The character HAI (俳) in haiku can be translated as “comical” or “not taking itself too seriously,” but mostly it means “playful.” Try to say something too serious in a haiku, and you are likely to end up with a cliché. Handle your subjects with lightheartedness and humor and, eventually, you will find yourself saying something unexpected, and maybe even profound.

The winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge approached the season word “sleeping Buddha” in the spirit of fun.

  • Nancy Winkler offers a playful portrait of a sleeping Shakyamuni resting peacefully on his side in the eternal now.
  • Alex Lubman offers a comical apology for disturbing the Buddha’s nirvana with dreams of the modern world.
  • David Chek Ling Ngo asks the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek question, has anyone ever tried to steal the sleeping Buddha?

Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

You can submit a haiku for the March challenge here.

***

Winter Season Word: Sleeping Buddha

WINNER:

the sleeping Buddha
resting horizontally
in vertical time

— Nancy Winkler

At its most basic, every haiku is a 17-syllable invitation to poetic play. After all, the word haiku means just that: playful verse. But what makes playfulness the defining characteristic of haiku? There are three principal factors: (1) its extreme brevity, (2) its fixed syllabic form, and (3) its focus on a season word.

The extreme brevity of the form makes each effort to produce a haiku essentially “a throw of the dice.” A good haiku seems like a bit of luck—as if the dice, when they stopped rolling, just happened to add up to 17. Whatever craft may have been employed in creating that impression of relaxed spontaneity is usually transparent or concealed. This takes practice, of course, which is where the brevity of the form comes in—it is possible to write a dozen or more haiku in one sitting.

This “toss-of-the-die” quality of haiku derives from its fixed syllabic form. To get the syllables into three lines of 5-7-5 requires very little if we are only “making the words fit” prose-like inside of that form. The moment we endeavor to make them fit optimally, however, we have begun to attempt a poem. Because the form is fixed, those attempts assume a puzzle-like aspect of play.

It is the focus on a season word that allows us to play the game of haiku with others rather than only with ourselves. Writing haiku isn’t like playing solitaire. Success means engaging meaningfully with the seasonal expressions we share in common with other haiku poets. When one poet accomplishes a “perfect throw,” everybody wins.

Sometimes we win the game of haiku by composing a good poem. And sometimes we win vicariously, experiencing the success of a good haiku through reading and appreciating it. That, too, involves an element of play as we unpack its 17 syllables to see what the poet has hidden inside of them.

This month’s winning haiku delivers a remarkably deep but simple turn of thought as it invites us to consider exactly where the “sleeping Buddha” exists in time. Has he transcended the world of temporal concerns? Or is he somehow in that world, but not of it?

The rhythm of the poem is brisk, its phrasing compact. The syllables fit perfectly within the form, giving them the unmistakable ring of finality. But there is also humor. For the Buddha is indeed “resting horizontally.” It’s the physical presence of the reclining statue (revealed through a pun) that grounds the poem in the poet’s present reality and brings the season word to life.

Western people imagine time as existing on two axes. Time flows from past to future along the horizontal axis, just as a human life goes from birth to death. On the vertical axis, time does not move at all. The present is eternally now. “The sleeping Buddha rests horizontally in vertical time.” We have been offered a little glimpse of nirvana.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

if we are your dreams
sleeping buddha, I offer . . .
my apologies 

— Alex Lubman

Have there ever been
any attempts to steal it:
the sleeping buddha

— David Chek Ling Ngo

You can find February’s season word and haiku tips below:


Winter season word: “sleeping Buddha”

While you were napping
there was a mass extinction:
the sleeping buddha

Images of the sleeping Buddha can be found throughout East Asia, where they commemorate the day of his passing into nirvana, a spiritual state often translated as “the extinction of desire.” Standing before a statue of Shakyamuni lying on his side with his eyes closed, it occurred to me that the past 2,500 years might not have been the best time for a nap.

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the winter season word “sleeping Buddha.” Your poems must be written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively, and should focus on a single moment of time happening now.

Be straightforward in your description and try to limit your subject matter. Haiku are nearly always better when they don’t have too many ideas or images. So make your focus the season word and try to stay close to that.

REMEMBER: To qualify for the challenge, your haiku must be written in 5-7-5 syllables and include the words “sleeping Buddha.”

HAIKU TIP: HAVE FUN WITH THE BUDDHA!

In the early 2000s, I became fascinated with Nichiren Buddhism, twice traveling to Japan to study its history and finally even writing a book about it. I never converted. But I came close. The principal appeal was its assertion, based on the Lotus Sutra, that the Buddha did not pass into “extinction” upon attaining nirvana, but became Life itself—what the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” That was a Buddha I could believe in as a haiku poet. A Buddha like that would never transcend the world. He was the world.

Although haiku has often been aligned with Buddhism in the minds of Western readers, there has always been a tension between haiku and the Buddha. Poets love having a bit of fun at his expense. Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) didn’t believe that the Great Buddha at Nara was really meditating. His lowered eyelids suggested to Shiki that he was dozing throughout the spring day. Standing before the same statue a hundred years earlier, Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828) was delighted to see a swallow flying right out of its nose.

The conflict in such cases is nearly always between orthodoxy and animism. The mildness of a spring day is so relaxing and all-enveloping that even the Great Buddha succumbs to it. For the swallow, Amitabha’s nostril is simply another part of Nature, and therefore as good a place as any to build her nest.

In traditional Buddhism, the goal of human existence was to become free from the ceaselessly turning wheel of birth and death. For the animist, the wheel was the point. The cycle of birth and death and the turning of the four seasons have always been one and the same for haiku poets—a source of sadness in some moments, a cause for joy in others, but fundamentally redemptive all the same.

Here is a haiku by a modern master that handles the theme of the Buddha’s death in a playful but heartfelt way:

Nirvana painting:
I can just make out the words
for Mother Maya

— Gotō Yahan (1895-1976)

In his anthology Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku, the newspaper columnist Ozawa Minoru explains that it is common to see the Buddha’s mother depicted among the disciples in artistic depictions of his death, along with heavenly dragons, demons, and animals—even though she died seven days after he was born. “In the painting, she must be coming to welcome her son,” Ozawa concludes.

To make Shakyamuni’s reunion with his earthly mother the focus of the poem subverts conventional notions of Buddhist piety. At 17 syllables, a haiku doesn’t leave much room for editorializing, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that Gotō wanted to normalize the event, bringing the Buddha—and Nirvana, too—back down to human scale. If the purpose of life is Life itself, as haiku poets have always believed, isn’t coming full circle to be reunited with one’s mother the point of. . . well, almost everything?

A note on the sleeping Buddha: In many Asian countries, Nirvana Day is celebrated on February 15. “Nirvana paintings” depicting the sleeping Buddha are typically displayed in Japanese temples on this day, and hundreds of famous haiku have been written about them. In Thailand and Cambodia, the sleeping Buddha was a popular theme for sculptors. Some Nirvana statues are almost 300 feet long. Japanese haiku poets classify “sleeping Buddha” as a spring word due to the climate of that country. Because Nirvana Day occurs in February, however, English language haiku poets regard it as a late winter word. 

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