by Christopher Herold
Haiku is simply what is happening in this place at this time.
— Matsuo Basho
Zen Master Butcho suspected Basho’s haiku writing to be distracting him from more serious meditation so he challenged Basho (who was one of his students) to give him a good reason why haiku was not a hindrance to his Zen practice. Basho replied immediately, saying “haiku is simply what is happening in this place at this time”. The answer seems to have satisfied Butcho. But how is it pertinent to modern haiku poets?
It is my feeling that Basho’s response points directly to what lies at the heart of haiku — life and death. These take place only in the present moment, and only in the specific place each sentient being occupies. In other words, we are not alive nor at the point of death yesterday or tomorrow, nor in any place other than where we are right here, right now. So, if haiku is “simply what is happening in this place at this time”, we ought to ask ourselves, what is this place; what is this time?
The latter is a little easier to pinpoint, but impossible to grasp. Instants of perception immediately become history and as they do we invariably label them (for the most part subconsciously). Whether our attention is focused on writing a haiku about something that occurred a split second ago or on an experience culled from a more distant past, the upshot is that all of our efforts are formulated from memory.
Place is another matter. What is this place? Is it the space occupied by my body or does it include the house, garden, or car I might be in? Does it stretch to the horizon, the outer limits of what my senses perceive? Could I include the town, city, park, or wilderness where I may happen to be? Perhaps “this place” could be a region, territory, state, or country — this planet, our solar system, the Milky Way? How about all the above? What qualifies as “place” seems to depend upon the context of our attention and what we may wish to communicate. So, what is the “place” Basho spoke of?
At this point, we ought to consider the natural tendency to look away from this moment and our immediate surroundings. Constantly we scan our environment, gravitating towards stimuli that are desirable and avoiding those that aren’t, or which seem threatening. At root, this is survival instinct. A vast majority of what enters our senses, though, we deem irrelevant and pass over without a thought. If, on the other hand we make an effort to suspend this most basic conditioning (the drive to move away from the here-and-now), then the relevance of those seemingly mundane things will not only be noticed, they’ll be seen more clearly and appreciated for what they intrinsically are.
One thing haiku teaches us is that we don’t have to go somewhere other than where we are to discover value in things. And we don’t have to wait for something worthy to come to us either. What we seek is present at this moment if we are able to let go of preconceptions and attachments. This knowledge isn’t new, but it’s not always easy to put into practice.
Living the “haiku life” necessitates an ongoing process of waking up to where we are now, accepting that we are where we are, and feeling grateful for this. Generally speaking this means slowing down to “smell the roses”. Exercises that encourage us to live in this way are helpful and I hope this one will be received as both entertaining and rewarding.
It is “ordinary mind” that’s so special — appreciation of what is always right before us. Cultivating an appreciation of ordinary mind helps us to see anew what at first might have appeared mundane.
Although this exercise is set out as a group activity, it is easily modified to be done alone.
A large bronze bell is rung to signal a short period of attentiveness and note-taking. We sit quietly for a few minutes and focus on opening our senses to what’s going on here at this moment. This requires paying attention to our present physical conditions, our emotional states, and our thoughts, as well as myriad incoming sensory impressions from a seemingly external world.
We have pads and pencils ready so we can jot the briefest of notes to describe what is passing through our senses. The notes don’t take the shape of completed haiku; they are simply brief impressions. Haiku are composed of fragments and phrases, or sometimes very brief sentences, so our notes take the form of such parts. For example, take the following poem by Issa Kobayashi:
insects crying —
a hole in the wall
not seen yesterday
The first line is one part (a fragment) and the last two lines are another part (a phrase). Issa noticed a connection between these things and expressed his experience with a haiku, simply offering the two images without explaining his own experience or understanding of them.
All the things we perceive “happening in this place at this time” have the potential to spark in us the awareness of such a connection, and in that awareness an even more profound epiphany is possible — intuiting universal interconnectedness — what Buddha Shakyamuni referred to as “dependent co-arising”.
After five minutes of silent note-taking the bell is rung once more, signalling that it’s time for us to share what we’ve recorded. A feather is handed to one of the poets who then has an opportunity to share one image or to speak with even more immediacy, giving voice to something happening at that very moment.
These images can be considered “haiku seeds”, the building blocks of which haiku are composed. Enough time is allowed for each seed to sink in (and to be written down for use in the next part of the exercise). The feather is then passed on to the next person. One can choose to say nothing at all, but it is hoped that everyone feels comfortable to participate. We continue until everyone has had at least one opportunity to share one of their haiku seeds.
The notes we take emanate from this place and this time. All our noted images are connected in some way, more often than not in ways we don’t fathom. Yet it is likely that each of us will recognise how at least some of the images relate to one or more of the others. The more we make such connections the clearer it becomes that the separation between ourselves and others is, at root, illusory. Through this sort of awakening both compassion and haiku are born.
During the next part of the exercise we sit quietly again, this time formulating haiku. We pair images from our list to produce hybrid haiku born of group-mind. Each is composed by juxtaposing a fragment and a phrase. Minor alterations in grammar or word-choices are allowed.
Finally, the feather is passed again and we share the haiku we’ve cobbled together. Amazingly, three poets wrote an identical haiku. Other hybrids have distinct similarities, but for the most part the variety is remarkable.
This exercise wasn’t formulated with the intention of our composing haiku, at least not of the sort we could claim as our own and, if we wished, submit for publication. One function of the exercise is, of course, to simulate greater awareness. There is so much more available to our senses than we are conscious of. This becomes obvious as we listen to what others in the group have observed while sitting together in the same place at the same time. But this is only one facet of the exercise. There are two others just as important.
One is to induce a better grasp of one of the most distinctive and effective techniques of haiku craft: image-juxtaposition. Through the technique of juxtaposing images, moods and emotions are evoked more directly than through the use of overt comparison. The effects produced by using juxtaposition in haiku was understood as early as the 1950s, as can be read in a letter sent by Allan Ginsberg to Richard Eberhart regarding his book, Howl, Ginsberg writes: “A haiku, as the 1910 and 1920s Imagists did not know, consists of two visual (or otherwise) images stripped down and juxtaposed. The charge of electricity created by these two poles being greater when there is a greater distance between them. As in Yeats’ phrase ‘murderous innocence of the sea,’ two opposite poles reconcile in a flash of recognition.”
It is important for us to be familiar with aspect of haiku-craft. Juxtaposed images work by simple implication, inviting readers to participate in an offered poem rather than feel they have been manipulated by it. Implication allows us each to enter the poem in our own way, bringing to it our own unique set of experiences and sensibilities.
Finally, since the haiku emerging from this exercise are each products of more than one poet, no one of us can lay claim to any of the poems. Because of this, the exercise serves to call attention to any urgency we may feel to be identified with what we write, giving higher priority to the importance of simply becoming more awake more of the time. I stress “urgency” since there is nothing at all odious about being identified with and appreciated for what we have written.
I hope other groups of poets will find Feathering the Moment an enjoyable means to accomplish these goals, all in the context of a particular place and a present moment.
Editor’s note: Christopher Herold is founding editor of The Heron’s Nest and is a lay Buddhist monk who wrote his first haiku in 1968. He has published several books and won many awards. Christopher lives in Washington State in the US. This article appears here with his kind permission.