About a week ago, we reached and passed Harvest Home — Lughnasa[dh] by its old Celtic name.  Harvest Home, the holiday which takes place on August 1, marks the beginning of Autumn.  And Autumn begins at approximately the same time in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars — the first week of August.

It always reminds me of  these lines from Natalie Babbit’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

In my region, Nature seems to closely follow that old calendar.  Right on time, the days have cooled and there is a sudden hint of Autumn in the air.  Of course it is just beginning, but one feels it nonetheless.

Autumn, in hokku, is the time when the active Yang energy of summer begins to wane.  One feels the first hints of the passive Yin energy that gradually replaces it until Yin becomes the dominant force in Winter.  So the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.

Autumn is a very good time for hokku experiences, because Autumn is the time when we most feel the transience, the impermanence, of life.  And impermanence is not only a fundamental principle of Buddhism, but also of hokku.  Everything changes, nothing remains the same.  That becomes very obvious as we see the plants begin to wither and watch the leaves turn color and start to fall from the trees.  Autumn is the time when the energies of Nature begin to withdraw, to “return to the root” as the old saying goes.

Some five years ago I posted an article on the differences between hokku and the modern haiku — how the latter essentially began as a misunderstanding (see https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/bad-beginning-bad-ending/).

In it I wrote:

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku. Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.”

One should not be confused about this.  The purpose of hokku is not to “express yourself,” but rather to express Nature, and all things — you included — as a part of Nature.  Hokku expresses Nature through your experience of it, but that is not at all the same as expressing your “self.”

One gets a good idea of what it means to express Nature through your experience, rather than “expressing yourself,” by looking at this landscape painting by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), a Daoist artist of the Song Dynasty:


It depicts “mountains and water,” which two words together are actually the Chinese term for a landscape.  It is an impressive painting.  We see the massive, rocky hills and trees growing here and there, and a waterfall plunging from the heights.  But it is only when we look closely that we see a little group of travelers moving through the landscape at lower right:


There they are with their pack horses — a very small part of the landscape, and not really felt to be separate from it.

Compare that with our modern world of busy freeways, strip malls, traffic lights and omnipresent cars and trucks.  Our modern world is out of perspective, which is precisely why our climate and environment are now endangered.  Humans do not see themselves as only a small part of Nature any more, and that is at the root of many of the problems we face today.

Hokku, however, restores the proper balance.  Humans are placed in their appropriate context.  Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Modern haiku, by contrast, tends to put the emphasis on the “self,” which from the old hokku view is putting it in precisely the wrong place.

Do not misunderstand.  That does not mean hokku never talk about the writer, but when they do, it is within and as part of a larger context.  For example, Bashō wrote:


Going out the gate,
I too become a traveler;
The autumn evening.

Kado wo dereba   ware mo yuku hito   aki no kure

Bashō, by placing himself in the context of the season, places himself also in the wider context of Nature, in which autumn is a time of migrations.  The wild geese fly south for the winter, deer seek lower elevations.  And Bashō mirrors this characteristic of Autumn by just going out his gate and becoming a traveler too.

Much of the modern haiku community has abandoned this essential connection between hokku and the seasons, and by doing so, they have created a different verse form outside the wider context so essential to hokku.  By simply mentioning the season of a hokku, all sorts of possible associations are raised in the mind (like the traveling wild geese), and these are essential to the way hokku works.  It works in a much wider context than that of modern haiku, and that is why a seasonal setting and a connection with Nature are essential to it.






There are two aspects to hokku:

1. The form
2. The content

Of these two aspects, the content takes some time to absorb, particularly the aesthetic spirit characterizing hokku. The form, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes.

It can easily be described and learned.

An English language hokku is:

1. Written in three lines.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

2. Fully punctuated.

A hokku has one or more internal punctuation marks, and an ending punctuation mark.

3. Divided into two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The long part consists of two lines, the short part of only one line.
The short part may begin or end the verse.
An appropriate punctuation mark separates the two parts of a hokku.

Punctuation in hokku is simple.

A period (.) or other appropriate punctuation ends a hokku.
A semicolon (;) is used for a meditative pause.
A dash (–), typed as two hyphens, indicates a longer meditative pause. Ellipses (…) may serve a similar function.
A comma (,) indicates a short, connective pause.
An exclamation point (!) indicates something unusual, unexpected, surprising, or strongly emphasized. It is used rarely.
A question mark (?) indicates an asked but unanswered question.

The simplicity and practicality of the hokku form in English enables the writer to concentrate on form.

Let’s take a look at a verse — in this case a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:


Evening clearing;
Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

At the top of the verse comes its overall seasonal setting, in this case autumn.

The first line gives us the particular setting — “Evening clearing” — the clearing of the sky at evening. The sky having cleared, we see the subject of the verse in the second and third lines:

Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

The primary punctuation mark that separates the two parts of the verse is the semicolon at the end of the first line:

Evening clearing;

There is a secondary punctuation mark at the end of the second line, which in this case not only connects the second and third lines but also gives us a rather long meditative pause:

Against the pale-blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

We could also use a comma if a shorter pause is desired:

Against the pale-blue sky,
Rows of autumn hills.

Many verses have no secondary punctuation before the ending mark, but they always have the primary punctuation mark separating the long and short parts of the hokku.

Just which punctuation mark to use in a given case depends upon how the writer wishes the verse to be read. Punctuation is used to guide the reader through the verse easily and without confusion, but it also provides fine shades of pause and emphasis that vary depending on which mark is employed.

Now you know the outer form of hokku, and you should be able to easily use it. The trick, however, is to learn how to put good and effective content into that form, and learning that comprises all the rest of hokku.



In recent review postings I discussed internal reflection in hokku — how similar things interact within a verse — and I discussed the technique of harmony of similarity. You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Today we will add to that another technique, harmony of contrast.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream — Yin — on a hot day — Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this hokku (I translate a bit loosely here):


A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a hokku using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:


Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a hokku by the woman Sogetsu-ni:


After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old hokku by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:


Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:


The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a hokku. You should always remember that a good hokku is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a hokku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a hokku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All hokku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter hokku in summer or fall hokku in spring. And we ordinarily also read hokku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer hokku in winter or spring hokku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.



In the previous posting I discussed the Hokku Wheel of the Year, the hokku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every hokku is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a hokku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of hokku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that by accepted convention indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with the natural simplicity of hokku.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language hokku, we take away the complexity and return to the simplicity favored in hokku, by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every hokku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the hokku. And if a group of such hokku are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning hokku today while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth;
In the day: dawn and morning;
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming.

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age;
In the day: mid-day, noon;
In plant life: maturing, fruiting.

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward;
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling.

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in hokku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this hokku by Bashō, which I give here in English-language hokku form:


On the withered branch
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:


Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling, and that feeling is not quite right. It lacks the harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in hokku as well as harmony of similarity. In the next posting I will discuss a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

By the way, if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characterics of Yin and Yang.



If you want to really understand hokku you will need to know its aesthetics, the principles upon which its practice is based. The chief underlying principle is that everything in the universe is connected. Humans are not separate, but are a part of Nature. That is why we can say that hokku is about Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

Nature implies the seasons and their changes. That is why learning the Hokku Wheel of the Year is a part of the basics of hokku aesthetics.

The Wheel of the Year is the “natural” calendar. Here is a simple image of the Hokku Wheel of the Year as found in English-language hokku. Some of you may have seen the similar Wheel used by modern “pagan” groups. If so, you will immediately note a significant difference. In the hokku Wheel of the Year, Midsummer’s Day is at the top, and the Winter Solstice is at the bottom. There is a very good reason for that, as you will see as we continue.

So here is the Hokku Wheel of the Year:

As you see, it has four main points, which beginning in the spring are:

1. The Spring Equinox (Vernal Equinox)
2. The Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day)
3. The Autumn Equinox (Autumnal Equinox)
4. The Winter Solstice (Yule)

Between these four main points come the “cross-quarter” days:

1. Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1, which begins the season of spring
2. May Day (Beltain/Bealtaine), May 1, which begins the season of summer
3. Lammas or Harvest Home (Lughnasa) August 1, which begins the season of autumn
4. Halloween (Samhain), October 31-November 1, which begins the season of winter

You will also note on the Hokku Wheel that in the spring, the Yang aspect of Nature is increasing. This increase really begins in midwinter, just after the Winter Solstice, but it begins to be noticeable near the time of Candlemas and after.

Yang increases until Midsummer’s Day, at which time it begins its decline, though its effects, like those of midwinter, are usually not noticed in Nature until about a month later.

As Yang declines in late summer, its opposite Yin gradually increases. So in autumn we have increasing Yin, and in spring we have decreasing Yin.


The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year. You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm. Yin is passive, Yang active. Yin recedes, Yang advances. Yin is wet, Yang is dry. Yin is still, Yang moving. Yin is silence, Yang is sound. Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin. At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite. Yang first begins to grow within it. So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite. Yin begins to grow within it. So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter. Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer. Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another. As Yang increases, Yin declines. When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines. This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year. We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

The traditional Taijitu, Yin and Yang symbol, ...

Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection. In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter:  

Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in the landscape and in landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:

Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.

To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.

Keep in mind that the Wheel of the Year shown here is based upon the practice of English-language hokku in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. Modifications are necessary for the Southern Hemisphere, and for regions that may not have four distinct seasons; some places, for example, may have only a rainy season and a dry season. Hokku develops out of its natural surroundings and climate, so we do not artificially fit Nature in one place to an incompatible calendar that expresses quite a different region.

Remember also that the Wheel of the Year presented here is, we could say, the “astronomical” calendar, with the four main points related to the position of the sun as it arcs across the sky. The seasons as they are perceived in the changes of the natural environment, however, arrive and depart at different times in different places. Winter will come earlier and spring later in more northerly climates and in the high mountains, while winter will arrive later and leave more quickly in more southerly regions and in the lowlands. So in addition to the Hokku Wheel of the Year calendar, we should also pay attention to the natural changes of the seasons in whatever region we may be living.

I mentioned the technique of internal reflection. In my next posting on this subject, I will discuss how internal reflection manifests in autumn or “fall” hokku.



Bashō wrote:

In the morning dew,
Muddied and cool —
The melons.

Just one look at that should tell readers that hokku is nothing at all like what we think of as “poetry” in the West, which is why I generally do not refer to hokku as “poems.”  To think of them as “poems” or “poetry” just confuses the reader unfamiliar with hokku.

This is a particularly stark example.  It just presents the reader with four elements — morning dew, mud, coolness, and melons, but those all combine to form one harmonious unity, one sensory impression.

R. H. Blyth used this verse (but in his own translation) as an example of verses that “baffle the commentator.”  He then says,

All he might say is legs to the snake, horns to the rabbit, for these lines bring us as close to the thing-in-itself as possible.”

What he means is that such a hokku is so very close to the primary sensory experience that anything added would take away from or distort it needlessly, like trying to add legs to a snake or put horns on a rabbit.

This verse is a primordial sensory experience, and it is the kind of verse that would come from the mind of child, from the early years when sensory experience is so important — the taste of a thing, its feel when touched, its sound, its visual appearance, its smell — before we grow older and begin adding our own mental elaboration and ornamentation to everything we see.  Or as we say in hokku, “Before thinking and commentary are added.”

The hardest thing, of course, is to be aware enough to note a subject like this, one that is so completely simple yet nonetheless has an inexpressible sense of significance to it.  Move away from that ever so slightly, and it is all lost.

If we were to analyze this verse structurally, it breaks down like this:

Setting: In the morning dew
Subject: The melons
Action: Muddied and cool

Now you may say that technically, “muddied and cool” are descriptive words, not literally “action.”  But remember that in hokku “action” is just a reminder word that hokku should have something moving or changing.

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t see anything moving or changing in this.”  Technically you would be right, but intuitionally we feel the change that early morning brings, with its cool dewdrops that turn the dust on the melons to mud.  And so that is our “action” in this verse.



Buson wrote a pleasant summer hokku:

An evening breeze;
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

R. H. Blyth made a very pertinent comment on this verse, a remark precisely in keeping the principles of modern hokku:

English: Adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia...

Buson’s intuitions are strong and clear and quick enough to avoid the colouring of his mind by emotion, or its distortion by intellection.”

Blyth is, of course, talking about just what we practice in modern hokku. We write our verses without any “coloring of the mind” — without using them as symbols or metaphors or allegories — presenting them in all their simplicity and purity. And we present them without “thinking” added, which Blyth here terms intellection. That means we do not use hokku to preach, or to advocate political or social change, nor do we use them to make some abstract point.

Of course there will be people who will say, “This is not poetry! It is just an event with nothing added!”

Precisely. That event with nothing added is the point. If you take pleasure in it without all the obvious frills of poetry, without the clever additions of a “poet,” then it is likely you have the kind of mind that appreciates hokku for what it is.

I always say we should not think of hokku as poetry, because if we do, we automatically haul in all the baggage one has grown up associating with poetry in the West. But hokku is nothing like the bulk of Western poetry. In hokku the poetry lies in the event itself, not in anything a poet may say about it.  That is why the writer of hokku must be quick in grasping only that essential event, before the mind begins to add all kinds of thoughts about it, before it begins to decorate it with mental ornaments.

It is always helpful to ask why a particular hokku is effective.  In this one, not only do we have the absence of the coloring of the imagination and the absence of “thinking,” we also have a very straightforward harmony of similarity.  It lies in the movement of the evening breeze combined with the movement of the water lapping against the heron’s legs.  That is all we need when these two elements are united by the heron, who stands in them both.



As a writer of hokku, Buson had his flaws.  He was sometimes too consciously literary, at others too obviously painterly (he was, after all, an artist).  That is why numbers of his verses fail to quite make it as good hokku.  Nonetheless, there are some that are very good and in keeping with the poverty and selflessness and simplicity and impermanence characteristic of hokku at its best.  Here is one:

The narrow path
Not quite buried;
Fallen leaves.

Where I am it would be very much up to date, because the leaves are falling heavily now in the cooling air.  In old Japan it would have been a winter verse, but according to the hokku calendar it is the beginning of winter now.  Autumn ended with Halloween.

Old hokku had a sometimes not very accurate distinction between verses about colored leaves, which were autumn verses, and those about fallen leaves, which were winter verses.  Here in the West we go by what is happening where we are.  So for us, both verses about colored leaves and fallen leaves may come under the autumn heading or the winter heading.  We are not so rigid as old hokku sometimes tended to become, and we pay close attention to what is actually happening in Nature in a given season.  That helps to keep us from falling into the artificiality that began to afflict old hokku over time.  It helps to keep our verse fresh and new.

This hokku, like many, requires a leap of intuition from the reader.  In good hokku such leaps are easy if one keeps in mind that there is always some relationship between the shorter and longer parts of a hokku (short and long are separated by the “cutting” punctuation).  In this verse we know that what is meant by the first part is that the narrow path is nearly but not yet entirely buried in fallen leaves; that is clear from the second part.  Some hokku require greater leaps of intuition, but if that leap becomes too great, a hokku fails.  Hokku should always be clear and quickly intuited.  For one schooled in the principles of hokku aesthetics, that is one mark distinguishing good hokku from bad.



Gyōdai wrote one of the simplest and best early winter hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

In such a verse there is no writer apparent to obstruct the reader’s experience of the falling leaves and the cold beating of the rain.  It really gives us a clear feeling of the season, a strong visual and auditory sensation, and that is characteristic of good hokku.

It reminds one a bit of the lines from A. E. Housman:

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.

There is, in both, a sense of ending and finality — in one the autumn ending, in the other a life ended.


English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.



Seibi has an interesting hokku that reminds one of Thoreau’s close observation of Nature:

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn willows.

This is another of those verses in which meaning requires knowing the principles of hokku.  We might think it is just about the morning sun seeming to be up early (“already”), or the writer’s having risen from bed a bit late, but that is not the case.  The important factor here is the stated season, autumn.  That tells someone educated in hokku that there is a significant relationship between the sunlight and the willow trees.

(Photo credit: markhig)

Put simply, the writer sees how quickly autumn is progressing.  The leaves of the willows have been falling for days, opening gaps between the branches through which — he suddenly notices — the morning sun shines.

That is the point of the verse — transience, impermanence, how everything in Nature (including us) is constantly changing.  Just a short time ago the willows were a mass of yellow leaves, but already so many have fallen that the morning sunlight penetrates the trees.

Here in the United States, we are more likely to think of other kinds of leafy trees in such a circumstance, but the verse would be effective even if we generalized it to

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn trees.

In that case, we would again use our “hokku sense” to recognize that these are hardwood trees losing their leaves, not evergreens — and again the tipoff would lie in the word “autumn.”



I often say here that Japanese hokku sometimes tends to a vagueness not found in English-language hokku.  Some verses can be so unclear as to leave their meaning perpetually in doubt.  Those are just bad hokku, in spite of the excuses made for them.

There are, however, hokku in which vagueness is present but not harmful.  Such a verse was written by Sōkyū:

The smoke I raise —
Other people’s 
Autumn evening.

Sōkyū does not tell us why he is doing something that raises smoke into the air.  As Blyth suggests, “The smoke may be that of burning fallen leaves, or the fire he makes for his own evening meal…”

The point is that everything is interrelated.  The smoke rising from the chimney of your neighbor’s cabin on the opposite hill becomes an integral part of your autumn evening when you see it or smell it.  The same with the smoke from your own stove or fireplace or pile of smouldering leaves — it becomes other people’s autumn.

Thoreau once finished an overwrought poem [his real poetry was his life, not his verse] with these words:

Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

Sōkyū was more straightforward, seeing no pardon as necessary for the smoke that was his neighbor’s autumn evening as well as his own.

There is a harmony in autumn between the season and smoke, because autumn is the season of gradual destruction — the falling of the leaves, the withering of the grasses.

We could also translate the first line of this verse as Blyth does:

“The smoke I make….”



Blue morning glory  (asagao) flowers, Gifu, Japan
(Photo credit: Joel Abroad)

Here is a timely repeat of an earlier posting:

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

First on the ears of millet –
The autumn wind.

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn. So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.  Morning glories are also associated with impermanence because the flowers bloom and die so quickly.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind; it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling. That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it. That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event. The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing. That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement. It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day. All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them. That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn. We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic. The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes. Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect. All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude. To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts? We know already, because the autumn wind tells us. They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory. For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry. We do not have to ask.

We know.




IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.



The windbell silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

This summer hokku by Yayū is somewhat unusual, first because it includes a clock.  We already know that “modern technology” is not a part of hokku, and if we allow ourselves to become very literalistic about that limitation, instead of understanding its spirit, we might think that Yayū made a mistake in including a clock.  But clocks are very old, and belong to a kind of simpler technology that preceded the Industrial Revolution and is still within the realm of things worked and molded and cast, like iron pots and door hinges, in spite of a clock being somewhat more complex.  So they are not entirely out of place in hokku, and as we shall see, Yayū included a clock for a specific reason.

Most hokku are about things that are present — rain, sunlight, a spider, the wind.  But it is an important characteristic of hokku that things NOT present are just as important.  Things not present are absent, so we may speak of two kinds of hokku:  hokku of presence and hokku of absence.

Yayū’s hokku is again unusual in that it is a hokku of both absence and presence.  When Yayū writes:

The windbell silent;

what he is really presenting to us is the absence of sound.  The windbell is not moving, not making its customary, pleasant sound.  That means there is no wind.  The absence of sound equals the absence of wind here.  So what this first line is actually telling us is that it is a hot, completely windless day in summer.  That is the “absence” part of the hokku.

wind bell
(Photo credit: koizumi)

Now for the presence:  In that absence of the sound of the windbell that would indicate a cooling breeze, there is instead another sound — the regular, dry, mechanical ticking of a clock.  But Yayū, just as he presented us with the absence of wind indirectly by making us notice the silence of the windbell, now presents us with something else through this ticking:

The heat
Of the clock.

Now of course rationally we may ask what is hot about a clock?  But then we should remember that in hokku, perception is what counts.  The world is not viewed as an accumulation of isolated objects and events.  Instead, everything relates to everything else.

We have already seen that demonstrated in the silence of the windbell, which means not simply silence but also the absence of wind.  Now we see another relationship in the ticking of the clock on a summer’s day.  That ticking — like the absence of wind — is not mentioned at all, yet just as we know the wind is absent because the windbell is silent, we also know the clock is ticking because of the heat.

When Yayu speaks of the heat of the clock, we hear the dry, mechanical, regular ticking, and in that metallic regularity, so unlike the randomness of a windbell moved by a breath of air, we feel the oppressive heat of the day, and we feel it magnified by the absent ringing of the windbell:

The heat
Of the clock.

It really is a remarkable hokku, and if one did not understand how hokku work (and most do not, until someone tells them), it would be very easy to overlook or dismiss such a verse.

When a hokku is read, it must be with the premise of the universe as many things all interrelated. So in this verse, the silence of the windbell and the absence of a breeze are one thing; the clock and that heat and the ticking are one thing; and when we have finished the verse, what is absent and what is present together become one experience, each element giving significance to the other.



The title page of On the Origin of Species, fi...
The title page of On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problem with religion — any religion — is not in whatever spirituality, if any, it might contain; the problem is dogma.

Look for the root of any religious controversy, or of religious controversy that has escalated into violence, and there you will find adherence to dogma — to rigid beliefs in this, rigid beliefs in that, believing this story or that, this bit of nonsense or that.

Leo Tolstoy, in his own wordy way, recognized this in the Russia of his time.  He could see that dogma separates, while what he called “love” unites.  The Russian Orthodox Church of his time did not agree, and has never forgiven him for pointing out that the Emperor (in the form of Church and State) had no clothes.

But if one takes dogma out of religion, what is left?  If there is no spirituality in it, nothing is left but outworn creeds and rites and rituals and old stories.  It has simply moved from the blind leading the blind to the bland leading the bland.

That is why there is such an increasing abandonment of traditional religion in Europe and in America.  But if there is spirituality in it, then once the weeds and briars of dogma are cut away, the light may shine in,  and that spirituality is allowed, at last, to grow and be a positive force both inside and outside the individual.  And if there is no genuine spirituality there, then when all the brush of dogma is removed, that absence will be revealed.

It all comes down to experience and practice in contrast to belief.  The Quakers — the Society of Friends — discovered this in the West, though at times even their practice was too overlaid with belief to adequately deliver on its promise.  But to the extent that Quakers dropped the baggage of belief, to that extent the light of spirituality — that which Quakers called the “Inward Light,” was allowed to shine.

When this happens — when “belief” is dropped and experiential practice is the important thing — then the boundaries of religion, of “us and them” — drop away as well.  That is when the fences between “religions” fall and spirituality unites.

The problem with religion, then, is dogmatic belief.  The cure for that problem is open and honest investigation — experiential spirituality.

If spirituality is the most important aspect of religion, then all the rest is not really necessary.  There is no need to insist on the perpetuation of outworn medieval dogmas that pretend to be moral or ethical when they are not, dogmas that keep females in the category of second-rate humans, dogmas that prevent those with same-gender attraction from having the same rights and freedoms as others, dogmas that insist on the unquestioned authority of a religious hierarchy or of a religious “holy book.”

In the final analysis, all “holy books” are written by humans, and humans are fallible.  To pretend that any such book is an infallible divine revelation that one may not question is to restrict the investigation of truth.

That failure to question and to educate is why even now, in the beginning of the 21st century, we have such abysmal ignorance among Americans that some 46% of them still hold belief in creationism over the reality of evolution.  Why?  Because creationism is promoted as a dogma by a number of religious groups who frown on placing the actual facts of scientific discovery above the completely factually-unsupported beliefs promoted by literalistic readings of this or that “sacred” book.

Fundamental to a free and progressive society is the ability to question and refuse religious authority, whether it is based on a “sacred” book or in a religious hierarchy.  There can be no restrictions placed on the right to publicly investigate and to publicly criticize any religion or belief, any dogma.  One cannot limit such investigation and public criticism (which includes satire) on the premise that it is “offensive” to a religion.  Truth is always going to be “offensive” to dogmatists, because it shows where they have gone astray and reveals them for what they are.  That is why it is so crucially important that freedom of speech in the examination and criticism of dogma continues to exist unhindered.

That means a truly intellectually free society has no “blasphemy” laws; it has no laws requiring one not to “offend” or satirize a particular religion or belief system.  Religion should never be segregated from the free marketplace of ideas as a “holy ground” upon which one may not tread in one’s investigations.

We recall the words of Alfred Tennyson, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  All religious belief should be subject to honest doubt, honest investigation, honest criticism.  That is why, paradoxically, an atheist may be a more spiritual person that the most rigid, unquestioning believer in dogma.  That is because the one is looking for truth, the other for a mere end to questioning.  And to find the truth, one must go beyond belief.


A pleasant spring hokku by Bashō:

Spring rain;
A roof leak trickles
Down the wasps’ nest. 

This reminds me of Blyth’s remark that to write hokku one should live in a house which either has a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.



Today’s hokku is a spring hokku by Taigi.  To get the meaning of it in English I will take some liberties, then explain the original:

Everything swept up
Is cherry blossom;
The evening temple. 

The original says “Dust/rubbish all cherry-blossom; temple’s evening.”  But if we say, as  Blyth does…

The temple evening;
The dust is all
Cherry blossoms.

…then that sounds odd to American ears, because we do not use “dust” to mean also “rubbish,” as the British do.  They have their “dustbin,” but we have our  “garbage can.”  Blyth, of course, is using “dust” here in the British sense, to mean [in this case] all the debris fallen to the ground – twigs, dead leaves, etc.  But when we say “dust” in America, we tend to think only of tiny particles of dry dirt, etc — that fall out of the air or that blow up from the earth.  That is why Blyth’s “dust” is not the best translation in American English.  But “rubbish” or “garbage” is too severe.  That is why in my version, I have used the overall meaning of the hokku rather than a literal translation of its words.

As for the hokku itself, in spite of being a spring hokku (the time of increasing yang), it has an overall feeling of yin — of age and decay.  The setting is the grounds of a temple at evening, and of course evening is a yin time of day.  Fallen cherry blossoms are also yin — they are dead, returning to the soil.  So in this hokku, paradoxically, we have both harmony of similarity (yin evening, yin blossoms) and harmony of contrast (spring, withered blossoms).

It is a hokku of impermanence.  Only a short while earlier people had flocked to the temple grounds to see the beauty of the blossoms.  Now they are just “yard debris” to be swept up and disposed of.  But nonetheless, we get the feeling that the fallen blossoms are a “richer dust” than the usual sweepings.

We could even translate the verse like this:

The temple evening;
All the sweepings
Are cherry blossom. 




English: Snow falling in the early evening

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

One familiar with conventional Western poetry is likely to ask, “What does it mean?”  That is a question inappropriate for hokku.  Archibald MacLeish once wrote in his Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) that a poem “should not mean but be.”  I doubt that MacLeish really understood that statement himself, but it applies to hokku, which does not mean, but only is, just as the darkening of day is, just as the falling snow is.

As I said in my previous posting, what is important in hokku is an experience; seeing the day darken, and with it seeing the snow once more beginning to fall.  That is all.  We need not look for anything we can put into words beyond that.

There is something in the verse, however, that is beyond words, and that is typical of hokku.  In good hokku we always have the feeling that there is a deeper significance, but we cannot — and should not try — to say what that significance is.  That feeling of an unexpressed significance is one of the characteristics of hokku.  It is somewhat like the persistent feeling one gets that there is something he or she is forgetting to do that is important, but one simply cannot remember what it is; the feeling is just there and will not go away.  Similarly, when we read this verse by Gyōdai, we sense a deeper significance that lies just beyond the ability of the intellect to express.  As in Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by T’ao Ch’ien,

In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail. 

In conventional poetry, words can express everything, if only one uses enough of them.  But hokku recognizes something that lies deeper than thought, deeper than intellection, something words cannot reach, and makes that an essential part of its unique approach to verse.



THE SOUND OF BRANCHES; the Simplicity of Hokku

There is a hokku by Buson, translated thus by R. H. Blyth:

Snow-break also
Can be heard,
This dark night.

I think many reading the verse without his explanation would fail to understand it, and that is always a problem.  A hokku should be able to stand on its own — to be effective — without a commentary.  If we modify it slightly, I think it will be more accessible:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

Now everyone should be able to get it — to experience it — without any added explanation.

But look how the revised version does what a hokku should do:  It is a manifestation of the season, winter.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  And it does it all very simply, presenting the experience only in sound (the branches breaking under the weight of the snow) and sight (the dark night), and of course the third element that we all feel without it even being mentioned, which is the deep cold of winter.

This is how hokku — the best hokku — differ from what we ordinarily think of as poetry.  Hokku is primarily an experience of the senses, not an intellectual experience.

Notice that the verse — as hokku should be — is divided into two parts, one long, one short.  And the two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  I often mention one type of hokku called the standard hokku, which consists of a setting, a subject and an action.  But keep in mind that these are not always strictly separated in a verse.

Let’s look at it again:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

The setting in a hokku is the wider environment in which something occurs.  Here the setting is “the dark night.”  The subject is “the sound of branches,” and the action is “breaking with snow.”  But note that the sound is not really separable from the action — “the sound of branches breaking with snow.”

Some people accustomed to Western poetry might find it difficult to understand how these three lines can be poetry too.  The answer is that the poetry of hokku is in the experience, not in the words, and if the reader experiences being in a dark night in which the sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow is heard, then that reader is experiencing the poetry of hokku, which is something quite different than the English-language poetry to which we are accustomed.

Hokku says only what is necessary, and stops before saying too much.  That is why it is so brief, and why two of its chief characteristics are poverty and simplicity.  By poverty we mean that it is reduced to its bare minimum of elements, just as a life of poverty reduces one to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.  When the elements are few, we have a greater appreciation for each one; its meaning, its significance, is magnified for us.

Simplicity means that a hokku uses few words and ordinary words, and does not try to impress the reader with verbal pyrotechnics.  Hokku should be as simple as a drink of warm tea from a stoneware mug.

Notice also the contrasts we feel in reading these few words.  We have the darkness of night and the mention of snow, which we know to be white; so there is an inherent contrast.  And we have the background of silence against which the breaking of branches is heard.  There is a sudden and loud crack out in the night, the sound of a branch falling with its load of snow, and then all returns to silence and darkness.

That is why this hokku is very effective, why it “works” as I always say.





English: Winter frost 2

Now is the Winter Solstice — Midwinter’s Day — the coming of Great Yule.

This is the time when the Yin energies of the universe — which seemed to our ancestors to overwhelm the earth with dark and cold — suddenly reach the darkest point.  Then  the days, having reached their shortest, come to an apparent standstill.  That is when, in the darkness a tiny, bright spark of Yang appears and slowly grows, gradually bringing back the light and warmth.

Lines from the Judy Collins song “The Fallow Way” illustrate well the feeling of Mindwinter’s Day:

I’ll learn to love the fallow way
When winter draws the valley down
And stills the rivers in their storm
And freezes all the little brooks
Time when our steps slow to the song
Of falling flakes and crackling flames
When silver stars are high and still
Deep in the velvet of the night sky

The crystal time the silence times
I’ll learn to love their quietness
While deep beneath the glistening snow
The black earth dreams of violets
I’ll learn to love the fallow way

I’ll learn to love the fallow way
When all my colors fade to white
And flying birds fold back their wings
Upon my anxious wonderings
The sun has slanted all her rays
Across the vast and harvest plains
My memories mingle in the dawn
I dream a joyful vagabonds

As sure as time, as sure as snow
As sure as moonlight, wind and stars
The fallow time will fall away
The sun will bring an April day
And I will yield to Summer’s way

“Fallow” was a word well known to earlier generations.  It meant to plow a field but not to plant it; to leave it in inactivity; to leave it fallow.  Winter is our natural time of inactivity.  The old hokku writers of Japan called their fallow time “winter seclusion” — the confinement we feel in body and spirit when the bitter cold of winter keeps us indoors.

Yaha wrote such a verse, very appropriate for this time when the nights cease their lengthening and the universe seems, for a moment, to stand still in cold and silence:

The lamp flame
Is round and unmoving;
Winter seclusion.

Glad Yule to everyone, and thanks for your continued reading of my site.



I hope that readers here have begun to realize from my postings that the hokku is quite different from the modern haiku.  In general, a modern haiku is just a verse of some kind written in three lines.  It might have something to do with Nature or it might not; it might have something to do with the seasons or it might not.  Hokku, however, are always about Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and each hokku expresses a particular season.


In modern haiku we are likely to find verses like:

July –
I woke up
with my headache gone

I actually saw a verse quite like that in a recent book purporting to teach people how to write.   A verse like that is just a statement with no real substance.  It has no depth, and none is added even by mention of the month.  That superficiality is unfortunately characteristic of most modern haiku.

Hokku, however, has the depth of Nature and the seasons if written correctly, the depth of time and change.  The student of hokku gradually learns to expect this and to recognize it, so that even a simple-looking verse, when approached from the hokku perspective, contains more than is on the surface.  For example, here is a slight variation on a Meiji period verse:

The iron windbell
Tinkling and tinkling;

To understand this verse as hokku rather than haiku, one must realize that the same thing can mean very different things in different seasons.  A windbell in the spring is not the same as a windbell in autumn.  Autumn is a time when the weather worsens, when rain and storms and winds increase.  So the repeated tinkling of the windbell is noticed by the writer precisely because it manifests the nature of autumn.  We feel the coming of something in the constant tinkling, and that something is the increasing decline of the year into coldness and darkness and rain.  We hear autumn in the tinkling of the windbell.

In addition, it is significant that the windbell is of iron.  We may picture it in our minds either as dark and black — a Yin color in keeping with the shortening of the days in autumn — or we may see it as brown and rusty, which also is in keeping with autumn — when things lose their color and decay and age.   Do not forget that one of the pleasures of hokku and one of the things that adds greatly to their feeling of significance is the way elements in a verse  “reflect” one another in this way.  That, again, is called “internal reflection,” and it is very important to hokku.

It should be obvious from these few remarks that one of the major differences between hokku and modern haiku is that hokku has an aesthetic framework in which a verse is to be understood and appreciated.  Modern haiku merely has a verse without such a background, which is why so many modern haiku lack a sense of depth and unspoken significance.  A hokku, then, requires a kind of “hokku mind” in the reader, one that recognizes the interrelationship of all things in Nature, one that sees how the elements of a verse work together to manifest the nature of a season.

Those in modern haiku are generally completely unfamiliar with these things, because modern haiku has lost its spiritual roots.  That is why if they notice the presence of internal reflection at all — which is very seldom — they do not know what it is or what it means, and completely misinterpret it in Western poetic terms as “metaphor,” failing to understand its nature and purpose.



A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

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


Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

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

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the “naturalness” and impermanence found throughout all Nature.

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

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

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

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

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

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

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

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

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

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural” and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

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”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.



As regular readers here know, I watch the site statistics.  Because of that, I have long been concerned that many people who do not have English as their first language are obviously trying to read this site, but with varying levels of success.  Many others, of course, cannot read English at all, so the Hokku site is a closed book to them.

I have always wanted to open this site — and the teachings of hokku — to as many people as I could, but it is neither possible or practical to post in every language.

Lately I have been exploring the possibilities of “inter-languages,” of created languages that act as a bridge between those with different native languages.  Interlanguages are “new” created languages, generally using a natural vocabulary but often simplifying the complexities of grammar commonly found in every natural language.

My first attempts have been:

1.  To find an interlanguage that would enable speakers of Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, etc.) to read my postings.  One interlanguage stood out right away, because it not only has a very simple grammar but also a very large, Latin-based vocabulary.   And further, it sounds very much like a natural language.  So for this purpose I have chosen Interlingua.  I am in the process of learning it, so what I post in Interlingua will no doubt be imperfect at first, with mistakes — but I hope it will nonetheless be understandable to speakers of Romance languages.

2.  My second search has been more difficult.  I have long wanted to communicate with the very large numbers of speakers of various Slavic languages, which, like the Romance languages, have the same origin but have developed differently over time.   I am still exploring this possibility.

It is rather amazing to me that in the 21st century, with instant world-wide communication, there is still no accepted world-wide interlanguage.  By default — partly due to economic and cultural reasons — English has filled that purpose to some extent.  But English is rather difficult and time-consuming to learn for speakers of some languages, so it is by no means understood everywhere and by all.

There was once an attempt to make an earlier constructed language — Esperanto — a functioning world interlanguage, but its usage has always been very limited, and lately it seems to have fallen even further out of use.  Its vocabulary — unlike those of Interlingua and the more practical attempts at a Slavic interlanguage — is too mixed for general immediate comprehension among any language group, so I see no significant advantage at present in using Esperanto for my purposes.

In looking at various interlanguages, my purpose is not to advocate for this or that “world language,” whether natural or created.  It would be great if everyone in the world could speak easily and directly to everyone else, but that is not the situation at present.  So it is left to each of us to communicate with speakers of other languages as best we can.  That is why it seems to me that the use of interlanguages here might be a good way to at least widen the range of communication.

Even if I am able to write — over time — in Interlingua and an inter-Slavic language, that will still limit my range to those speaking Romance and Slavic languages — in addition, of course, to those already able to read English.  That leaves a great many languages uncovered, and for that I am sorry; there seems no solution to that problem at present.  One does what one can.

I hope, at least, that by using Interlingua and possibly eventually an inter-Slavic language as well, I may at least make the principles and practice of hokku known to many more speakers of Romance languages as well as to many speakers of Slavic languages.  This is, of course, all an experiment, so we shall see how it goes.  It will all take time.

What the future will bring remains to be seen — whether English will become even more of a “world” language, or whether some other solution to the problem of inter-language communication will arise.



Aspen Forest


Il ha un hokku interessante del comenciamento de autumno:

Le autumno comencia;
Depost un banio,
Le lassitude. 

Iste nos monstra harmonia de similaritate.  In le autumno, le energias de Natura se cambia; le energia Yang (active) decresce, e le energia Yin (passive) cresce.

Proque in iste hokku le autor — Taigi — nos relate que le autumno comencia, e anque que depost del banio ille se senta lasse?  Iste es simple quando nos apprehende le principio del harmonia de similaritate.

in le autumno, le energias del Natura decresce; depost del banio, le energia del corpore de Taigi anque decresce — ita, harmonia de similaritate.

Quando nos apprehende tal cosas, nos pote e scribe e comprehende hokku.  Assi scriber hokku no es como scriber le haiku; le hokku require plus del scriptor, e anque plus del lector.

Si tu pote comprehende lo que io scribe in Interlingua, dice me lo, si il tu place.

 English Version

There is an interesting hokku about the beginning of autumn:

Autumn begins;
The feeling of weakness
After the bath.

This shows us harmony of similarity.  In autumn, the energies of Nature change.  The Yang (active) energy decreases, the Yin (passive) energy grows.

Why does the author of this hokku — Taigi — tell us that autumn is beginning, and also that after the bath he feels weak?  This is simple when we understand the principle of harmony of similarity.

In the autumn, the energy of Nature decreases.   After the bath, the energy of the body of Taigi also decreases.  Thus, harmony of similarity.

When we understand such things, we can write and understand hokku.  So to write hokku is not like writing the haiku; the hokku requires more of the writer, and also more of the reader.



In looking over past statistics for this site, I noticed that one of the most frequented postings was on writing “Chinese poetry” in English.  Of course what is meant by that is poetry written in English, but using the form of old Chinese Nature poetry as a framework on which a poem may be constructed.

Readers here will recall that I previously discussed Chinese poems of five and of seven characters, and how those structures may be transposed into English.

To write such poetry in English we must think in terms of “essential words,” by which is meant words essential to meaning.  If I write, “Tomorrow I shall go to the book shop to look for a book on poetry,” then the essential words in that are simply “Tomorrow I go to book shop look for poetry book.”  The latter sentence is not at all good English, but it is completely clear and understandable.  And that is the way we write “Chinese” poetry in English — we use such essential words as a structure.

So the first thing one must know to write a “Chinese” poem in English is that it uses a framework of essential words, usually either five per line or seven per line.

The second thing one must know is that Chinese poems are written in couplets, meaning in pairs of lines.  So a finished verse will have an even number of lines, not an odd number  A poem is constructed by using a given number of essential words for each line in the couplet, and one adds further couplets until the desired number of verses is achieved.  It is just that simple.

It will not work precisely, but as an example we may use an old verse translated by Arthur Waley.  Then we can “reverse-engineer” that line to see how it fits into this way of writing verse.

Here is the poem — by Tao Qian — the “Q” being pronounced like “ch,” only farther forward in the mouth than in English:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

There are four more lines, but I shall leave them off because they are a bit too culture-limited, and these are enough for my purpose.

Let’s look at the poem, turning it into essential words:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

If we now extract the “essential” words in bold type, we get the essence of the poem:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Southern orchard all leaves gone:
North garden rotting boughs heaped.
Empty cup drink to dregs:
Look kitchen no smoke rises.
Poems books piled beside chair:
Light going not time read.

There you have it.  We have stripped to poem down to its basic elements, and this gives us a structure to use in writing the poem in “normal” English.  In doing this, we must be neither too literalistic nor too rigid.  There are many words in English that are synonyms, so we need not use precisely the words used in our “framework” version, and of course we need to add those words essential to good, standard English, meaning words like “the,” “a,” “an,” as well as the correct grammatical forms.

If that sounds a bit difficult, it is not.  It simply means to use the essential words as the structure of the poem, like the wirework upon which a sculptor molds the clay that forms the visible statue.  So taking our sample structure — the translation by Waley reduced to its essentials — we can now write the poem anew, like this.  I shall put the structure words in light italics, and my rewriting in bold type:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cold and harsh the year nears its end;

Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Dressed in cotton I seek the sunlit porch.

Southern orchard all leaves gone:
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;

North garden rotting boughs heaped.
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.

Empty cup drink to dregs:
I empty my cup drinking to the dregs.

Look kitchen no smoke rises.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.

Poems books piled beside chair:
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;

Light going not time read.
The light is going, no time to read.

Let’s see what we have at this point:

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Dressed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.
I empty the cup, drinking to the dregs.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;
The light is going, no time to read.

That will do, but there is yet another step that we should take — minimally one, but possibily more.  We want the poem to comfortably “settle into” normal English, and that means again that we must avoid rigidity in moving from the framework to the finished poem.  So here is the poem taken just one step farther.

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Clothed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
South, the orchard trees are bare —
North, the garden heaped with rotting boughs.
I drink my cup down to the dregs
And look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair
But the light is fading — no time left.

As long as we have the basic elements of a poem, we have something to work on, and that is what this technique does — it gives us a structure.  If you use it to write new poems, it will of course seem silly to call them “Chinese” poems because they will be written in English — but we are using the Chinese poetry technique to give us the structure that enables us to write such poems easily.

One may easily see that the last stage of the poem given here could not only be worked further if desired, but it could also be used as a jumping-off point for writing quite different lines.  And of course the fundamental notion behind all this is that one can use the five or seven “essential words” structure in composing completely new Nature poems.  Try it, and you may be surprised how easily you can now write poetry — if you have an inherent poetic sense.



Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.



In our practice of hokku, we must beware of using the entire body of existing old hokku and its related literature as a fundamentalist uses the Bible.  By this I mean that we should not say, for example, “Jōsō did this in that particular hokku, therefore we should do it in modern hokku” or “Bashō used what looks like metaphor in this verse, therefore we should use metaphor in writing hokku today.”  That is a very distorted way of understanding our practice of hokku.

Instead, we begin with what we want to achieve in hokku:  We want to write verses that emphasize sensory experience — experiences of seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling — having as our subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, and that set in the context of the changing seasons.

Further, we want to write verse exhibiting poverty, simplicity, and transience — verses that show us not only freshness and youth but also time and age.

And we also want “selfless” verses, a de-emphasis on the ego, treating the person — even the person of the writer — with the same objectivity with which we would write of a tree on a rocky hillside or a bird in the forest.  We want our verse to have an inexpressible significance that is felt through what it does present, but never overtly stated — because such significance is impossible to put into words.

In the practical matter of putting the words on the page, we already have the hokku form, which works superbly well, with punctuation used to guide the reader smoothly and to provide fine shades of pause and emphasis.

We want our hokku, further, to be free of intellection and abstraction, free of added commentary and explanation, free of unnecessary “poetic” frills and ornamentation.

If all of this is how we want to write hokku (and as taught on this site, it is), then we really need waste no time on the academic side of it all.  We need not learn Japanese; we need not learn Japanese history; we need not learn Japanese culture.  Above all, we need not search through old hokku literature, as the fundamentalist searches the scriptures, to see just what Bashō said about this or that, or whether this or that author wrote hokku from the imagination rather than from reality.  In fact we need no reference to old hokku at all beyond the simple fact that I like to use the best of old hokku, translated into English, as models when teaching how to write good hokku in English.

I do not and have never pretended that hokku as I teach it incorporates absolutely everything ever employed in the old Japanese literary practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse, of which the hokku was the first and starting verse.  Instead I teach what in my view is the distilled essence, the best, aesthetically, of the old hokku, as it applies to a spiritual and contemplative lifestyle.  Keep in mind that even in speaking of Bashō, only a small percentage of his verses are really worthwhile for us today.

In the past I have sometimes, perhaps, spent too much time on historical examination of the old practice of haikai, something that is entirely unnecessary for what I teach.  Such things are a matter for scholars and may be of interest to some, but they really need play no part in the living practice of hokku today, and in fact for the most part we are better off when just working on our practice of hokku, rather than dispersing our energies in historical and literary research.

All of this, you can probably tell, is leading up to something.  That something is simply a shift in approach on this blog.  From this point onward, I want to emphasize the practical approach to hokku, leaving most of the linguistic and historical aspects for those who want to spend the time on them.  Given the general goals in writing hokku mentioned earlier, there is really no reason at all for dwelling here on the history of hokku or all the minutiae of hokku as practiced more than a hundred years ago when it was part of the wider practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse.

That change in emphasis here means that I hope to be spending more time on the aesthetics of hokku specifically as we practice it here, and though I will no doubt continue to use old examples as models and bits of old literature to illustrate aesthetics, I really want to get away completely from anything that looks even remotely like the “proof-texting” attitude toward hokku.

As I said in a previous recent posting, we need not look to any aspect of old haikai practice to validate our practice of hokku today.  Our practice has its own body of aesthetics and principles and techniques, the essence of the best, as I have said, of the old hokku.  So from now on I would like to focus on that.

In practical terms, that means I am likely to lessen or omit entirely the use of transliteration and literal translation of Japanese hokku here, concentrating more on what the old hokku examples mean (or should mean) in English as models for our new verses.  I hope that will serve to make this site less “academic-appearing” and more practical and direct in serving those who want to understand how to write good hokku today.

I will continue, no doubt, to range rather widely in my subject matter, throwing in a non-hokku poem now and then when the mood strikes me, or a commentary on matters not obviously directly relating to hokku.  And I would like to spend some time discussing the “Chinese” influence on our hokku — specifically the effect of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, and Chinese Nature poetry.  But fear not, I will do this in a practical rather than academic manner — for example, I want to show how to write “Chinese-style” Nature verses in English, and how doing so differs somewhat, yet is nonetheless similar to, hokku.

I hope all of this will not be too disappointing for the Japanophiles and for those who like digging about in the literary and cultural history of hokku in Japan.  But modern hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, as I have said before, should not be a cultural outpost of Japan.  It should be a plant native to the soil in which it grows — Russian hokku in Russia, Welsh hokku in Wales, Brazilian hokku in Brazil, an expression of the environment and language in which it is written.

One more point.  I have said that from now on I want to emphasize hokku as we practice it here.   To do so, we need to distinguish that from everything else that may fall under the category of hokku, the good and the bad, the usable and the impractical.  So I am going to give hokku as taught here a distinguishing name — I will refer to hokku as I teach it as “Yin-Yang” hokku, because as frequent readers here know, I often use the universal elements of Yin and Yang to explain hokku, how it utilizes the changing combinations of those opposite yet complementary forces in Nature in creating verses that are harmonious and unified.  I think that distinguishing our practice of hokku here thus will prove helpful and practical in a number of ways.

One more point.  In the use of old models in the future, I will make no practical distinction between good examples that are chronologically correctly termed hokku and later examples — specifically the better verses of Shiki — that are not.  A good part of what Shiki wrote was, in all but name, hokku.  So I will use whatever serves to illustrate and improve our practice of hokku, regardless of chronology.



What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.



The practice of hokku is a lifelong process of learning.  This is true whether one is a student or teacher, because even the teacher is also a lifelong student.

Today I got a valuable insight into one reason why some people misunderstand and reject the notion of a connection between hokku and “Zen,” something I usually just call the inherent connection between hokku and spirituality.

This particular category of misperception lies in thinking that the writers of old hokku consciously intended to transmit an experience of “enlightenment” —  that their intention was to pass such a “Zen” experience on to the reader, much as a student of traditional Zen is given a koan — a paradoxical word problem — by a Zen teacher in order to lead the student to enlightenment.

The truth is that such a conscious intent was unlikely to have been held by the writers of old hokku.  And the fact is that hokku does not transmit the same level or quality of enlightenment that one achieves through Buddhist practice.

What one does find in hokku is a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, a “little enlightenment” that is both momentary and transitory, a temporary removal of the boundary between self and other.  And the fact is that in the greater number of cases, this transmission of the “little enlightenment” experience happened not because of any conscious intent on the part of the writer of hokku, but rather because that writer worked from a culture that provided him (or her) with the unconscious “paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism,” as R. H. Blyth rightly puts it.  Because hokku and the other contemplative arts were steeped in this unconscious aesthetic like fishes in water, it happened that the hokku — which manifested this aesthetic in a condensed and concentrated form — was and still is remarkably capable of permitting and transmitting this “little enlightenment.”

We cannot assume it was the conscious intent of the writer.  Not all writers of old hokku had a direct connection with the Zen sect, but all had this unconscious cultural background, just as Americans have a shared cultural background that is also largely unconscious but quite perceptible to people of other nations as something distinctively American.

But that was old hokku.  It is no longer true of Japanese culture as a whole, and of course this spiritual approach to verse is something quite unfamiliar to most in the West.  That is why in talking about the intimate relationship between spirituality and hokku, we must now speak of it quite openly and plainly when teaching hokku today — which was something generally not done or necessary in the old days of hokku — otherwise the crucial part of the hokku aesthetic — which is precisely this spiritual background — will be missing, and without it, it is impossible to understand or read or write hokku with any degree of perception.



A hokku appropriate to late autumn, by the woman Sono-jo:

A dog barking
At the sound of the leaves;
The windstorm.

It is an odd fact in hokku that the simplest are often the best, and this is a very good hokku because it has very strong sensation.  By sensation we mean that it affects the senses strongly.  In this we hear the dog’s frantic barking and the sound of the blowing leaves, and we hear the wind and we feel its force.  Everything in this verse is in motion, and that is very much in keeping with the strength of the windstorm.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, by which we mean it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting:  The windstorm
Subject:  A dog
Action: Barking at the sound of the leaves

In the original, the verse looks like this:

Ha no oto ni     inu hoe-kakaru     arashi kana
Leaves ‘ sound at   dog barking      gale      kana

The kana at the end is merely a word used sometimes for emphasis, but far more often in hokku merely to fill out the required number of phonetic units in Japanese, in this case the usual seventeen.

More important is the fact that by reading and pondering such verses and their structure, one will quickly learn how to write hokku in English and other languages today, but of course one must also understand the underlying aesthetics to avoid going astray.

I repeat again and again that the real subject of a hokku is the season in which it is written, that each hokku should express that season through something happening in it that shows the character of the season.  This verse of Sono-jo does that superbly.

By the way, I am tending to alternate between late autumn hokku and winter hokku in these few days before the beginning of December, because some readers live where it is already winter, others where autumn still lingers.  I am speaking of the Northern Hemisphere.  Readers in the Southern Hemisphere will be in quite another season!



The almost frantic desire of contemporary society to drop whatever is perceived as no longer fashionable in favor of whatever is new should hold no attraction for writers of hokku.  Such chronic dissatisfaction as just another manifestation of the illusion that abandoning what one has for what one does not have will make one happy.  And of course change for the sake of change is the very basis of our modern sick and wasteful consumer society, and a major cause of the rape of the natural environment and ultimately of climate change.

The book Blowing Zen (H. J. Kramer Inc., Tiburon, 2000), was written by a man who learned to play the shakuhachi in Japan — Ray Brooks.  A shakuhachi is a kind of bamboo flute.  At one point, being a novice student, he was playing shakuhachi outside in winter when an elderly Japanese woman passing by heard him practicing a piece called Haru no Umi — “The Spring Sea.”  Finally it was too much for her, and she stopped to correct him, saying “Dame! — Dame!” meaning “No good!  No good!”

She was not criticizing his playing, but rather the fact that he was playing the melody out of season.  That old lady had the perspective of hokku, which pays attention to such things and considers them important.

As I have said before, the aesthetics of all the contemplative arts are essentially the same, so it is not surprising that the old woman perceived the inappropriateness of a spring melody being played in winter.  It is like seeing a Christmas wreath on the Fourth of July — out of place, out of harmony with the season.

Modern haiku long ago abandoned this aesthetic, but in hokku I like to value and observe it, finding no reason to change simply for the sake of keeping up with the fashions of the moment in literature.  Not long ago, realistic painting was out of style and “old-fashioned.”  Now it is again very popular.  Things come into fashion and go out of style, but the essential aesthetics of the best hokku transcend fashion, being rooted in the spiritual aesthetic that gave birth to the contemplative arts.

Change is a part of the universe.  But the craze for the new simply because it is new is a sign of immaturity and instability.  The constant desire for something new and different that pervades modern culture is simply the symptom of a society that constantly tries to replace one distraction with another, but finds — like a drug addict — that the pleasure decreases with each experience.

In spite of its appreciation for the old, hokku is always open to what is new and fresh, because its subject matter is always in keeping with the present season, whatever that season may be.  Hokku excludes neither age nor youth, but sees both in relation to the constant change characteristic of existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden,


That is something  society in general has yet to learn, but it is very true.  Writing hokku is not about constantly being in fashion and up-to-date by the standards of others; instead it is about a fundamental transformation in the mind that allows us to perceive the world and our place in it — as a part of it — as constantly changing, yet ever fresh and new.




Gyōdai wrote:

Aki no yama   tokorodokoro ni   kemuri tatsu
Autumn’s mountains   here-there at   smoke rises

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

It is a pleasant verse, and reminds one of Appalachia, of seeing smoke from cabins rising here and there among the gold and red leaves of autumn covering the hills.

But it is a verse of early to mid autumn, and now we are entering deep autumn, a more severe and chilly time that leads us directly on to winter.

There is a hokku by Shōhaku that can be understood as early or as late autumn, depending on whether we translate it by the old lunar calendar or by the newer calendar.  Under the new calendar it is:

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

Read thus, it expresses the beginning of the pulling away from the activities of life that we find in autumn as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, as Nature begins to wither.  One thinks of a hermit life amid the coloring and falling leaves.

The first line is literally “tenth month.”  It is like the old Quaker calendar, in which the months were numbered rather than named, but even more literally it is the “tenth moon.”

But what does “tenth month” mean?  Actually, two different things, depending on whether we read Shōhaku’s verse according to the modern calendar adopted in Japan during the Meiji period, or by the old lunar calendar of Shōhaku’s day.

We have seen that by the new calendar the “tenth month” is October.  But by the old calendar it is November.  So that gives us two different feelings expressed in the same verse, depending on which calendar we choose.

By the old calendar it becomes

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

This gives the verse a darker feel.  The leaves have already been swept from the trees by the rains and cold winds.  The gold and crimson colors are gone, giving way to bare branches and dim, grey skies.  Here the verse expresses the inhospitableness of the weather through the actions — or rather the lack of actions — of the writer.  He visits no one, no one visits him.  But it also expresses a kind of late autumn of the soul, an isolation and apartness that those growing older notice as they see they are no longer of interest to young people, and those their own age either have their own affairs to deal with with or have left this world.

All too often, it is the story of the elderly in America.  I remember  a Korean fellow I met in college.  He was staying in a cheap, rundown apartment building in which numbers of old people also lived, because it was all they could afford.  Watching their poor lives from day to day, seeing their isolation and how they were treated, he remarked to me, “America is Hell for old people.”  I have never forgotten that “outside” perspective on how this country treats its elderly.

But getting back to hokku, this growing isolation of individuals in the late autumn makes “things to the contrary” matters of significance.  That is why Buson could write

A person came
To visit a person;
The autumn evening.

It is quite a bland verse until one reads it in the context of the season as explained above.  There is a significance to making a visit in autumn, a significance to receiving a visit, and this significance too is expressive of the season.

By the way, I rather consistently translate the common line aki no kure, found in large numbers of hokku, as “The autumn evening.”  Technically it could also be translated as “Autumn’s end,” and that should be kept in mind not for linguistic reasons, but because it gives us a very good line for many hokku of the deepest part of autumn that is just about to become winter.

So for those of you interested in technicalities, the line can be understood either as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   evening

or as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   end

Shiki wrote this simple verse, which is a bit too interpretive for good hokku.  It is both true and not true:

I am leaving,
You are staying;
Two autumns.

Yuku ware ni    todomaru nare ni    aki futatsu
Go     I  at           remain      you   at    autumns two

One could loosely paraphrase it as:

With me going
And you staying,
There will be two autumns.

Shiki  is seeing the situation from a dualistic point of view:  When I am gone, we shall each experience our separate autumns.  But there is also the unitary point of view, in which you and I are both autumn, along with each reddening and falling leaf.  That is the wider perspective.

One must always keep in mind that when we are talking about weather and what is happening in Nature, a lot depends on where one is.  A month that is golden autumn for some is already icy winter for others.




In the previous posting I mentioned that many of Shiki’s “haiku” would still be classifiable as hokku, though they often tend to be illustrations.  But even among his illustrations some are better, some worse.

Here is one of his verses:

An isolated house;
The moon declining
Above the grasses.

Do you see why I say that such hokku are illustrations, like the block prints made by Hasui and Yoshida in the first half of the 20th century?

Now there is nothing wrong with illustration.  There is not even anything wrong with writing illustration-like hokku now and then.  But one should not make a principle of it.

A grade-school teacher could say, “Now for autumn, I want you to draw a house all by itself, with the moon declining over the grasses,” and it would make a good seasonal illustration.  Remember that Shiki did not abandon the connection of hokku with Nature and the seasons, though he did strain the connections occasionally.

People first learning hokku find it hard to make such distinctions between verses that are illustrations and verses with more depth.  But a good way to begin learning is by comparing the verse of Shiki with this hokku by Ryuho:

Scooping up
And spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

The writer stands before an old washbasin on an autumn night.  Lifting the water in both hands, he sees the moon in it — and then he spills the moon back into the basin.  Seen in comparison, Shiki’s verse is perceived to be rather flat and two-dimensional, and that was one of the flaws of his new aesthetic.  Remember that the best hokku show us ordinary things, but seen in a new way.

But of course even Shiki did not always follow his own ideals, and the old aesthetic was not completely lost in him, in spite of himself.  If haiku had stayed where Shiki placed it, it would have possibly remained just a variant of hokku.  However, it changed even more — so much that most haiku writers today have little in common with either hokku or with Shiki’s once-new “haiku.”




In previous postings I have written that the “haiku” did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

It is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I have said all that before.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.   He did precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence, eliminating its connection with linked verse.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Do not misunderstand this and think that Shiki created a new verse form appearing independent of linked verse for the first time.  Independent hokku were nothing even  remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai tradition, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai linked verse sequence,  or independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

So that is what Shiki did.  He made it theoretically impossible for what he called the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence, and he decided to call it something other than what its name had been for centuries.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that they are really just hokku in form and content — hokku that he decided to call “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

We can say, then, that what Shiki did was, in essence, to  initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

When compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” often seem shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply looks puzzled or says there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say?  Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku and in Japanese culture in general.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist, Confucianist, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the seeming shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they sometimes tend to be merely two-dimensional, lacking the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — often somewhat shallow and illustrative hokku perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today, particularly in the West.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community tends often to bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact, as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then irritation.   But gradually more and people more in the modern haiku community have come to recognize and admit that what they write has little or no connection to the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō beyond brevity.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku, or even the conservative haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition,then they can begin to see things realistically, and can then begin to learn what hokku really is as opposed to the misunderstands so prevalent in the 20th century.

In general the modern haiku tradition has lost the obligatory old hokku connection with Nature, with the seasons, and with the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku.  Modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably shape-shifting and  fluid boundaries.   I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some genuine relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some are influenced by less-radical 20th-century Japanese haiku, having aesthetics are not quite those of the old hokku, but are very like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from, the old hokku as is modern haiku in general.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is that in order to learn to write hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, one must distinguish it from modern haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.



Readers of the previous posting about Zen and hokku, on reading my emphasis on some kind of meditative spiritual practice, may justifiably think, “Well, hokku may have an historical connection with Zen aesthetics, but why does this fellow recommend some kind of spiritual practice for those who want to write hokku when no one else — not even Bashō — suggested that to those wanting to learn it?”

There are two reasons:

First, old hokku was written in a culture that had absorbed the aesthetics inherited from Daoism and Buddhism to such an extent that it was understood without the need for words.  Westerners for the most part lack this “unconscious” foundation for hokku, and because of this it must be developed in some other way, and no way is quite as good as returning to the source, which is meditative spiritual practice.

Second, Westerners (and now most Easterners as well) live in today’s very materialistic, superficially rational culture, and desperately need a counterbalance to that in order to understand the spiritual principles underlying hokku.  A meditative spiritual practice can help.

We should never forget the anecdote told of Bashō — that he became so obsessed with hokku within the practice of haikai that he neglected spiritual practice, and when the time of his death neared, he greatly regretted that his obsession had kept him from spending more time on spiritual training.  We should never let hokku have that effect on us.  Spiritual training should be the priority, and hokku only secondary.  As I always say, it is more important to live hokku than to write it.  But of course to write it with great depth of understanding, one has to first live it.



In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.



Only a single day remains before August ends and September begins.  The Summer months — June, July and August — give way to the Autumn months — September, October and November.

Through hokku we are taken away from the excessive obsession with the self and with the thinking mind that characterizes modern society, and returned to our rightful place within Nature, as a part of it, and to the primal experience of the senses rather than our secondary “thinking,” the intellection that we avoid in hokku.

Hokku is thus a way of both recognizing our vital connection to Nature, and of taking us out of busy intellection and into tranquil perception.

There are many old “natural” names for September, names that express what is happening in Nature.  For example, among the Ojibwe people, September is:

Waatebagaa-giizis — the Month of Leaves Changing Color;

Maandamini-giizis — the Month of Corn;

Moozo-giizis — Moose Month.

The word “giizis,” found in each of these, means “moon,” just as in English our “month” is derived from an old word for moon.

Seen in the perspective of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, September is growing yin — an aging and quietening of the vital forces after the maturity of late summer, their gradual decline into the extreme yin of winter.  In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening; in human life it corresponds to the time beginning in late middle age and before the elderly years — the time of greying hair, weakening body, and lessening energy.

I mention these things not for any exotic reason, but because an important part of hokku is their layers of associations, the things they evoke in us.  Keeping this in mind helps us to know what is in harmony with the season, something which eventually becomes second nature as one absorbs the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Do not think that his connection of the Fall with time of day and stage of human life is anything “Eastern.”  Carl Jung, who was Swiss, wrote that this is not simply sentimental jargon, but rather that through it we “give expression to psychological truths, and even more to physiological facts”:

“Our life is like the course of the sun.  In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon.  Then comes the enantiodromia: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase but a decrease, in strength.  Thus our task in handling a young person is different from the task of handling an older person.” (From The Stages of Life, 1930)

And in the same way, our task in writing Autumn hokku is far different from that of writing Spring hokku.

Now that we are entering Autumn, I want to take a few moments to talk about this site.  It is not like any other.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still the only Internet site actively teaching hokku, a continuation of the old verse form practiced from the 17th century to its unfortunate decline near the beginning of the 20th century.  However hokku as taught here is adapted to the English language, while still retaining the important essentials of the old hokku.

That means this is a teaching and learning site, and though sometimes I may seem to talk about things a long way removed from hokku, nonetheless there is some relationship.  I do this because hokku is not just a little verse in three short lines that anyone can write with no preparation.

Hokku is a whole way of looking at the world and at one’s place as a part of it, and a way of living.  It is not, like other kinds of brief verse, subject to radical change at the whims of those writing it.  It has very specific principles and standards, and learning those takes time.  That is why the aesthetics of hokku are so important, and must be understood before one can make any genuine progress.

Hokku as I teach it is a contemplative, spiritual form of verse.  It is also a very selfless form  that helps to take the focus off the ego.  And learning it requires both patience and humility.

Many people who read my site are involved in other forms of brief verse, and they come here to get ideas to apply to their own verse forms.  There is nothing wrong with that, if it helps to make their verses closer to Nature and more hokku-like.  But it is important NOT to confuse hokku with any other kind of brief verse, which is why I use its distinctive and historically-correct name, and no other.

It is also vitally important to know that to obtain the full virtues of hokku, and not just some watered-down or distorted simulacrum, the only way is both to correctly learn hokku and to practice it over a long period of time.  Otherwise one knows really nothing about it.  It must be understood to be practiced correctly, and it must be practiced correctly to be understood.  I offer the instruction here — completely without charge — enabling one to do both. So though many who practice other forms of verse come here to read and borrow and to adapt ideas that I present on this site to those other verse forms, those who sincerely want to correctly  learn hokku from me should be very careful not to mix what they learn here with ideas or practices from any other kind of brief verse.  Otherwise the result will not be hokku.

One can see from all this that hokku is the most challenging of all brief verse forms, demanding more of the writer and of the reader.  Yet that does not mean there is anything complicated about it.  Hokku is very simple and straightforward.  It just means that it is often very difficult for people — particularly in our hectic and materialistic times — to learn to be simple.

All that is needed to learn hokku is a sincere effort to absorb its techniques, principles, and aesthetics, as well as patience and the willingness to put it into practice.  That makes it as easy and gradual as getting from one place to another by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.

All of this is just a preface to what we shall be doing here from the first days of of September onward.  We shall be learning hokku from the very beginning, and in a very traditional way.

Though hokku originated in Japan centuries ago, to learn hokku you need know nothing at all about Japanese history or culture or language.  Hokku is not some kind of cultural outpost of Japan, planting its flags in the various countries of the world.  Instead hokku — if it is to be at all valid — must reflect the language and the place where it is written. Thus hokku written in English is no longer a Japanese or “Asian” form of verse.  It becomes instead thoroughly American hokku, British hokku, Irish hokku, New Zealand hokku, Australian hokku, Liberian hokku,  and so on.

I live in the Northwestern United States.  But what I teach can easily be applied to any part of the English-speaking world, or indeed to any part of the world and any language, with but slight modification.  Hokku should not be an imported hothouse plant, carefully kept alive in an alien environment.  Instead it should be a native plant, growing out of native soil.  So those who want to write hokku in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French or German or Welsh or Russian or any other language will find all that they need on this site, requiring only insignificant modifications to fit the differences of language.

In teaching hokku, I use the best examples from old, pre-20th century hokku, but translated into modern English-language hokku form.  Sometimes I will modify these examples to fit a different cultural environment, but I will tell you when that happens.  Sometimes I will use verses of my own, but predominantly what I teach is derived from old hokku.

I teach using old examples in order to maintain a continuity with the old hokku tradition and to transmit high standards.  Though what we write in English is not precisely the old hokku in language and syntax and writing system, it preserves the important essentials of the old hokku — all that is necessary to make it hokku and not modern haiku or any other kind of brief verse form.  Obviously, that does not mean hokku as we practice it in English is identical to old Japanese hokku.  The cultural baggage is eliminated, but the essence — that which gives it the hokku spirit — is kept as essential.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person teaching this way — working direct from the best examples of the old hokku tradition used as models.  It thus gives students a unique opportunity to continue a tradition whose aesthetic roots go back for many centuries — a tradition that was nearly obliterated and forgotten through misunderstandings that became common in the West in the mid-20th century.

So inevitably, there are certain practices in the old hokku tradition that I do not continue.  I do not, for example, encourage the heavy use of literary allusion.  Nor do I encourage students to write entirely from the imagination.  Though both of these things existed in the old hokku, they are practices that take us farther from direct experience of Nature, and what we want in hokku as I teach it is to be as close to Nature as possible.

That is why I often liken the writer to a mirror reflecting Nature.  The thinking and busyness and focus on the self of modern life is like dust.  When that dust is wiped away, the mirror can reflect Nature just as a pond reflects the full moon.

I would remind readers that they are free to ask hokku-related questions — questions about the techniques and the principles and aesthetics of hokku — and I am always willing to help with problems that arise in writing.



Sometimes on this site I will seem to go far afield, but generally there is a thread leading in some way back to hokku or the spirit of hokku.

Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote in Swiss-German, has a very remarkable poem:


S’isch wor, Her Jäck, i ha kei eigene Baum,
i ha kei Huus, i ha kei Schof im Stal,
kei Pflueg im Feld, kei Immestand im Hoff,
kei Chatz, kei Hüenli, mengmol au kei Geld.
“S macht nüt.  ‘S isch doch im ganze Dorf kei Buur
so rich as ich.  Der wüsset wie me’s macht.
Me meint, me heigs.  So meini au, i heigs
im süesse Wahn, und wo ne Bäumli blüeiht,
‘s isch mi, und wo ne Feld voll Ähri schwankt,
‘s isch au mi; wo ne Säuli Eichle frisst,
es frisst sie us mim Wald.

So bin i rich. Doch richer bin i no
im Heuer, in der Erndt, im frohe Herbst.
I sag:  Jez chömmer Lüt, wer will und mag,
und heuet, schnidet, hauet Trübli ab!
I ha mi Freud an allem gha, mi Herze
an alle Düften, aller Schöni g’labt.
Was übrig isch, isch euer.  Tragets heim…


It’s true, Mr. Jäck, I have no tree of my own,
I have no house, I have no sheep in the stall,
No plow in the field, no beehive in the yard ,
No cat, no dog, often also no money.
It doesn’t matter.  For there is in the whole village no farmer
As rich as I.   You know how it is done?
think I have it — I think too that I have it
In sweet foolishness, and where a tree blooms
It is mine, and where a field of grain waves
It is also mine — and where a pig eats acorns
It eats them in my woods.

So I am rich; but even richer
In Haying, in the Harvest, in happy Autumn.
I say, “Now come, people, who will and may,
And mow, and reap, and cut the grapes.
I have had my joy in all of it —
Have refreshed my heart
With all the scents and all the beauty.
What remains is yours — carry it home!

This Swiss farmer’s “sweet foolishness” is well on the way to the wisdom that results from William Blake’s counsel:

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

Hebel’s poem is very much in keeping with the old hokku by Kikaku:

A beggar;
He wears Heaven and Earth
For summer clothes.

Thomas Traherne, in his Centuries of Meditations, wrote:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars : and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”



Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.

That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense.  It is not about dogmas and beliefs.  It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.

We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events.  Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant.  But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return.  Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.

In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events.  Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience.  We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else.  It is not a metaphor.  It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret.  There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion.  We are simply to experience it.  And that experience is hokku.

Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.

Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false?   That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract?  There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying.  We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing.  A thing is an event, and without things there are no events.  So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.

Not everything is hokku, however.  Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

But why do we feel this unspoken significance?  We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony.  Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.

There is no writer present.  When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening.  If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is.  The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.

That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact.  If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.

We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched.  So there is nothing mysterious about this.  But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.

Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know.  They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”

Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku.  One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice.  Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development.  We must not repeat that mistake.

We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else.  It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season.  So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku.  Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season.  It might be stated directly:

The summer moon

Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.

The morning glory

A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.

Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject.  But over time this system became too  complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well.  The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.

Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen.  It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction.  That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter.  The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject.  This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.

When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context.  That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse.  Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain.  In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract.  There is only

Spring rain;

Summer rain;

Autumn rain;

Winter rain.

By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku.  How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!

If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections.  Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else.   Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.

This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement.  To have an arrangement of  Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season.  It would be like Halloween in May.  Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.

A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events.  Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.

Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same.  In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season.  That is a harmony of identity.  But there is also the harmony of contrast.  In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts.  That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s

A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast.  A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast.  Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.

Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season.  Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student.  It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season.  And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.

The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality.  Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion.  If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate.  And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.”  Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.

Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature.  It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.

That is hokku.