CASE #58: Tōhta’s Haunted Sea
A poem by the modern avant-guarde haiku poet Kaneko Tōhta reads:
In the blue sea where
cormorants and hungry ghosts
have already swum
Kaneko Tōhta Tōhta (b. 1919) is one of the most important modern Japanese haiku masters, known for his bold, often surrealistic experimental style and for his humanistic approach to haiku. His most famous poem, composed at Nagasaki, recalls the suffering and devastation of the atomic bomb detonation there on August 9, 1945:
All twisted and burnt—
at the bomb’s hypocenter
a marathon race
The contemporary image of marathon runners is juxtaposed with the twisted metal and writhing, burnt bodies of the victims and survivors, effectively overlaying two moments in time—one past and one present, but with a haunting visual similarity between the images. Asked why a poet with such stark, modernist sensibilities would choose to write in a classical form like haiku, Tōhta explained that the 17-syllable form (written in lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively) yields “the beauty of finality in this life where nothing is final.” A set form used by generations of people creates, he says, the feeling of familiarity, fulfillment, and ease for a modern man who is alienated, frustrated, and anxiety-ridden. Today Tōhta is the head of the Kaitei, or “Nautical Mileage,” school of Japanese haiku and serves as president of the Modern Haiku Association. (See Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, by Makoto Ueda, for more information.)
Cormorants Large, long-necked seabirds with a distensible pouch under their bills for holding fish, cormorants are synonymous in most cultures with voracity of appetite. In the west, the word is sometimes used to describe a greedy person. In Japan, cormorants were long used by fishermen, who placed a ring around their necks to keep them from swallowing the fish they caught. Many famous haiku have been written about this practice.
Hungry ghosts Also known as preta, hungry ghosts occupy the second of the six realms of existence. These include the hell realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the human realm, the realm of the asuras (or jealous demigods), and that of the devas, or gods. The realm of the hungry ghosts is characterized by insatiable desire—for food, for wealth, for sex, and even for emotional states of being. The hungry ghost realm is sometimes used by Buddhist ecologists to describe life in a consumer-based society.
A NOTE ON READING HAIKU: Because haiku are so short, their meaning requires active participation on the part of the reader. In the case of Tohta’s poem, notice that we aren’t told what specifically is “in” the blue sea. Perhaps the poet has swum there—or perhaps his mind simply explored the bio-spiritual region where cormorants and hungry ghosts have swum. From a “haiku point of view,” we might almost say that the poem is an invitation to the reader to “dive right in.”
For all the fish they catch in a night of work, the cormorants never get to swallow more than a few. Like those of us living in consumer societies, their lives are not their own. And they are always, always hungry.
Has Tōhta swum in the waters just recently vacated by cormorants and hungry ghosts? Is he a hungry ghost himself? The discipline of writing haiku offers him an opportunity to consider the matter, but the poem answers no questions. To find answers, we must seek them on our own.
The water looks nice—
But, then, it always looks nice.
However haunted, is just
What the marketplace is for.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.