We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English language haiku (such as D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the Beats) who mistakenly emphasized Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku, that haiku should be about the ‘here and now’. This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience.

Haruo Shirane JuxtaOne 2015

The phrase ‘mistakenly emphasized Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku’ has given rise to many wayward haiku manifestations of the kind that Martin Lucas and I some time ago decided to call ‘Japanese Knotweed hycoo’ – those which undermine the foundations of what is rather scathingly called ‘traditional haiku’ and resulting in such thought-abortions as the ‘Flying Pope’ series (Ban’ya Natsuishi) to mention but one manifestation.

The above reference in Haruo Shirane’s otherwise very distinguished article in JUXTA does something of a disservice both to haiku and what I understand as the nature of Zen; it gives permission to all those who wish to colonise haiku as ‘short-form poetry’ to dismiss the idea that there are different ways of representing the world: they are are given leave no longer to have to bother their heads about a Zen view of the world and just carry on writing hycoo; Shirane’s comment may also signify that Japan has moved in a machine-based, intellectualised, Western direction since 1960 when DTSuzuki wrote Studies in Zen.

It is an absurd misrepresentation to give the impression that Zen is simply about the ‘here and now’ or ‘direct observation and personal experience’. The opening sequence of Studies in Zen draws out the crucial difference between thought in western poeticising and a Bashō haiku. The slim volume is very instructive both about the nature of Zen and the contrast between what’s referred to as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ thinking.

To make a shift in one’s thinking is not rocket science, nor is it at all spooky, but it does require a new mental discipline which it might take a bit of time to establish for oneself: long-time mental habits must be broken, new ones practised. It’s about a different approach to conceptualising what we fondly call ‘reality’, as though we knew what that meant. It’s stepping into a different mind-set – the kind that I maintain is necessary for the competent reception of the haiku of the actual world.

It should become second nature; the theory, the mere words behind it, forgotten when walking in the street or standing on a mountain top.

The following is a short version of how Suzuki points up the difference between the sensibility of a Western poet writing about a flower and Bashō doing the same at the start of his book. It illustrates the mental shift required of a haiku-writer.

nazuna – shepherd’s purse


Suzuki refers to Bashō’s haiku:-

looking carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
by the hedge


Suzuki writes:-

It is likely that Bashō was walking along a country road when he noticed something rather neglected by the hedge. He then approached closer, took a good look at it, and found it was no less than a wild plant, rather insignificant and generally unnoticed by passers-by. This is a plain fact described in the poem with no specifically poetic feeling expressed anywhere except perhaps in the last two syllables, which read in Japanese kana. This particle, frequently attached to a noun or an adjective or an adverb, signifies a certain feeling of admiration or praise or sorrow or joy, and can sometimes quite appropriately be rendered into English by an exclamation mark.

It’s the very negligibility of the plant by the old hedge alongside a remote country road that could be said to have grasped Bashō’s attention and reverence; whereas I pull ‘the weed’ out unceremoniously from my rockery, briefly pausing every time I do so, before chucking it on the bonfire, to remember Bashō, recognising that, for him, an unprepossessing plant that shoots its seeds all over the place is a very special example of something growing humbly in its very own place on the surface of the planet. The haiku-writer has a different cast of mind – set to detect ‘something great in small things, transcending all quantitative measurements…’ – from the gardener who wants to protect a rockery from alien invasions.

Suzuki compares Bashō’s haiku with Tennyson’s poem that also focusses on a negligible plant growing in a not very exceptional context:-

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;–
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower – but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Bashō simply notices nazuna, the shepherd’s purse, with an exclamation mark, and that’s that. Tennyson plucks the poppy up by its roots and, active and analytical, proceeds to conceptualise the flower right out of itself. The plant will now die.

There is a different mental attitude: mere observation versus crude ‘scientific’, intellectual, analysis and reference to something outside the being of the poppy – some grand philosophical gesture. Uncomprehending haiku-writers à la Tennyson feel they must explain and develop what might have been an original ‘haiku moment’. Simplicity is not enough for them.

Suzuki notes that the silence of the Bashō haiku is to be contrasted with the flowery [!] eloquence displayed by Tennyson. But, he goes on, ‘silence… does not mean just to be dumb and remain wordless or speechless. Silence in many cases is as eloquent as being wordy…’ Westerners have a penchant for encasing things in words in an overly conspicuous way.

Tennyson, being ‘scientifically objective’ seeks to understand the withering poppy while Bashō is content with acknowledging the mystery of his humble plant ‘…that goes deep into the source of all existence…’ He just makes exclamation at the one and only moment of observing. He stands apart from, doesn’t identify with whatever he observes, leaving us to pick up the mystery for ourselves. We need a good deal of practice at the art of simply acknowledging, or ‘looking carefully’…

Tennyson, is all intellect, typical of Western mentality. ‘…He must say something, he must abstract or intellectualize [from] concrete experience. He must come out of the domain of feeling into that of intellect and must subject living and feeling to a series of analyses to give satisfaction to the… spirit of inquisitiveness…’

Suzuki concludes his comparison of two quite different ways of representing an understanding of the way things are with a nice list of characteristic approaches:
One coming from what he calls ‘the Western mind’ which is ‘…analytical, discriminative, differential, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, scientific, generalizing, conceptual, schematic, legalistic, organizing, power-wielding, self-assertive, disposed to impose its will upon others…’; the other, what he calls Eastern ‘…can be characterized as… synthetic, totalizing, integrative, nondiscriminative, deductive, nonsystematic, undogmatic, intuitive or affective, nondiscursive, subjective, spiritually individualistic and socially group-minded…’

Personally, I think of this distinction as being not about East v West but Right Brain versus Left Brain proclivity. A haiku-writer who functions predominantly out of their left brain will wish to explain, develop, categorise beyond what they see in front of them; one who operates mostly in the right brain will just ‘go with the flow’, without ratiocination (a word the Left Brain part of me delights in…) Zen is Right Brained.

Suzuki refers to Lao-tse (fourth century B.C.), a great thinker in ancient China, who ‘…portrays himself as resembling an idiot. He looks as if he does not know anything, is not affected by anything. He is practically of no use in this utilitarianistic world. He is almost expressionless. Yet there is something in him which makes him not quite like a specimen of an ignorant simpleton. He only outwardly resembles one…’ Left brainers have ‘…a pair of sharp, penetrating eyes, deep-set in the sockets, which survey the outside world…’ in order to chop it up and put it under the microscope.

Since he wishes us to divorce Zen and haiku, what is it that’s ‘distinguished’ about Haruo Shirane’s article in JUXTA? Well, his reference to the ‘Horizontal and the Vertical Axes’ in relation to haiku is a very persuasive model, useful in suggesting that being in the present moment in order to write haiku brings with it all manner of things from the past and in some way projects into a possible future without intellectualising anything. What we are in the present moment is inevitably the consequence of many other-than-conscious effects which must influence us in what we care to focus on, our choice of subject-matter for haiku, how we put it into words and so on. Our education, the people we’ve met, the stories we tell ourselves, the books we’ve read all have an impact on this moment NOW as it moves along the Horizontal Axis. The present moment is not an empty bus though it is part of being in a Zen kind of way, to be as No-thing faced with what’s there in front of you. Emptiness can quite easily be filled with unscripted Something in the shape of a haiku/senryu when we have no pre-suppositions about what we see & experience.

What we like to think of as ‘The Present Moment’ contains memory and allusion, and all our stories, which become part of ‘The Present’ when we become, if ever so vaguely, conscious of them.

This is my version of Haruo Shirane’s model:-



“long long ago now…”
telling of that earthquake
round a brazier
                          Morikawa Kyoroku



in another garden
the sawing of a plank of wood
long ago now

3 thoughts on “ZEN & HAIKU (R16)

  1. Ancient Greek (and no doubt Modern Greek for all I know) had a verb called ‘perfect’ which actually meant ‘being in a present state of having done something’: linguistically, therefore, the Ancient Greeks were able to conceptualise the past in the present with no bother. The past became something existing in the present moment.


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