What relationship have you discovered between haiku and meditation? A certain kind of hokum accompanies much of haiku today. People imagine it to be something other than it is in spiritual terms. But haiku is very, very simple. In the same way that you make yourself very simple by following the breath. You clear your mind, let go of everything else. In the same way, writing haiku takes you right to the heart of the moment. That’s the Zen of haiku, really. Being able to let go of everything and enter into this space. Haiku is seventeen syllables long, so it seems very small.
Do you consider haiku to be part of your meditation practice, or is it a practice unto itself? I think it’s a practice unto itself. It’s not a formula that you can just practice and attain the desired results. You have to really throw your heart into it, with no remainder. It’s certainly not scary. It’s just this delightful little poem, really. The haiku mind and the Zen mind are ultimately not different from one another.
Do you have a strict discipline for practicing haiku? I did for many years. From the time of my elementary school days, I walked every day—two or three hours a day. Toward the end of high school, I started combining it with haiku, because I found that I could write haiku while I was on these walks. And so then, for almost twenty years, haiku was the thing I did when I was walking. That was my daily discipline. But I didn’t realize that this was a spiritual practice for a long time, I just did it for its own sake, almost as a hobby. I didn’t take it very seriously until I discovered that when everything else was gone, that was what remained. When I left the monkhood, when my first marriage was gone, when my first teacher had died. When there was nothing left, haiku was there—sort of a treasure that had been there all along and I had not taken it to heart.
You have taught haiku for years, and you have taught meditation. Do you see a similar transformation with students of each? Sometimes I see deeper transformation in my haiku students. The problem is that when people practice meditation—especially since we’re all almost all converts—of necessity that involves, at least in the early years, a sort of neurotic investment of energy. It doesn’t accomplish anything. You sort of overshoot the mark. My haiku students are able to absorb the teaching and find the teaching within themselves, almost without realizing that they have or that it’s coming.
How does haiku do that? It drops you right off at the doorstep [laughs]. You just knock and see for yourself. Sometimes, aiming lower you accomplish more, and haiku is something that, if you like it and practice it as a hobby, you may find that you are doing it all the time. So that this is a meditative awareness training you are engaging in constantly, all day long. How many people can really meditate or follow their breath all day long? How effective is that, really? I don’t know. I tend to think that people often have truer, deeper results when they approach their life or their lifestyle on a realistic level. Haiku does that for a lot of people, I think.
Seeds from a Birch Tree
A haiku ought to make sense literally. It must be understandable right away. The objective image is the flesh and bone of the haiku. Without it there is no poem.
Here is a haiku by Sister Benedicta, an Episcopal nun whom I came to know by chance when my wife noticed her reading a book of haiku on a New York City bus.
inside our chapel
with beings of wood
seeds from a birch tree
The scene is simple: through the door of he chapel the seeds of a birch tree have blown, scattering across the floor. Above and all around them are the holy figures of a convent chapel, a place of prayer and contemplation.
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