Exactly what is essential haiku? Its
popular to write half-baked essays on the subject these
days, mostly among people who are suspicious of the term,
and yet assume theyve grasped the meaning of it anyway.
Its understandable, really, when the ones who brought
it up have not yet sufficiently explained the theory behind
it. So although I dont know much about theory myself,
as one of the promoters of essential haiku Id
like to give my own explanation, as simply and clearly as
possible, approaching the subject at my own pace. Of course,
by way of explanation I can only offer my own experience
as a poet. I hope that those more knowledgeable will back
up what I say here.
I. The Essential Spirit
The word essential here refers to the philosophical
essence of existence; in terms of Eastern religion,
it is the Eastern concept of mu (nothingness).
Those who seek an academic understanding of this concept
will find the works of Nishida Kitarô and Suzuki Daisetsu
helpful, in addition to books such as Kuki Shûzôs
Man and Existence, Shimomura Toratarôs
The Philosophy of Nishida Kitarô, and Hismatsu
Shinichis The Eastern Concept of Mu. Those
with an interest in philosophy and religion will already
be familiar with it. Nevertheless, it is a metaphysical
concept, and with my poor smattering of knowledge, I can
hardly claim to understand it completely myself.
A flower is beautiful, but what is it that makes it a flower?
I am undoubtedly I, but what is it that makes me so? When
we ask questions like this, the answer brings us to an encounter
with the eastern concept of mu. This
is not nonexistence as opposed to existence, but the absolute
mu that transcends the opposition of existence and non-existence.
That, I believe, is the essence of existence.
But why, then, do I feel the need to pursue it, and to believe
In the Hannya (Heart) Sutra we find the words, Matter
is emptiness; emptiness is matter. In my understanding,
the word emptiness is nothing other than the
Eastern concept of mu, or in other words the
essence of existence. It goes without saying that
matter encompasses everything in the phenomenological
world, including flowers and human beings; it is, in other
words, a general term for existence itself. Speaking directly
of human beings, first there is the physical body with all
its limitations, and the various desires and emotions surrounding
it, which give rise to conflict. Every action has its consequence,
producing each persons karma. All this falls within
the realm of matter. As long as we are human,
it is impossible for us to break away from matter;
nevertheless, there is a spirit that wants to try. Outside
of matter lies the realm of emptiness.
Turning our attention to life itself, we are now, at this
very moment, living. But someday, quite suddenly, we will
die. F. D. Schubart set down seven cautionary statements,
which he calls the fundamental principles of sincere
criticism. The last and most important of these is,
All you nasty, small-minded critics! Dont ever
forget that your own end will come. This I learned
while reading The Collected Essays of Dr. Raphael Koeber.
No doubt about it, the end is coming. All human lives are
thus limited. And more than any other living being, we are
fully aware of this fact. That is why human beings strive
to live well within the limited time they have. And yet,
speaking only from the phenomenological side, no matter
how hard we try, our efforts to live well can only take
us so far. In fact, these very efforts can end up restraining
us. This is because we keep going back and forth between
existence and non-existence. At this point, the desire to
live better naturally leads to wisdom. We strive to get
out of the world of opposites. This is the wellspring of
the religious spirit.
To escape from the world of opposition: this is in no sense
a matter of running away from reality. For instance, if
we look into the Shôbôgenzô, the
principle work of the Zen monk Dôgen, we find the
words, Use conflict to cut through conflict.
This means that only by adhering single-mindedly to reality
can we find the means to transcend it. In other words, the
fundamental nature of the religious spirit is extremely
This religious spirit that seeks to live well
inevitably leads us to the realm of the Eastern concept
of mu. This realm is both absolute and limitless,
an utterly free world without hindrance or reward. It is
within the world of opposition, and yet at the same time
transcends it. This is the realm that the religious spirit
strives to reach, but it is clearly the goal of the artistic
spirit as well. A consideration of how fervently the artistic
spirit longs for limitlessness should make this perfectly
obvious. This is what the Japanese style painter Murakami
Kagaku meant when he said, It is impossible to think
of art and religion as two separate things. Kobayashi
Kokei once said, A good painting is one that makes
us sense the cosmos, even if it shows only a single persimmon.
This one statement is surely enough to make us realize that
the artistic spirit is constantly aiming for a sense of
limitlessness. And does it not also show, in its purest
sense, the ideal of life that unites all human beings, both
Eastern and Western, ancient and modern?
In short, the essential spirit is the spirit
that endlessly pursues the essence of existence (in other
words, the essence of life), fervently longing to break
through to that realm where it can find perfect ease, free
and unrestricted. It is an Eastern spirit, that we can say
is both religious and artistic.
II. Essential Haiku
The essential spirit is not our special ism,
nor is it mysticism. Although religion does contain mystical
elements, that is not what I am referring to here. Zen,
in particular, adheres strictly to the mundane matters of
everyday life. When one immerses oneself in daily life,
one can even experience the world of god that
the forerunners of science todayscientists who seek
to understand the atomhave already perceived through
their research. By closely examining the world of the atom,
one can see what it is that makes an atom an atom; likewise,
we see in the world of everyday life what it is that makes
us ourselves. This world of god is nothing other
than the world of Eastern mu. Therefore,
the world of Eastern mu is not merely a world of
abstract concepts, but a world that can be grasped by directly
confronting existence itself. It is a world that can only
be grasped through the medium of existence,
within the world of existence itself.
Essential haiku are haiku written in accordance
with the essential spirit. They are therefore
haiku that take existence head-on. And yet such
haiku are still merely seeking after the essential, and
cannot be said to truly be essential haiku.
A true essential haiku is already completely
settled in the purely free essential realm,
utterly without hindrance, and from that realm reaches back
to grasp existence. Only then is the form of
the poem perfectly free and at ease with itself. However,
since ancient times, the number of people who have managed
to dwell permanently in this highest realm is extremely
small, and the most ordinary folk like us can hope for is
to catch an occasional, flickering glimpse of it.
This is why, to my regret, I am forced to include haiku
that are still seeking after the essential within the rubric
of essential haiku:
(1) Haiku that are moving inevitably in the direction
of the essential spirit.
(2) Haiku that, being products of the essential
spirit, have already reached the essential
Essential haiku can be divided into these two
groups. Speaking in terms of place of existence, the essential
realm being the goal, the first type of haiku are
moving toward, while the second type are coming
from. I think we can say that the majority of poems
now referred to as essential haiku are moving
toward. A sense of attachment clings to these moving
toward poems, while coming from poems
are utterly free. Moving toward poems are somehow
cramped, as though the poet is trying too hard; this comes
from the sense of attachment that is the fundamental quality
of these poems. Yet in order to reach the state of coming
from, a poem must first move toward. As
a moving toward poem, it must possess an extremely
rigorous will. This will means attachment. Adherence to
attachment. And yet from the start, this attachment is the
very thing from which we are trying to break free. In order
to break free from attachment, we must first intentionally
attach ourselves to it: this is the greatest contradiction
imaginable. But if we do not first actively engage in attachment,
we can never get away from it. This is the plain truth.
It is an absolutely unavoidable contradiction. For this
reason, in haiku of the first type, traces of the transitional
always remain. Their faults are glaring. They are abstract,
arbitrary, difficult and obscure, they are self-righteous,
and they lack poetic sense.
A Buddhist priest once wrote: The minds of those
who come after are always full of journeys to faraway places.
But no matter how far we may go, beyond the clouds or across
the sea, as long as we are flesh of this world, we have
ordinary needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Yet how great
a difference there is between those who are attached to
these things and those who are not. This is exactly
right. And we understand it well in our minds. Because we
understand it, we must first pursue attachment. We set out
to write haiku according to the essential spirit, but if
we become too attached to the essential spirit itself, our
efforts will end in failure. Only when we have the will
to lose our attachment to the essential spirit can we write
true essential haiku. At present, essential haiku
can be seen as the ripened fruit of the process I have just
described. I would now like to turn to the problem of subject
matter, and through several specific examples, further clarify
III. The Subject Matter of the Essential Spirit
At last I am ready to discuss the topic I have been assigned.
That topic is The Subject Matter of the Essential
Spirit, but to tell the truth, I dont believe
that any special subject matter is particularly suited to
the essential spirit. The same can be said of any other
spirit. Accordingly, I believe it would be better
to rethink the problem, stating it in terms of subject
matter treated by the eye of the essential spirit,
or rather, how is subject matter dealt with by the
essential spirit? In other words, method cannot be
separated from content. Most simply, the subject matter
of the essential spirit can be divided into the two
(1) Spiritual content as the essential spirit itself.
(2) Material content as existence (phenomenon) itself.
When we speak of the subject matter of the essential
spirit, we must imagine a situation in which both
types are intermingled. I would now like to give some examples.
The haiku I have chosen are either by poets who, at the
present time, are clearly leaning toward essential haiku,
or those who, judging from their work, undeniably seem to
be doing so.
one straw mound: one strong stick stabs through
warazukani hitotsuno tsuyoki bossare
This is a scene (existence) I myself have witnessed. And
that is exactly how it was. The expression is strong, with
no decoration. This sort of expression (method of treatment)
is very much like a Zen koan. A koan is a
problem given in the form of the words or actions
of an ancient, wise, Zen monk, in order to lead the student
to the same state of satori (enlightenment) that
the monk has already achieved. For instance, a problem
like the bridge flows but the water stands still,
which at first glance appears totally absurd, makes it possible
to cast off all human attachments (the world of opposition
between existence and non-existence)that sort of problem.
Once when a Zen monk was asked, What is the great
principle of Buddhist law? he answered, The
oak tree in front of the garden. His answer is used,
exactly as it is, as the koan (problem) The
oak tree in front of the garden.
The haiku about the mound of straw has something of the
koan The oak tree in front of the garden
in it. It is extremely strong, blunt, clear, and, we should
note, also has a sharp quality. The one strong stick
is reality, and at the same time can be thought of as one
strong essential spirit. We may well assume that the
poet himself is giving us the problem, Where is the
essential place of existence (the straw mound)? The
reader, on the other hand, is struck by a certain power
that forces him or her to grapple with this problem head-on.
He or she is left standing at the most crucial point. Did
you see through to the essence? When the reader falls
under the power of this query, he feels that the essence
has immediately been revealed to him. The answer is
in the question, we sometimes say, and that certainly
applies to this poem. What else need one say? The poem is
nothing but a leap to its goal. In other words, the mound
of straw itself is existence as a mound of straw,
and as such, tells us everything about its essence. Existence
equals essence. Subject matter equals essence.
We should note that the subject of the poem is shown to
us just as it is, in its naked form, so to speak. In essential
haiku, the stronger the essential spirit,
the greater is the tendency for the subject matter to be
stripped naked in this way, for this makes it easier to
achieve the poems purpose. However, even though this
method is in one sense inevitable, there is no reason to
assume that all essential haiku must follow it. Here are
a few examples to show what I mean:
falling without end the snow: what will it bring?
kagirinaku furuyuki naniwo motarasuya
in front and behind are cows: wanting cows to the right
and left, too
atosakini ushiari sayuunimo ushihoru
walking and walking on: a cow is still a cow
yukedoyukedo ittono shini kotonarazu
Reading haiku of this type, one after another, they seem,
as poems, to show something akin to a state of aphasia.
Nevertheless, the strength of the essential spirit
revealed in them gives us something to watch. The trouble
is that they are abstract, and they retain the scar of the
essential spiritin other words, the scar
of attachmenttoo clearly. The first poem gives us
a glimpse of eternity in the scene of pure white snow, falling
forever, but neither of the haiku about cows has any luster
or charm; they are arbitrary and dogmaticalmost oppressively
so. Although they seek to enter a free world, utterly without
hindrance, they end up restraining both poet and reader.
And yet at the same time, we definitely see something akin
to a koan at work in them. Here we find the rigorous question,
What is the seIf? And I believe that this question
also appears here as an answer to itself. Yes, the answer
is here all right, but without the courage to see through
the barrier, it is the kind of answer we might expect from
a self-styled Zennist, who considers himself enlightened
after a few hours of sitting.
frozen marsh: am I there too? I peer in
korunumanimo wareutsurerukato nozoku
The writer has appended these notes to the poem: I
was in Nara. The sky, the trees, the marsh were all frozen.
My own heart was also frozen. Trembling, I leaned over the
edge of the marsh and peered into its icy surface, wondering
if I might be reflected there, along with the sky and trees.
The material subjects here are the frozen marsh
and I. But unlike my previous examples, no effort
has been made to strip them naked. I, the central
subject of the poem, is dealt with adequately as a part
of the scenery, along with the sky and trees.
This I is trying to see through to the questions
What is the self? What is existence?
But he is merely trying. That is why the poem ends with
him wondering as he peers into the marsh. This haiku is
stuck in the realm of moving toward. The subject
matter is dealt with in the spirit of moving toward.
It is not yet perfectly free and at ease with itself.
meeting a hunter: an umbrella on my shoulder, too
satsuotoai waremo komorikasa katani
Some people say that you dont have to be Seishi to
write a haiku like this, but in my view, even Seishi rarely
comes up with a poem this good. Nothing can be done about
these differences of opinion, however, for what people see,
and how they see it, depends on their position at any given
moment. Appreciation is purely a matter of the readers
spiritual level. Since I have already written of this haiku
elsewhere, I wont repeat myself here, but let me just
say that I believe this is precisely the sort of poem that
is truly worthy of the name essential haiku.
The spiritual and material subject matter flow together
so completely that it is almost impossible to distinguish
between them, and the poem as a whole has reached the realm
of perfect transcendence. And when a poem has come this
far, nothing more need be said about its subject matter.
Since in all poetry, not just in essential haiku, you must
use your subject matter without having it appear to be using
you, Id like to see more poems in which the poet appears
to be at the mercy of his or her subject matter, but actually
has the upper hand. Be that as it may, in essential haiku,
subject matter is treated through the eyes of the essential
spirit, but once we enter the essential realm, we can say
that the essential spirit is the subject matter. Or in other
words, the subject matter itself is the essential spirit
itself. This is the realm not of moving toward
but of coming from.
Recently, due to an awareness of the danger of essential
haiku to fall into abstraction, there is a tendency toward
materialism, and this is perfectly natural. However, we
must not let it become mere materialism: it must be a materialism
that aims to make its subject matter the essential spirit
itself. Only when we penetrate the heart of emptiness can
we see that matter is matter.
To seek for the essence of existence: this is not a new
philosophical trend, nor is there anything old-fashioned
about it. We find it in the doctrines of the Kongô-Hannya.
Sutra, in Chuang-tzus conception of chaos, in Goethes
conversations about the essence of phenomena: all of these
speak to us of the workings of the essential spirit. Closer
to home, in his essay, A Message for the Tanka Establishment
(1933), Saito Mokichi declares, We are the ones who
concern ourselves with the essential spirit, and by doing
so, we get at the heart of life itself. Sadly, in
the world of modern haiku, there is little concern for these
things, for most of our poets are satisfied to while away
their time writing about superficial phenomena. Of course
works that approach the essential spirit do appear in our
time, almost without the writers awareness, but only
very recently have haiku poets become aware of the essential
spirit, and begun to actively seek its inspiration. Even
the promoters of essential haiku have yet to
produce many works that deserve the name.
The essential spirit is a religious spirit. It is a particularly
Eastern religious spirit. We Asians cannot escape being
Asian. Our modern spirit has sought to absorb as much as
possible from the West, so that we can become citizens of
the world. This is truly admirable. It is what we haiku
poets want for ourselves as well. And yet Asia has its own
individual character. I firmly believe that only by living
our own Asian individuality to the full can we truly become
citizens of the world.
Fortunately, in both tradition and depth of meaning, haiku,
this briefest of our poetic forms, is fundamentally connected
to the spirit of Zen. I dont believe there is any
room for doubt about this. Rooted in everyday life, it is
both blunt and sharp, as well as satiric, humorous, suggestive,
and symbolic: all of these are Zen-like characteristics.
As long as we make sure that these characteristics form
the basis of our haiku, they will always be new, both limitless
In closing, I would like to repeat that the essential spirit,
as well as being a religious spirit, is the eternal artistic