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Notes on Taoism and Haiku

Started by DavidGrayson, December 03, 2011, 06:52:21 AM

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There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about the relationship between Zen and haiku. I've found less focus on one of Zen's forebears, Taoism. I think that the topic of Taoism and haiku deserves some attention; as Robert Spiess noted, "One of the historical aspects of haiku is that of Taoism ..." (1)

The Tao Te Ching opens with the declaration:

"The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name." (2)

Spiess writes that "entities in haiku are presented in their unadorned naturalness" (3). The shasei (objective/realist) approach has been predominant in classic haiku and much contemporary American haiku. Through a focus on the everyday world, haiku poets hope to peek into the ultimate reality. As William Carlos Williams famously wrote, "No ideas but in things." Fidelity to things, as they are, is a door through which the conscientious can possibly glimpse the un-nameable Name.

     They end their flight
one by one--
     crows at dusk.

- Buson (4)

Paul Williams observed that strong haiku are often born from our daily lives: "such perceptions as do transform themselves into haiku tend to emerge from the familiar rather than the new" (5). This is in line with the Tao Te Ching: "Thus the Master travels all day / without leaving home" (6). Of course, this is not meant to be a literal injunction against travel or new experiences. Rather, it is a recognition that effective insights often grow out of seeing the same things in a new light.

the golden sunset
i lay waiting on my board
for the perfect wave

- Bruce Feingold (7)

Lao-tzu said: "We shape clay into a pot, / but it is the emptiness inside / that holds whatever we want" [8]. Haiku's brevity and the practice of suggestion -- the spaces before, between, and after the words -- are ways into Lao-tzu's emptiness.

listening to
the ocean's history--
spring sunset

- Fay Aoyagi (9)

One of the objectives of Taoism is to teach people how to conduct their lives and live in harmony with the Tao. Practices like Tai Chi and mediation are designed to help. For haiku poets, the notion of "creative quietude," as Huston Smith terms it, is relevant. Smith describes how "genuine creation, as every artist knows, comes when the more abundant resources of the subliminal self are somehow trapped" (10). This, of course, is challenging but satisfying to achieve.

wind-shaped trees
a young hawk
measures the sky

- paul m. (11)


- Huston Smith writes that "Buddhism processed through Taoism became Zen" (12). I've met several haiku poets who arrived at haiku through a background in Zen or Buddhism. I don't recall the same with Taoism. What is your experience with Taoism, and has it influenced your haiku?

- A search for the terms "Tao," "Taoism," and "Lao Tzu" on Charles Trumbull's Haiku Bibliography produces few results. This points to a relative dearth of writing about the topic in contemporary American haiku. Do you have recommendations to share with readers for good resources on Taoism and haiku?

- Have you composed, or read, any haiku that touch upon or reflect Taoism and its teachings?


(1) Robert Spiess, A Year's Speculations on Haiku (Madison, WI: Modern Haiku, 1995), January twenty-ninth.

(2) Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperPerennial, 2006), Ch. 1.

(3) Spiess, Speculations, January twenty-ninth.

(4) The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, tr. Robert Hass (New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994), 89.

(5) Paul O. Williams, "Loafing Alertly: Observation and Haiku," in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, eds. Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch (Foster City, CA: Press Here, 2001), 21.

(6) Tao, Ch. 26.

(7) Bruce Feingold, A New Moon (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2004), 58.

[8] Tao, Ch. 11.

(9) Fay Aoygai, In Borrowed Shoes (San Francisco: Blue Willow Press), 4.

(10) Huston Smith, The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 208.

(11) paul m., finding the way: haiku and field notes (Foster City, CA: Press Here, 2002).

(12) Smith, World's Religions, 216.

Gabi Greve

I have some here and there in my files.

Start from here

As long as the sun rises
And your heart beats,
Tao is at hand.

Greetings from a cold morning in Japan


Hi Gabi,

Greetings from a cold day in San Francisco!

Thank you so much for sharing the World Kigo Database page. I appreciate that you included wu-wei, which I alluded to in my post. And I love the photo ...



I would surmise it is difficult to assess the direct enfluence Tao philosophy on haikai no renku or haiku on such as Buson; other than, as one applies what one conceives as Tao-ish to translations or original Japanese.  It's like, at least to me, 20/20 hindsight.  Certainly, Yosa Buson, was keen to know the Chinese roots alluded to in his writing as it was in his time common to such poets as he.  I suppose, one could build a case to say that Taoism shaped Chinese poetry and therefore shaped those that were enfluenced thusly.  As I am reading in Professor Cheryl Crowley's book, "Haiku Poet Yosa Buson an the Bashou Revival", Buson was of the "bunjin" (which is as yet not clear to me as I am just starting to read Professor Crowley's book, so, there is much gap to fill).  Although, it seems that the "bunjin" more enfluenced by Confucianism (as contrasted to Taoism); but, I am sure there are overlaps and nuances in both. 

As to haikai and its literary "tree" branches of waka, I think it is reasonable to assume that many Chinese philosophies came into play.

Happy Holidays to David and Gabi!

ciao... chibi

Scott Metz

well, there is Peipei Qiu's book Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai

and an interview with her at Simply Haiku from 2005:

it's certainly a fascinating and important connection, and if it influenced Basho then it certainly, organically, unknowingly, affected m/any of the readers/writers he's influenced.

personally, i'd like to see more study on haiku's connection to Shintōism, Japan's indigenous religion. to me, that's getting to the core/heart of haiku and Japanese culture/society. Buddhism, Zen, Taoism were all, of course, imported and grafted on/in/to Japanese culture, and important in many ways. (in fact, though, i often wonder if one can even talk about Japanese haiku without first discussing, deeply, Shintōism, with it's foci being on Nature and the seasons; it's the roots and trunk, if not the very soil; the others merely feel like branches, or the mere surface of the sea). but the West received Buddhism and Zen first and most forcefully (Blyth). and so that's become the mantra.

Gabi Greve

well I am still working on the many Shinto rituals that are kigo for haiku - and have collected a bit of background information.

Lately I added some of the more famous shrines too.

The Japanese culture of rice growing has its rituals in Shinto shrines, with the emperor being our most important rice planter  . . .

Many of the Shinto rice rituals are kigo

But there should be a lot more out there, quite true!



my scholarship for this discussion is too limited to make any substantive contribution. may i ask whether any of the greater, well known haiku poets studied "taoism" per se. i don't really know whether any of them were recognized as zen students per se. did any receive zen transmission, inka or denbo or whatever it's called.

over the centuries the relationship between haiku poetries and zen buddhism changed substantially as the place of zen among different buddhisms changed, no? am i mistaken. taoism i would have guessed is more a general part of the whole chinese cultural infusion into japanese society over many centuries. there isn't any specifically taoist tradition in japan is there.

as an aside to the discussion once in my youth i asked a scholar about taoism and was quoted Ecclesiastes, everything has its season etc. every spiritual tradition has its own elements of taoism in it.

Quote from: chibi575 on December 05, 2011, 02:09:41 PM
I would surmise it is difficult to assess the direct enfluence Tao philosophy on haikai no renku or haiku on such as Buson; other than, as one applies what one conceives as Tao-ish to translations or original Japanese.  It's like, at least to me, 20/20 hindsight.  Certainly, Yosa Buson, was keen to know the Chinese roots alluded to in his writing as it was in his time common to such poets as he. 

Larry Bole

The direct influence of Taoism on haikai came from reading Zhuangzi, as has been noted above by Scott Metz, referring to Peipei Qiu's book.

As Qiu writes in the introduction, Basho "repeatedly instructed his followers to study the Zhuangzi. According to his disciples, Basho's teaching on haikai 'encapsulated the quintessence of Zhuangzi's thought'." In the course of her book, she cites 67 haikai verses (if I have counted correctly), by both Basho and other poets as well.

Blyth discusses the influence of Taoism on haiku in vol. 1 of Haiku, Section 1, "The Spiritual Origins of Haiku," part 3. Taoism. He starts by quoting from various texts of Laotze (Roushi) and Chuangtse (Soushi) (aka Zhuangzi). He then cites eight haiku that make reference to various of Zhuangzi's writings.

Blyth points out the influence in particular of Zhuangzi's butterfly passage, in which he wonders if he is a man who dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. Blyth points out that "This was the origin of many haiku concerning butterflies..." But of the eight haiku Blyth cites, four are based on other passages of Zhuangzi.

Basho's most direct reference to Zhuangzi's butterfly is probably in this haiku:

kimi ya choo ware ya sooji ga yumegokoro

you're the butterfly
I'm Zhuangzi's
dreaming heart

--Basho, Tr. Barnhill

An excerpt from Barnhill' comment:

"Basho sent this hokku to his disciple Dosui in a letter, where Basho refers to the famous story in Zhuangzi..."


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