Wednesday, 10 January 2007





by Bruce Ross

How can I construct my humble hut right here in the midst of Oxford Circus? How can I do that in the confusion of cars and buses? How can I listen to the singing of birds and also to the leaping of fish? How can one turn all the showings of the shop window displays into the freshness of green leaves swayed by the morning breeze? How am I to find the naturalness, artlessness, utter self-abandonment of nature in the utmost artificiality of human works? This is the great problem set before us these days.

D. T. Suzuki, addressing a conference of world religions in London, 1936

To find perfect composure in the midst of change is to find nirvana.

Shunryu Suzuki

Meditation is not an escape from life . . . but preparation for really being in life.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Haiku developed in an agrarian culture with spiritual roots deeply embedded in the natural seasons and their many facets. A visit to contemporary Tokyo might set one wondering amidst the skyscrapers and high tech apparatus where that culture has gone to. This is what the Japanese cultural historian D. T. Suzuki is

wondering too as he considers modern London in the 1930’s.

A number of years ago a prominent Canadian haiku poet suggested that no one makes a distinction between haiku and senryu anymore. If haiku, as I believe, is essentially a nature poem, what will happen to the haiku poem if, as Suzuki noted, nature is shut out in the clamor of the modern urban setting? Although the modern technological world has fascinated many and even become a desired object of aesthetics at its beginning as in Futurism, the commercialism of that desire has transformed the very presence of nature, as Suzuki understood it, in our collective lives.

The problematic for haiku is: Has some connection with nature that helps define haiku been lost? There is even a serious contemporary culture study entitled The End of Nature. In many places around the world nature and our awareness of nature has been eclipsed by the lingua franca of commercialism, technology, and so-called natural resources. More and more haiku has reflected this new consciousness and haiku has elided into senryu, with even literary haiku relating to the wit and conciseness of TV commercials and the emotional subject matter of soap operas. There is an excitement in the consumerist explosion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century West that is reminiscent of the middle class explosion in seventeenth-century Japan. The liveliness and easy cleverness of some contemporary world haiku is also reminiscent of similar values in the poetry of seventeenth-century Japan, values Basho, the first major Japanese haiku poet, worked against. In much of the contemporary world haiku nature has become a contrivance or a clever artifice.

Granted such changes reflect a new kind of consciousness wrought by the profusion of technological culture, whether right or wrong. A theorist of this culture, Marshall McLuhan, famously declared : “The media is the message.” The influence of that media is undeniable. Nature becomes more real and more desirable in its enhanced representation in such media than nature in itself. No longer the Japanese ideal of improving nature, media is now replacing nature.

D. T. Suzuki was witnessing the inception of this change, but he was also aware that the aesthetic challenges of this change were connected to the very nature of consciousness. Buddhism, with its focus on achieving pure consciousness, and Shinto, with its focus on the sacredness of nature, define the Japanese culture and support traditional haiku. The new Western cityscape that fascinated the cultural historian Walter Benjamin would rightly disorient the traditionalist Suzuki. As he wrote somewhere, the trick is not to maintain higher consciousness in a mountain monastery but at a cocktail party. The modern Zen Buddhist master Shunryu Suzuki further conceptualizes this issue in one of the epigraphs: the issue is to maintain mindful consciousness under any circumstance. The well-known Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh reiterates in the third epigraph the relation of mindfulness to every life experience. The goal is to “really be in life.”

A recent film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill documents the life of a more-or-less street person musician who is house sitting on a tree covered hill in San Francisco, one of the largest cities in the United States. He feels aimless and thinks that connecting with nature might be solution. At some point he reads a book by the poet Gary Snyder in which Snyder says that if you are looking for nature, start where you are. The subject of the documentary basically follows Snyder’s advice and adopts a flock of wild parrots. The film follows his transformation, as he names the individual parrots and develops a unique relationship with each one of them. Humans worldwide desire to be connected to nature, the source of food, aesthetic pleasure, and our very bodies. One thinks of companion animals and house plants as well as formal and informal gardens and parks proliferating the most densely populated cities on earth. One thinks of holidays linked to ancient seasonal activities, such as May Day, or new ones, like Earth Day.

Traditional Japanese haiku is defined by its connection with nature, with a mandatory season word or phrase, a kigo, in each haiku. Therefore traditional Japanese haiku collections are organized according to the four seasons and New Year’s. New Year’s, The Festival of the Dead, Obon, and the Golden Week, three unrelated festivals, are the biggest holidays in Japan, with many others relating to agriculture and nature spirits. The Golden Week has in the modern period added, as have many cultures, Green or Environment Day, to reflect a worldwide correction of the exploitation of nature. In essence the nature connection in haiku is an aesthetic reflection of the beauty found in nature. The pressures of the modern and particularly postmodern world have helped undermine not only the basic connection with nature in nature but also the aesthetic sense of beauty in nature. Under such pressures, the kigo can seem to be anachronistic and basically old fashioned, lacking the deconstructive sense that informs so much postmodern art. Therefore, to paraphrase a witticism read on a haiku online list, to produce a haiku you need only write what you want and add a weather report. The nature connection here is reduced to an empty convention. I have used the phrase “absolute metaphor” as a positive assertion of the organic necessity of the nature connection in haiku. The aesthetic appreciation of nature is even claimed to exist in non-human animals. One of the major themes of lyric poetry worldwide has been this very same appreciation.

Unlike the wonderfully emotive metaphors constructed in such poetry, haiku provides a more objective connection with nature in and of itself. Fools Crow, a modern Sioux holy man, has offered some insight into what such a connection might be: “People, other creatures, and the rest of creation are linked together. Thinking in dimensions like this . . . stretches and expands the mind” (Fools Crow, Wisdom and Power, 62). He describes this special nature of communing with the world “becoming.” In this act one literally holds an object in their hands or, if it is too big, in their heart (64). One, for example, would hold a rock and talk to it, then listen to its response. Fools Crow claims they would become friends and, as a result, he would gain insight into the rock (64), which is reminiscent of Basho’s suggestion that “to learn about the pine, go to the pine.” Fools Crow and Basho may not be so apparently foolish, interacting with nature. Dr. Masaru Emoto has done experiments with ice crystals in which Japanese words with differing emotional meanings are taped to the containers of developing crystals and corresponding thoughts are projected onto them. Positive words and thoughts produced harmonious crystals. Negative words and thoughts produced unharmonious crystals. Fools Crow says that in such exchanges with nonhuman things his “mind grows” and the more he has such exchanges “the wiser [he] . . . becomes about everything” (64). An essay by Shigeru Awagi, Sakura and the Japanese Mind, examines the development of the aesthetic appreciation of cherry blossoms. The author suggests that this perhaps most used symbol of beauty in Japanese haiku is related from an early period to rice blossoms and mountain gods among the cherry blossoms (Simply Haiku, July-August 2004). I have expanded this idea of sympathetic magic to this equation: sakura mind = Japanese mind as it applies to haiku and the aesthetic appreciation of nature.

A Japanese professor of literature once said that a haiku should close tightly like a box, not one word could be added or taken away. In the poetic sutra, The Sandokai, by Sekito Kisen, a student of the 6th patriarch Hui-Neng, the relationship between the relative and absolute are explored. One phrase suggests that the “absolute and relative fit like a box and its lid.” In a way, Fools Crow’s “becoming” might be an experience in which the absolute and relative perfectly commingle as in a “haiku moment.” In such a haiku there is an aesthetic “rightness” that belies the postmodern deconstructive tendencies. In other words such haiku “open up” into an emotive whole of the relative and absolute that seems perfectly formulated and sound. Another professor of Japanese literature, Ian Hideo Levy, has pointed out somewhere in his Hitomoro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism that the two-part traditional tanka structure was composed of a nature component and a human component. This tanka structure might be found in the two-part organization of traditional haiku: a connection with nature in general and a connection with a particular aspect or action in nature, both separated by a kireji or “cutting word.” We might see the initial nature connection in tanka or haiku as representing the universal and the secondary connection with human nature or a specific aspect or action in nature in tanka or haiku as representing the particular. This universal/particular specifically adds the enigmatic depth to the haiku form.

However, such a form supportive of the interconnectedness of all things has in our contemporary situation come up against a world decidedly out of balance. The director Godfrey Reggio has documented this catastrophe in three films whose titles are based on Hopi Indian concepts: Life Out of Balance; Life in Transformation; and Life as War. This trilogy is basically a critique of contemporary life with its frenzied pace, overpopulation, technological dependency, and destructiveness. Without dialogue, images of this life are contrasted with images of the tranquility and mystery of nature. The last section, Life as War, ends with a fireworks-like display of nuclear weaponry. In a less aggressive way through a lyrical cinematic style of innocence, wonder, and nostalgia the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has explored in films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away the receding claims of a nature full of gods, spirits, and wonder. In the award-winning Spirited Away with its contemporary frame of reference there is even a river god covered in sludge to symbolize the very real destruction of nature on our planet. In the film the river is cleaned up, but in real life matters are not so simple.

Nature is truly in a state of collapse. Despite the recommendations of the Kyoto Protocol many countries have not reduced their industrial emissions, the so-called “greenhouse gasses,” thus rising world temperatures. In the Swiss Alps a ski resort has placed plastic sheets on its glacier to reduce a summer melt caused by global warming. When a cancer specialist saw a photograph of the North West United States taken from outer space he said it looked like cancer growth, a striking comment on overpopulation. Perhaps the last group of Brazil’s stone age rain forest Indians who have not been contacted by modern culture have recently fled their village at the approach of loggers. So human nature is in collapse. Its language is in collapse: the lingua franca and jargon of commercialism. There is a lack of sensitivity and values and an understated cynicism. Internal human nature is in collapse with war, genocide, and intolerance. People have begun to appreciate artificial reality more than natural reality. This is the postmodern condition.

Haiku has begun to reflect this state of collapse in challenging subjects, many of which have always existed in human culture. Marian Olson of the United States offers a hint of the displacement and homesickness felt by expatriates in a time when moving to another part of the country or to another country is more common than not:

crashing surf
argue on the sea wall

Angelee Deodhar of India and Jean Jorgensen of Canada present through the lens of their own compassion the pathos of a lapse in humanity’s kindness that should be bestowed on those less fortunate:

winter evening
the beggar’s breath joins
smoke from the fire

blowing snow
young hooker’s face softened
by the street lamp’s glow

These two unfortunates are looking for human as well as actual warmth but that is not to be easily found. And others look for a way out of the postmodern condition through valueless compulsive behavior. Paul David Mena of the United States contemplates one such compulsion:

darkening skies¾

the sidewalks littered
with lottery tickets

We are left with our disconnect with nature and human nature in the postmodern condition, illustrated in part by these poems. Imagining that we are only experiencing the shock of the new is to seriously underestimate our condition. Just see how young people thrive on computer games. We are left with that familiar anguished phrase: What can we do? Fools Crow thinks we are the cause of our condition: “Only human beings have the power to unbalance the earth, and when they unbalance the earth they unbalance themselves” (Fools Crow, Wisdom and Power, 67). We can see what Basho did in his travel journals. When asked by courtesans to accompany them, probably for protection, to another town, Basho said he couldn’t and continued on his way in another direction. When he encountered a starving orphan boy, Basho gave him some food and continued on his way. Shunryu Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh would suggest that internal balance enables us to face the challenges of a changing world without losing that balance.

Such balance allows us to maintain our birthright connection with the natural world and with human nature. It allows us to experience a wholeness of being that is being constantly disrupted by the postmodern condition. In haiku it allows us to recapture a primal language of feeling in relation to nature and human nature.

That language reconnects us to natural beauty, perhaps most concretized by flower blossoms. Here Rob Scott of Australia, Richard von Sturmer of New Zealand, Etsuko Yanagibori of Japan, and Ion Codrescu of Romania encounter that balance and that language in their appreciations of such blossoms:

plum blossoms¾

the clear blue sky is

part of the scent

red red hibiscus,

its stamen casting

a purple shadow

cherry blossoms

fall in the rain

without a sound

a chrysanthemum lights

the darkened garden

all alone

The demonstrative beauty of blossoms are not the only repository of feeling. Paul Miller of the United States responds not only to the summer reeds, perhaps jostled by a breeze, but the river below the reeds:

tall summer reeds

not a word said

about the river

Even a seeming catastrophe in nature retains some of that feeling in this haiku by Patricia Neubauer of the United States:

after the storm

that broke the pine

a resin scented night

Such feeling extends even to the small things in nature. Here Zinvoy Vayman of the United States and Russia has empathy of an almost Buddhist sense for a snail:

crawl, crawl, my snail,

carry your house

until it’s empty

Cyril Childs of New Zealand returns to the primal roots of early culture to evoke the spiritual nature of humanity’s connection with nature through a perhaps Shinto priest:

mountain summit¾

a white-clad priest

releases his prayers

Many urban dwellers around the world unfortunately will never experience such a scene. Yet the intimations of our birthright relationship with nature are there in our urban centers.

The cycles of rice cultivation, as we’ve noticed, have been integrated with spiritual beliefs from the earliest periods of Japanese culture. The resonance of this inheritance is found in this delicate urban haiku by Eiko Yachimoto of Japan:

new coolness¾

refined rice flowing off

the store-front machine

Patricia Neubauer captures this nature and urban synthesis with perhaps a bit of wit in a haiku on the Eastern dragon and its symbolism of natural spiritual energy:

New Year’s parade¾

beneath the dancing dragon

the feet of men

New York City is one of the most populated cities in the world. Yet there is a huge park containing lakes, rock ledges, and tree-lined paths in its center. Ion Codrescu observes the stillness to be found in such a place with an urban-tinged irony:

Central Park¾

two mime artists perform

without an audience

This talk began with a problem D. T. Suzuki saw in the unnatural environment of London at the beginning of the modern world. The Canadian biology researcher Bob Kull spent a year alone on an isolated island off the coast of Chile where he meditated daily and experienced the beauty and wonder of wild nature. He could not, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, walk into town for dinner. He summed up his gained wisdom, almost as a response to Suzuki, as he prepared to leave the island: “The realization that all is sacred can be difficult to live with. It takes practice to open the heart and mind to life as it actually is wherever I am. To remember that if there is a Spirit in solitude, so, too, in a crowd; if my shelter was sacred, so, too, the city” (Canadian Geographic May/June 2004, 124).

Two last haiku, a tender one by An’ya Petrovic of the United States and a light-hearted one by Klaus-Dieter Wirth of Germany, seem to support Kull and the possibility of wholeness and balance :

scented breeze

the town’s name written

in sweet alyssum

with each step

out of the subway

more summer

Bruce Ross
Hampden, Maine

The haiku are all unpublished and used by permission of the authors.