THE SPIRIT OF HOKKU

The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.

 

David

 

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LIGHT AT CANDLEMAS

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and again it is Candlemas.  The Germans call it Lichtmess — “Lightmas.”  And in Nature, we see that the light has indeed increased.  We are halfway between the longest night — the Winter Solstice — and the Spring Equinox, when day and night will be of equal length.   It is a joy to see the lengthening days at Candlemas — the receding of the night, and the growing of the light.

It also brings the first signs of the annual awakening of Nature.  In some places it is blooming snowdrops, or crocuses.  Beside my dwelling there are little banks of blooming wild violets trembling on their stems.  That is why in the hokku calendar, Candlemas — also sometimes called Imbolc — is the beginning of spring.

It is good to celebrate these holidays of the solar year.  Some people like to light candles on Candlemas to honor the coming of spring, and have a little feast.  And some like to think of the old Greek myth of Persephone.

Here is a repeat of something I posted for Candlemas a couple of years ago:

ANCIENT CANDLEMAS: THE BEGINNING OF SPRING

To our ancestors, the forces of Nature and the urges within humans were personified as gods and goddesses both major and minor.  So changes in Nature and the changes in humans were represented as events relating to the deities.

In spring and summer, all of Nature grows and is fruitful, but in autumn things wither, and seem to vanish in the barrenness and cold of winter.

To the ancient Greeks, the abundance of the earth in the seasons of growth and harvest was represented in the joy of the goddess Demeter.  And when plants began to wither and leaves to fall, they saw this season of dying and death as the mourning of Demeter.

She was said to mourn for her daughter Persephone, who one day,while out picking flowers, was abducted by Hades, the god of the realm of death.

Demeter had no idea what had happened, and searched the earth for her missing daughter, and as she searched, the earth lost its fruitfulness and crops no longer grew.   The ruler of the gods, Zeus, knew this intolerable situation could not continue, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone to the upper world and to her mother.

Unfortunately, however, Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  And as we all know from old myths and legends — including the stories of abduction by the Sidhe — the fairies — one should eat nothing while in the Other Realm.

So Persephone was brought back to Demeter, but because she had eaten food from the Land of the Dead, she had to spend part of each year there, and while she was gone the world withered and the fields became barren.

This of course signifies that Demeter is in a sense “Mother Nature,” and her daughter Persephone is the plant life that sprouts out of the earth — out of the “Underworld” each spring, and flourishes through summer and harvest, after which it once more returns to the earth.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to reminding you that the beginning of February marks the ancient beginning of spring.  It happens at February 1 – 2nd.  This corresponds with the holiday called Candlemas, celebrated on the 2nd of February.

Though Candlemas in Christian times came to be a commemoration of Mary’s purification in the Temple, it was in reality a Christian substitution intended to take over a pre-Christian rite, as celebrated in Rome.  The Roman Catholic Pope Innocent XII said:

Why do we carry candles in this feast? Because the Gentiles [meaning non-Christians here] dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods; and as at the beginning of it Pluto [Hades] stole Proserpine [Persephone], and her mother Ceres [Demeter] searched for her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not wipe out this custom, they ordered that Christians should carry around candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres  [Demeter] is now done to the honor of the Virgin.

So that was the old Candlemas — a pre-Christian festival centered on the myth explaining why vegetation dies in autumn and returns again in spring.  By searching for Proserpine/Persephone with candles or torches, one symbolically enacted the desire of humanity for spring to return to the earth.  And so Candlemas is the beginning of Spring in the Wheel of the Year.  The candles are now a reminder that the light and warmth of spring are slowly returning, though of course how soon it becomes obvious depends on where one lives.

Candlemas — a more ancient name is Imbolc —  marks the beginning of spring in the West, and in the East (where hokku originated), this time of Candlemas — give or take a few days depending on the lunar calendar — marks the New Year.

So as I always say, the old Western “natural” calendar and the Hokku Calendar are very close to one another, which makes it very convenient for those of us who like to maintain the old “nature” traditions such as the celebration of the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes (the “Quarter Days”) and the “Cross-Quarter Days” of the year such as Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween.

 

VANISHED SPRINGS: ISSA’S VIOLETS

Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:

(Spring)

Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.

 

David

CANDLEMAS AND CONTROVERSY

Yes, today is Candlemas — Imbolc — the beginning of spring in the old calendar.  It hardly seems like it, waking to a freezing wind and the likelihood of snow, but nonetheless the Wheel of the Year has turned, and warmer weather is not far off.

The traditional flower of Candlemas is the white and green snowdrop, but the winter has been so unusually cold here that there is not a snowdrop blossom in sight.

There is much to be appalled by in the world as spring begins.  One has only to turn to the news.  But this morning came the particularly disturbing report that protestors at the University of California at Berkeley managed, through violent action, to prevent a presentation by a right-wing speaker with whom they disagreed.

According to the news, the protests began peacefully with people carrying signs reading “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.”  Well, they are wrong.  Aside from the issue of whether the intended speaker at the University was promulgating “hate speech” or not, there is still the fact that whether a speech contains supposed “hate” or not makes no difference.  Free speech is free speech, and when one limits what can be said, it is no longer free.  But violence is not free speech.  Violence is intimidation and the death of free speech.

Free speech follows the dictum of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (wrongfully attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Refusing people the right to say that of which we do not approve also denies free speech, no matter how hateful we may find their words to be.

I particularly dislike the modern term “hate speech.”  It can be used to stigmatize and silence the views of most anyone who disagrees with one’s own opinions.  There is, of course, real hate in speech that has as its intent the physical or mental harm of a person or a group of people, and there are justifiably laws to prevent the incitement of such violence.  But to merely express one’s views about a political system or a religious system, or any kind of system or body of people, even if those views are strongly negative and found quite offensive by some, is not necessarily “hate speech,”  and the term is all too frequently loosely and inaccurately used.  Accusing someone of “hate speech” can be a very effective form of intimidation and an attempt to deny someone the right of free speech.  The best antidote to genuine “hate speech” is not denial of the right of the speaker to express opinions, but rather obvious and public non-violent disapproval based on factual evidence countering the position of the one doing the supposed “hating.”  In my view, using the term “hate speech” has become a convenient and irrational way of stereotyping views with which we do not agree, without offering a rational challenge.  We may detest those views, but in countering them, one should use reason and facts, not simply a dismissive catchphrase.

We must always remember that with free speech, one does not have the right not to be offended.  But one does have the right to speak in active opposition to views one finds through reason and evidence to be wrong or harmful — and in many cases, not only the right, but also the responsibility.

We unfortunately find ourselves living in interesting times.

David

THE YELLOW WATERS OF SPRING OR THE SPRING’S YELLOW WATERS?

Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:

(Spring)

The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:

kerriasingle_1

Here is a closer view:

David

 

 

 

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good hokku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:

(Spring)

Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

cropped-trout.jpg

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.