Site Contents
The Lessons
Basho's Spirit
Show Don't Tell


The Reference Section

Seasons and the season-word
Zen and Haiku
Thing, Moment, Spirit
The Two-Image Haiku
The Nature of English Haiku
Interviews with Haiku Masters


Part 5 - The Thing, the Moment, the Spirit:

Three aspects of Haiku by Cicely Hill

One: The Thing – Suchness, No Comment

The leeks
Newly washed white –
How cold it is

Basho doesn’t describe the cold. He says nothing of his feelings about it – how it might correspond with events in his own life; just that it is. It is the newly washed leeks, in their whiteness, their suchness, that tell us the nature and season of the coldness.

The things of haiku are usually unexceptional, unremarkable, not chosen for their beauty – not chosen at all, but experienced and recorded. They may be broken, flawed, rusty, dirty, everyday. It was Basho himself who first brought to light the fact that significance transcends ugliness and beauty. Events, likewise, are not ideal. Things are as they are, when haiku happens.

The love of cats
When it was over, the hazy moon
Over the bed chamber

The thing, the scene, the event is recognized by the poet and the reader, in a state of intense perception, its essence recorded, in all its factualness, by the senses. R H Blyth writes of, "Infinity grasped in the hand, before the eyes, the hammering of a nail, the touch of cold water, the smell of chrysanthemums, the smell of this chrysanthemum."

"Do not, I beg you," he writes in another place, quoting Goethe, "look for anything beyond phenomena. They are themselves their lesson."

Here is the poet Taiga writing about the yearly change of servants. (Note: tatami is smooth Japanese straw matting).

The change of servants
Her tears
Splash on the tatami

The change of servants is a sad event. The poet tells it as it is, without comment or sentimentality. He writes of concrete things – the tears, the tatami, the sound of the splash.

Two: The "Haiku Moment"

In the "Haiku Moment" we see into the nature of things. We approach what has been called the Inner Life of the World of Things. It is not the self that sees but the things which are seen. The moment is possible because phenomenon and self are not in competition. Awareness of this state was celebrated as early as the twelfth century in the 31-syllable and more ancient Japanese poetic form, the tanka.

Trailing on the wind,
The smoke from Mount Fuji
Melts into the sky.
So too my thoughts –
Unknown their resting-place.
(Priest Saigyo, trans. Bownas and Thwaite)

To some haiku poets, words may themselves occur simultaneously with the immediate insight of the "Haiku Moment." Insight and expression are as one.

H W Fawkner has written of the state of mind in which the critical attitude is weakened and the self coincides with the act of perception: "Perception is the world. World is perception. No separation between subject and object. No need for what is believed disunited to be united." (from The Ugly Woodpecker: Journal of Commentary, Rhetoric and Freethinking).

The new insight which arises is the stuff of haiku – a great test for the poet as what we most wish to say is usually just what escapes words.

Lighting one candle
With another candle
An evening of Spring

When, says R H Blyth, "Life suddenly deepens and all the universe is present at the lighting of a candle."

Three: The Spirit of Haiku

Thirteen of the characteristics of the state of mind which haiku demands were drawn up by R H Blyth. They are: selflessness, loneliness, grateful acceptance, wordlessness, non-intellectuality, contradictoriness, humour, freedom, non-morality, simplicity, materiality, love, courage. One or two may need a little explanation.

As poets, you will have no trouble with contradictoriness, but non-morality? Morality, like criticism, is prone to comment and comment is foreign to haiku. Non-intellectuality and simplicity save the poet from his own over elaboration, his ingeniousness, cleverness and pretentiousness. Or they should do.

Grateful acceptance may sound a little pious but is pleasantly selfish really – just a quiet willingness for those things to happen which must happen. Grateful acceptance follows naturally from an understanding of "thusness."

Wordlessness is illustrated in the brevity and density of meaning combined in the haiku form.

The humour of haiku is gentle and wry:

The young girl
Blew her nose
In the evening glory

Here, as well as humour, is materiality, simplicity, freedom, grateful acceptance and love.

Loneliness – sabishisa or sabi, is profoundly important for haiku. Sometimes arising out of our well known solitary sadness, it is a state of empathy, of interpenetration, with all things. Loneliness is actually sought by the haiku poet so that he may be open to sabi. One of Basho’s haiku is addressed to a mountain bird, always heard in the distance, whose cry augurs rain:

Ah kankadori,
Deepen thou
My loneliness

Another haiku redolent of the special qualities of sabi:

Asleep or awake
The night is long –
The sound of rapids
(Santoka Taneda, Stevens)

Along with sabis is wabi, the "spirit of poverty" found in simplicity. Together with sabi it has been compared with mu in Zen; a state of absolute spiritual poverty in which, having nothing, we possess all. Wabi is realised most fully in the Tea Ceremony where the simple objects – the kettle, the bowl, the taste of tea have a certain purity; where there is harmony, respect and the quiet mind are very present there, in the Tea Room.

Still unopened
The greenish hydrangea flowers:
The taste of tea
(Cicely Hill)


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