Saturday, November 25, 2006

Beneath a Single Moon 2: Zen influence on Haiku

A comment on the lineage of haiku and tanka poetry associated with Zen practice and studies:

It can be argued that Zen-haiku are not "pure haiku," for various reasons, fitting various criteria by which we judge whether a poem is a haiku or not. I could point out that Issa wrote several powerful Zen poems in haiku form. (I revere Basho, and I study his work; in spirit, though, I feel closer to Issa. I feel no connection at all to Buson; I never have, so far. To Shiki, I feel some connection, and a lot of gratitude for his work to revitalize haiku writing in the modern era. Similarly, I've been influenced by Gary Snyder, and his encounters with this subject.) So there is precedent. Perhaps, though, a justification is unnecessary, and misses the point.

To make a clear distinction, I've heard people use the term "zenku" rather than haiku. Zen poems in haiku form? Senryu? But then again, Basho, the principal originator of haiku, was a Zen student, and infused a great deal of Zen influence into his teachings on haiku, into his thinking on wabi-sabi, and into his aesthetics. The argument could be made, therefore, that haiku would not exist, or have been developed, without Zen.

There is a long, long lineage of Zen poetry in China and Japan. I originally approached haiku-writing from this Zen-literary direction, rather than the pure aesthete's direction. The tradition of Zen poetry in Japan encompasses the waka/tanka and haiku and haibun forms, all of which have been used in Zen poetry, along with the more formally Chinese-derived forms. Zen masters, students, lay persons, religious, monks, and dabblers, have all used the waka, haiku, and their related forms for generations to express Zen ideas, kensho, satori, and koan. The tradition of the enlightenment poem is part of this tapestry, as is the Buddhist death-poem. The sense of aware, wabi, and sabi, considered so intrinsic to the Japanese literary aesthetic, are all profoundly Buddhist intuitions. The death-poem and the Zen enlightenment-poem are long-standing traditions within this overall tradition. Masters of this tradition have included Ryokan, Saigyo, Ikkyu, and several others less-famous outside strictly Zen circles. Some of the impetus for compression, elegance, simplicity, evocativeness, lightness, and openness in haiku comes from Zen.

I find it problematic when all we focus on, in English-language haiku, is the "pure form" of the poetic (aesthetic) haiku, and set aside the infused spirit, and the history of the form, bound up as it genuinely is with Buddhism and Zen. You don't have to study Zen to write haiku, of course; but to ignore their intertwined histories can skew one's interpretation of haiku towards the merely surface-oriented presentation. It's like divorcing the spiritual content of Bach's texts from his musical settings; lots of people do that, of course, but they miss out on something when they do. One doesn't have to believe in anything to write haiku, or be "religious," or "spiritual"—that's not what I'm saying—yet if one does not at least recognize that Basho was a Zen student, and that Zen very much influenced his development of the haiku form as we know it today, one is looking at the trees and missing the forest.

So, the lineage of Zen-influenced poetry, of which haiku is one stream, is the origin of zenku. Again, I don't claim that zenku are "pure haiku," but I do claim a precedent equally strong. There are numerous collections of Zen poetry available in translation, in which one will note the prevalence, early on, of Chinese forms, and later in time, waka and haiku forms becoming the dominant forms used.

Towards a Bibliography:

Here are some notable anthologies and translations of this poetry, which have no doubt left their mark on me, since I've been reading them since I was in my early teens, when I discovered all this wonderful stuff:

The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry. Translated by Lucien Stryk and edited by Shinkichi Takahashi

Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill. Translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews. Translations by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter. Translated by Lucien Stryk and Takahashi Ikemoto

A Zen Wave:  Basho's Haiku and Zen. By Robert Aitken

Zen and Japanese Culture. By Daisetz T. Suzuki

Zen and Zen Classics. By R. H. Blyth

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. Compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Translated by John Stevens

One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg. By Hiroaki Sato

Japanese Death Poems. Written by Zen monks and haiku poets on the verge of death. Complied with an  introduction by Yoel Hoffmann

Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu. Translated by John Stevens

Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan. By John Stevens

Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T'ang poet Han-shan. Translated by Burton Watson

Afterimages: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. Translated by Shinkichi Takahashi, Lucien Stryk

The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Translated by Steven Heine

For modern American poets profoundly influenced by Zen, I refer you to this anthology:

Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich

Also essential are writings by: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, Sam Hamill, John Cage, Lucien Stryk, Jane Hirshfield, Natalie Goldberg, etc.

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Blogger roh mih said...

Hello, art! I enjoyed reading your two-part article. I created a link to this in my e-group site, Zen Poetry, at

6:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


5:36 PM  

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