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Haiku: Poems with the Stink of Zen

Jeff Hooks

Haiku are charged images. These small but powerful poems may be approached from both literary and philosophical perspectives. Haiku may be classified as poetic images and also as the products of Zen Buddhist consciousness. As images, haiku are pure, neither descriptive nor metaphorical. They have been called the most direct, objective form found in world literature.

As charged images, the purity of haiku reflects the aesthetic of Frank Stella, American abstract painter. Stella proclaims that the purpose of art is to create space not compromised by illustration nor decoration. Alluding to and inverting the traditional definition of art - something that entertains in order to teach - Stella rejects both the decorative and didactic elements of art and replaces them with the idea that art creates an alternative dimension, a space. This space, according to Stella, provides the objects of art a place to exist. Stella's definition of art fits the haiku well: the haiku doesn't teach anything; it doesn't contain a hidden meaning, but neither is it pretty for the sake of being pleasing. The experience of a haiku is like the experience of a bell. The resonance that follows the initial simple tone when a bell is struck creates the distinguishing characteristic of the bell: it rings. So too, haiku are extremely simple, yet they produce a mental resonance, a place in the mind for the pure image to exist. This resonance, the creation of this place, is where the power of haiku lies.

The moment of a haiku is similar to Satori in Zen Buddhist tradition, a sudden awareness of the extraordinary in the ordinary, a recognition of the Buddha nature in everyday life. Although Zen is a form of Mahayana, it has none of the theological complexity of the large vehicle. And although Zen is primarily practiced in a monastic setting, it is not essentially a way of life like the Theravada tradition. As a form of Buddhism, Zen advocates neither dogma nor practice, but instead emphasizes the transformation of consciousness. Zen is a way of looking at the world. The transformation in consciousness that follows the moment of Satori, the sudden awareness of the powerful significance of simple natural phenomena, is captured in haiku.

D.T. Suzuki writes about the famous Japanese poet Basho and his transformation during the discovery of his most often-quoted haiku:

When Basho was still studying Zen under his master Buccho the latter one day paid him a visit and asked, "How are you getting along these days?"

Basho: "After a recent rain the moss has grown greener than ever."

Buccho: "What Buddhism is there prior to the greenness of moss?"

Basho: "A frog jumps into the water, hear the sound."

Basho, questioned by his master about the ultimate truth of things which existed even prior to this world of particulars, saw a frog leaping into an old pond, its sound making a break in the serenity of the whole situation. (426)

Earlier in the same work, Suzuki explains how the single stroke within the art of Japanese sumi-e painting has no referent but itself. Suzuki describes sumi-e painting: "The ink is made of soot and glue, and the brush of sheep's or badger's hair. . . . Because of the [thinness of the paper] and wetness of the ink any hesitation or slowness destroys the picture. . . . A dot in a sumi-e sketch does not represent a hawk, nor does a curved line symbolize Mount Fuji. The dot is the bird and the line is the mountain" (420-421).

The immediacy and direct purity of sumi-e painting and of haiku contrasts with the Western devotion to dualism. Words are supposed to lead to ideas. Experiences are ambiguous; whereas, systematic language is exact. The separation of the mind from the body leads to the valuing of analytical knowledge over experiential knowledge. Western philosophy privileges systematic thought to such an extent that conflicts between interpretations cannot be accepted but must be reconciled. Philosophical problems arising from conflicting interpretations prompt Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory to explain this post-structural conflict with Western philosophical logocentrism:

Just as Western philosophy has been 'phonocentric', centered on the 'living voice' and deeply suspicious of script, so also it has been in a broader sense 'logocentric', committed to a belief in some ultimate 'word', presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation of all our thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others - the 'transcendental signifier' - and for the anchoring, unquestionable meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the transcendental signified). (131)

The Zen Buddhists and the haiku poets delight in the lack of an ultimate referee in the conflict among understandings; Suzuki writes: "Some artists go even so far as this, that whatever way their strokes of the brush are taken by the viewer is immaterial; in fact the more they are misunderstood the better" (427).

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Suzuki, D.T. "Buddhist, Especially Zen, Contribution to Japanese Culture." The Essentials of Zen Buddhism. New York: Dutton, 1962: 417-427.