.



R. H. Blyth gives a good summary of the characteristics — the nature — of hokku.  In that summary we find:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

4.  Lack of elegance.

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

7.  “Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

9.  Human warmth.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

I hope those who read here will think about these and how they apply to the hokku we have discussed thus far, or to those read elsewhere.  Perhaps in the future — or if people have questions — I will expand on these characteristics.



The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?”  It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”

That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.

Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.

Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.

Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku.  What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice?  Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.

Why?  Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.”  We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.

We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.

And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write.  That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.

That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse.  If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not.  Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.

The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.”  Our practice of hokku is self-validating.  It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well.  That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.

So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we  can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”


Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku.  And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began.   That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.