Haiku: Absence towards eternity

There is a fa­mous anec­dote of the leg­endary haiku poet Basho (1644-1694). One of his dis­ci­ples showed Basho his fel­low’s haiku. This dis­ci­ple ex­claimed that the piece de­picted the scene very well. Responding to this, how­ever, Basho made a strik­ing re­mark:

If you ex­plain every­thing well (in haiku), what will re­main be­hind?’

This com­ment means haiku should al­ways, in a sense, be im­per­fect. Haiku po­ets should leave space for the read­ers’ imag­i­na­tion to be freely in­spired and ac­ti­vated. Being im­per­fect does not mean be­ing sloppy or half-hearted. Haiku po­ets al­ways metic­u­lously re­vise and pol­ish their works. As such, it might be said that haiku should be im­per­fect in a per­fect way. Though this seems a con­tra­dic­tory state­ment, this is what I feel when I make haiku.

Due to its short­ness and im­per­fect­ness, haiku some­times gets close to be­ing al­most ab­sent.

A Kochia tree —
it has
a shadow.

This piece is a haiku made by a fa­mous haiku poet, Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959). It rep­re­sents al­most noth­ing. However, at times, the closer haiku gets to ab­sence, the more it ex­presses some­thing be­yond hu­mans. Some even say haiku can rep­re­sent the whole cos­mos be­cause of this fea­ture. Interestingly, I of­ten hear haiku po­ets com­plain, the form of haiku is too long to write!’ There may be a de­sire in Haiku po­ets to erase their own pres­ence as much as pos­si­ble.

Daisetsu Suzuki, the promi­nent Zen Buddhism prac­ti­tioner and scholar, es­pe­cially ap­praised haiku among many lit­er­ary gen­res. He claims that works of haiku are gen­er­ated from the po­et’s in­tu­ition, and they in­ten­tion­ally stay at the level of in­tu­ition. According to him, this re­sults in ap­proach­ing the Cosmic Unconscious’. In other words, in my opin­ion, it means that haiku al­ways stays at the level of ob­jects and never delves into log­i­cal thoughts. This char­ac­ter­is­tic of haiku is sim­i­lar to Zen.

Haiku is sec­u­lar and sub­lime at the same time, just like Zen. Some haiku po­ets con­fess that haiku is a kind of di­ary. Each tiny form of haiku en­cap­su­lates a mo­ment of our daily life. Below is my haiku as such:

I’d like to go to that high place,”
she says —
and beach san­dals are so soft.

This short piece still gives me the vivid­ness of that mo­ment: full of bright sun­shine, com­fort­able wind, the soft­ness of the sand, and the faint sound of the wave. That com­ment of hers (she is my wife) must have been im­me­di­ately blown away by the wind breez­ing on the beach. But on hear­ing it, I picked up one frag­ment of the com­ment and em­bed­ded it into my haiku. That high place’ was noth­ing spe­cial; merely a small dune on the beach. Nonetheless, it must have pro­vided us with beau­ti­ful scenery of the blue hori­zon and com­fort­able wind.

What each haiku catches is evanes­cent, but what haiku makes us feel can be­come uni­ver­sal and even eter­nal. Haiku is al­ways para­dox­i­cal; brief and im­mense; worldly and heav­enly; ephemeral and in­fi­nite. This is the fas­ci­na­tion of haiku.