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Essence #1

 Essences began as a column written by Carmen Sterba in  the North American Post in Seattle, WA, a bilingual  newspaper in Japanese and English. Its purpose is to go  back to the roots of the “haiku movement” in North America:  the major poets, the individual styles of haiku, the books, the  journals and conferences as they evolved from the sixties  and seventies onwards. This will be a short version, so feel  free to add information and comments as we go along.

Essence #1

BY Carmen Sterba

Because Japan was closed to the West for about 250 years during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868), the first translations of haiku in English did not appear until the late 1800s. Though Japanese-Americans wrote haiku before the 1950s, it was not until after WWII that the Beat poets became influenced by haiku when Gary Snyder returned to the U.S. after his study in Japan. In 1955, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Snyder studied  the four volumes of Haiku by British ex-patriate and scholar R. H. Blyth. His books are still used as a guide to understanding haiku. In 1963, Blyth chose American J.W. Hackett as the international haiku poet with the most potential. These are two of Hackett’s haiku:

                                                            A bitter morning:
                                                                sparrows sitting together
                                                                    without any necks.  

                                                            Searching the wind,
                                                                the hawk’s cry . . .
                                                                    is the shape of his beak.

The Japan Airlines Haiku Contest picked “bitter morning” as it’s first winner in 1964. These two haiku still resonate and actually seem more modern than a lot of haiku written in the 21st century. The fact that these are not written in 17 syllables is explained by Hackett, “Don’t write everything in 5-7-5 form, since in English this often causes padding and contrivance.” The set count of 5-7-5 in Japanese corresponds to short sounds called “on” rather than syllables. It’s understandable that haiku in America has evolved in different ways; however, when it comes to good haiku, it is the essence that counts.

For the most part, Japanese haiku poets and Japanese Literature scholars are baffled by the strong connection between English haiku and Zen Buddhism. Zen has, however, contributed much to western culture, both through its understanding and its misunderstanding. How do you see this in your current attraction to, and understanding of, haiku?

Both haiku appeared in Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett, 1983.

This Post Has 30 Comments

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  2. Thanks for passing on this article, Gabi. It’s just the kind of article I’m collecting to expand my resources for a workshop I do on aspects of Japanese culture and communication styles.

    Edward Hoffman, in his special to The Japan Times,
    Is correct in saying that the younger generation of Japanese are much more polite than their elders think they are. They are very caring towards each other and I think they are much more willing to talk to a stranger or foreigner than their parents generation
    or grandparents generation.

    I think Hoffman’s rather hard on Americans though.
    He’s only lived in Japan for a short time. He’s still in the “I love everything stage.”

    You are so blessed to live outside of Tokyo, Gabi!

  3. quoting Carmen

    “It is hard for Japanese to understand that westerners can be interested in Japanese culture or prefer to “practice” an eastern religion. We may see that as our right as citizens of a pluralistic society or a part of internationalization; whereas, the Japanese may see it as odd or incongruous.”

    Today in the Japan Times is an interesting article about social values and doubts about the “Westernization” of Japan

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/eo20100516a1.html

    How does our social background and education affect the understanding of Haiku ? Even in ELH, we have poets from many countries, with different mother tongues to start from.
    And reading translations of Japanese haiku, how many problems arise when reading it with a “Western mindset” or a “Japanese mindset” ?

    I have tried to cultivate both over the last 30 year since living in Japan, but for me “Western” is mostly German (and I often find myself puzzled at the “American mindset”).

    I know, this might open a Pandorras box :o)

    Gabi

  4. I practised Japanese Archery (kyuudoo), the way of the bow, for about 15 years at a Zen temple while living in Kamakura.
    Now in the woods of Okayama, I practise “without bow and arrow”, as my teacher showed me when we had to part.
    If you want to excel, you have to excel your own self …
    the same holds for words used for poetry … it can be used as WAY .
    I therefore pracise now Haiku Doo, The Way of Haiku, but this is my very own special concoction … :o)
    .
    (Sorry I can not add a LINK to this here in this BLOG, but if you google with
    greve haiku doo
    you find my ramblings.)
    .

  5. Allan, I agree that “Blyth overstated the case at times, and in perhaps a one-dimensional sort of way, but also seemed to contradict himself at other points (perhaps not surprising given how voluminous his writings are).”

    My impression is that Blyth had gotten a glimpse of Zen, then started to see it everywhere; a bit like a child who realizes that everyone has a belly-button, and starts seeing them everywhere.

    In addition, his mentor was D.T. Suzuki, who is a bit controversial for “dumbing down” Zen in order to make it “accessible” to Westerners.

    So the question of whether Zen is integral to haiku depends on one’s understanding of Zen.

    The most accurate description I’ve heard is that Zen is a way of seeing reality exactly as it is, and living in accordance with it. Trying to describe Zen is a bit like trying to describe the contents of a mirror.

    So far as haiku are a means of seeing ordinary reality in a clear, non-judging way, there is Zen in haiku. But there can be just as much Zen in washing dishes or taking out the garbage, if it’s done mindfully. As the old saying goes, “Nothing special.”

  6. Carmen, That is probably true. Perhaps that’s why ELH is so necessary for those of us who have not been raised or had the opportunity to have such a close association with the Japanese as to understand Japanese haiku properly. There is also the difficulty of having a diverse population in the West that is fragmented. We often have difficulty understanding each other. But there is something that I have received from ELH that I find valuable. But I would never assume that it is what the Japanese find valuable in haiku.

  7. Soon after Buddhism reached Japan’s shores (via India, China and Korea), there was some resistance. Then Shotoku Taishi (574-622) speeded up the spread of Buddhism after he became converted. He remains a figure of legendary importance in Japanese history.

    Let me try to explain in a few words how Japanese see haiku. The talent of haiku poets in Japan is regarded as something elite. Some of the words used are often archaic and are not understood by the average Japanese.

    Living in Japan, I realized that the average Japanese
    believes that they love nature more than others, just as many Americans believe they love freedom more than others. I was often told that only Japan has four distinct seasons (and other countries have only 2 or 3 seasons, or if they have 4 seasons, they are not as distinct). Since Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world, and haiku is imagined to be inscrutable for foreigners, it is understandable that there is doubt and surprise that haiku can be written in English by anyone.

  8. I’m more concerned with whether or not I can bring haiku into an “all US” kind of situation. It’s the situation I find myself in … dealing primarily with the poetry of haiku. I agree with Lynne that people need to relate to their own experiences in order to write poetry with a degree of honesty about it. My biggest problem at this point will be trying to disengage people’s attitude about “pun-ku” kind of haiku.

  9. Yes, and Japan is an island nation that has been the world’s #2 economy for years now. The Japanese people were open to baseball, David Bowie, hamburgers, Andy Warhol, and Raymond Carver. I’ve seen Edo period woodcut prints depicting noh actors portraying settlers and American indians. Christianity has made inroads into their society. Its hard for me to believe most Japanese can’t relate to our (possibly to them eccentric) interest in diverse aspects of their cultural heritage.

  10. Mindful of Chris P’s note about what is “safe” (but who wants to play it safe all the time?), I’d like to note that the Japanese shouldn’t be too perplexed by “our” interest in “Eastern” practices such as Zen since they did quite a bit to bring them to these shores–notably, figures such as the two Suzukis, D. T. and Shunryu. And haiku often came along with it, as when Clement Hoyt, who went on to become an editor of American Haiku, learned haiku from his Zen Master, Nyogen Senzaki, back in the 1930s.

    Of course, though, Buddhism is bigger than Zen or any particular culture’s take on it, and it has been moving eastward for a long time. It took approximately a thousand years for it to spread to Japan, where it was introduced by Korean monks in 552 C.E. Then, it was no doubt considered “odd or incongruous” for Japanese to be interested in something that had emerged, as Kala has noted, from India. But geography is hardly the point, esp. in our period of, as Carmen has said, internationalization.

  11. “If Japanese haiku poets/scholars are, for the most part, baffled by the Zen connection to western haiku can you give me some idea what approach they do take when writing their haiku? What mindset/ideas are in operation when they’re making them? For example, are cultural references particularly important? Or sound? Or the idea of writing for the self and/or for others?”

    Lynne, As far as content, I think cultural allusions are very important in Japanese haiku and that is one reason it is hard to translate. There are traditionalists who write mostly about nature and the modernists who value their imaginations to guide them in writing haiku or a combination of the two. In addition, the combination of sounds in the words which are chosen set one haiku apart from another.

    As much as everyone respects Basho and other early haiku poets, the modernists want to keep pushing the envelope in their artistic perception. The modernization and Westernization that started in the late 19th century brought new vocabulary and new influences to haiku; therefore, Japanese are a bit baffled by how much international poets are focused on Basho and the 17th century in many ways (including Zen). It is hard for Japanese to understand that westerners can be interested in Japanese culture or prefer to “practice” an eastern religion. We may see that as our right as citizens of a pluralistic society or a part of internationalization; whereas, the Japanese may see it as odd or incongruous.

  12. “It’s worth pointing out that many Buddhists are not comfortable with the Western term “religion” –Allan B

    Then again, many Westerners are uncomfortable with the term ‘religion’ albeit for different reasons.

    “Religion is what you’re left with when the Spirit leaves the building.” –Bono

    And it’s probably safe to say (if anything is safe to say when talking politics or religion) that many, if not most folks, of all persuasions, consider their path “quite a different order of thing” not to be ‘lumped in’ with everyone else’s ; )

  13. “Zen has, however, contributed much to western culture, both through its understanding and its misunderstanding. How do you see this in your current attraction to, and understanding of, haiku?”

    Hello Carmen, thanks so much for your article above.

    My relationship to haiku is primarily as a form of poetry, as a writer and a reader. All poets bring their own experiences to bear on their work – emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual – but, for me, haiku ‘as poetry’ is what is most important: what it has to say (subject matter/content) and how it says it (the craft of writing, language and form). I suppose I’m saying I believe that poetry in general has the capacity to provide great insights and new perspectives on existence, and that it’s not necessary to have a zen background to write an accomplished haiku or sonnet.

    If Japanese haiku poets/scholars are, for the most part, baffled by the zen connection to western haiku can you give me some idea what approach they do take when writing their haiku? What mindset/ideas are in operation when they’re making them? For example, are cultural references particularly important? Or sound? Or the idea of writing for the self and/or for others?

    I hope this isn’t too general a query, or taking the discussion to far off track.

    Thank-you.

  14. Thank you Allan for your insights. I don’t remember whether Ikkoku used the word “religion” or some other term. We were speaking beyond words. That’s something I find uniquely positive in poetry when it happens. I find myself embroiled in word situations all the time… Sometimes all one needs is one word… He brought it up, I did not. I sent my very first attempts at understanding haiku to him. He was extremely kind in his welcoming me into the practice… in spite of my words.

  15. It’s worth pointing out that many Buddhists are not comfortable with the Western term “religion”, for which there is no real Eastern equivalent. Etymologically, “religion” comes from the Latin for “obligation” or “bond”, specifically indicating a “bond” between humans and a god or gods. This term works quite well for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the “desert religions” of the Middle East), but it has nothing to do with Buddhism, which is atheistic and evolved without contact with those other traditions. Many of us prefer to describe Buddhism as a “practice” or “path” or “Way”.

    Also note the phenomenon of syncretism in the East. One can be any combination of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shintoist, and so on at the same time. There isn’t the idea of a mutually exclusive commitment to one tradition (although it is certainly possible). But that’s not the case in the Middle Eastern and Western traditions, where one is *either* a Christian or a Muslim, never both.

    So, anyway, I don’t lump Buddhism together with the “desert religions”. Despite certain superficial similarities at the level of culture and institutionalization, I think it’s actually quite a different order of thing.

    To round it off with a ku:

    stone buddha not the church-going type
    (Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, Stone Buddha, tel-let, 2009)

  16. I was attracted to haiku not because of any religious connection but because of its simplicity and exactness in conveying a moment of awareness. Ever since I had taken an art class years before I had become more attuned to notice small and fleeting moments of beauty, of an awareness of nature, of the extraordinary life of everything living, of the form of all things. Haiku, perhaps because of its brevity, seemed to me to be the perfect poem to capture these moments. I don’t know if this awareness has anything to do with my Christian upbringing or is simply a maturing of my powers of observation.

    Adelaide

  17. When I was writing to Ikkoku Santo in Japan, when I first started becoming involved with the haiku community…he was deeply grieved by the fact that the younger generation had drifted away from the religion. We Christians are no stranger that that phenomenum. We had long discussions about this difficulty. During our discussions we tried to understand each other’s religious points of view and it was a very rewarding endeavor not that either of us came close to understanding the religion, but in the fact that we came close to understanding each other as human beings. He passed away about the same time my late husband did. I sent him a sumie (one of the last I had ever done and wasn’t sure I could do that one but it came out o.k. somehow) in his last illness. His widow passed on to me that it meant something to him. In these coming together of people it seems to me is the “life-ness” of true religion. We never really understand each other in this world. And yet through haiku there is a path…

  18. Cross-cultural understanding is so very important !!—Gabi

    Very interesting dialogues here.

    They say that a child should be taken from the known to the unknown, isn’t it the same even with adults?

    In india, it is a well known fact that Buddhism is a branch of Vedanta, so we do understand Zen and later the connection with haiku, [being rooted in the moment, and the oneness of all living things], because that formed the basis of vedanta.

    Just my two paise worth of thoughts …
    Kala Ramesh

  19. I wasn’t involved in the zendo, Gabi, but did seek out links to haiku history in Kamakura. While reading one of R. H. Blyth’s books, I read that he was buried at the Zen temple, Tokei-ji across from his mentor in Zen, world-famous Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. (Daisetsu) Suzuki. At that time I had just moved to Kamakura and knew that Tokei-ji was only a 10-minute walk from my home. After that, I often visited his grave while viewing the gardens at the temple.

    Here’s J. W. Hackett’s haiku for Blyth:

    Over Blyth’s grave:
    an offering of morning rain
    muddy knees, brow

    Go to http://www.hacketthaiku.com/haiku.html#
    for a vast selection of Hackett’s haiku.

  20. “I lived half of my life in Japan. Part of it was in Kamakura”

    Whow, I lived there too for about 15 years, before moving out to Okayama in 1995. I was close to Shido san, zen priest an Engaku-Ji and practised archery (kyuudoo) in the temple.

    If you know the Zen-scene of Kamakura and Hase with the famous English-spoken zendo … well, I used to call them “MAC ZEN”, since I often met the gaijin adepts at McDonalds near Kamakura Station .. think of the good old times …

    Gabi

  21. Allen, thanks for Hackett’s original version.

    I agree with your comment, “I don’t think any truly serious scholars, like, say, Makoto Ueda, are “baffled” by the connection between haiku and Buddhism; but I think they have a nuanced understanding of it.”

    When I wrote that current Japanese haiku poets and scholars are baffled by the “strong connection between English haiku and Zen Buddhism,” I was singling out Zen Buddhism. As you also pointed out above, traditional haiku poets were from different sects of Buddhism.

    As far as Japanese in the 20th and 21st centuries, I would say that almost all Japanese are culturally Buddhist (and Shinto), but visit temples or shrines mostly on holidays or seasonal visits to family graves. Most scholars would say that over 90% of Japanese are atheists.

    I have a tendency to make bold remarks like this because I lived half of my life in Japan. Part of it was in Kamakura where there are some of earliest Zen temples built in Japan. I often saw Zen monks from Engaku-ji, right near the train station in North Kamakura, where I lived. Unfortunately, I never met any Japanese who were active Zen Buddhists. On the other hand, I’m pleased to know a number of devoted Zen Buddhists among the international haiku community.

  22. “I wonder, if haiku can be transferred to different nations, can it also be fully understood with different religious backgrounds?”

    That stands for all cultural aspects written about in Japanese haiku for example, I feel.

    Especially with the old masters, we even have to make a time trip back to the Edo period to fully understand them in their own time and culture.
    And to bring that to a reader via a translation can be quite a difficult task …

    I always feel better if I can add an explanation to a certain translation I do, keeping in mind that most readers otuside of Japan will not be familiar with the cultural background.

    Cross-cultural understanding is so very important !!

    Gabi

  23. Eve Luckring wrote about my comment in Sails #7:

    “Your post a while back . . . about Ban’ya Natsuishi’s flying pope poems opened the door I needed to finally access what he might be doing in those pieces.”

    Eve, it’s my interpretation of Ban’ya’s “Flying Pope” series from things he has said when I met him at haiku conferences in the UK and Japan and from what he has written in his haiku journal, Ginyu.

  24. I wonder, if haiku can be transferred to different nations, can it also be fully understood with different religious backgrounds? My assumption being: is there a point where all religions meet…just as there is a point where all humanity is human. This is very interesting to me and I will really enjoy this discussion.

  25. It’s worth pointing out that the original version of Hackett’s sparrow haiku, from AH 1.1 (1963), goes like this:

    Bitter morning:
    sparrows sitting
    without necks.

    (4-4-3)

    He later revised it to make it 5-7-5 for the Japan Airlines contest, and that’s the version that appears above in Essence #1.

    Also, as I’ve pointed out a number of times, a large number of key figures in Japanese haiku were either Zen or Pure Land Buddhists: Bashō, Jōsō, Chiyo-ni, Buson, Issa, Sōseki, Santōka, and others. So, I don’t think any truly serious scholars, like, say, Makoto Ueda, are “baffled” by the connection between haiku and Buddhism; but I think they have a nuanced understanding of it.

    Blyth overstated the case at times, and in perhaps a one-dimensional sort of way, but also seemed to contradict himself at other points (perhaps not surprising given how voluminous his writings are). He also narrowed the focus to Zen.

    He certainly wasn’t just making stuff up in a vacuum, though. He was in Japan from 1936 until his death in 1964 and drafted, along with Harold Henderson, the Emperor’s post-war declaration that he wasn’t divine. He tutored the Crown Prince Akihito and was a professor at Gakushuin University. So he was immersed in the culture in a big way. And some important Japanese haiku poets, like Shigemoto, have said they were influenced and inspired by Blyth’s work.

    Here, btw, is Blyth’s death poem:

    I leave my heart
    to the sasanqua flower
    on the day of this journey

  26. thanks to some help from Scott, I found the post I referred to above (from Carmen on 7th Sailing in regards to gendai haiku)

    “One good example is Ban’ya’s “Flying Pope” series. I have picked up on his consternation towards how Zen- centered much of international haiku seems to the Japanese. Yet, it’s not easy for Japanese to know how much Blyth’s interpretations of haiku influenced Western poets or know that a good number of Western haiku poets are dedicated Buddhists and a large number feel something akin to Eastern philosophy.

    It is my guess, that Ban’ya wrote the “Flying
    Pope” series as a reaction towards haiku abroad that contain the expressions such as “laughing buddha.” One or two reviewers wondered what Ban’ya even knew about the pope or Catholicism, and I realized that this is the reaction he must have expected. But the truth is that as a college professor who lived in France and is well-versed in international events, Ban’ya must remember how the press used to call Pope John Paul the “Flying Pope” because of his constant travel. So, here we have the paradox of people in the East and West expecting each other to stick to their own cultural associations.”

  27. Carmen,
    I look forward to the discussions here.

    Your post a while back (I can’t seem to get the search function to work for me) about Ban’ya Natsuishi’s flying pope poems opened the door I needed to finally access what he might be doing in those pieces.

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