Haiku and Zen

by Richard von Sturmer

Since the Middle Ages, through the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, the martial arts, and Noh drama, Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on simplicity, naturalness and austerity, has been a predominant force in Japanese culture. Here we will look at nine qualities inherent in Zen and how these qualities relate to the writing of haiku.


Zen teaches that our suffering arises from our sense of separation, from feeling “alone and afraid in a world I never made”. The practice of haiku is a way of dissolving this feeling of separation by experiencing the unity of our own nature and the nature of everything around us. As Basho wrote to a disciple: “Learn about pine from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo. The poet should . . . enter into the object so that the poem forms itself when the poet and object become one”.

the sound of hail —
I remain, as before,
an old oak

– Basho


Intimacy means not pulling back but drawing near, and with haiku we’re always drawing near to things. When we stop fixating on our personal concerns, we can give ourselves over to the world. For writing haiku this means being completely in tune with our environment, whether we’re walking down a busy street or talking quietly with a friend.

they spoke no word,
the host, the guest
and the white chrysanthemum 

– Ryota


When Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, met Emperor Wu of southern China, the devout Emperor asked him, “What is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness and nothing holy”. This revolutionary statement has reverberated down through the ages, and its truth is now confirmed by quantum physics: atoms – the basic stuff of the universe – are 99.999% emptiness. That’s the way things are. And we need to be empty so that the things of this world can reveal themselves to us.

midnight – no waves, no wind
the empty boat is
flooded with moonlight

– Dogen


The great mystery of the universe is that out of fundamental emptiness arises such a staggering variety of forms. As Yasutani-roshi, a modern Zen Teacher, puts it, “The original face of universality moves briskly in detailed particulars”.

the spring is cold —
the puppeteer
keeps coughing

– Suiha


R.H. Blyth affirms that “Haiku record what Wordsworth calls those ‘spots of time’, those moments which for some quite mysterious reason have a peculiar significance”. Haiku also celebrates the uniqueness of ordinary things and, at the same time, shows how that uniqueness contains the universal.

spring rain—
a rat is lapping
the Sumida River

– Issa


This world is so astonishingly mysterious and beautiful and sad because it is constantly changing. Nothings lasts, everything is in a state of flux. The truth of impermanence does not diminish, but rather enhances the uniqueness of each thing, each person. Life is precious because it is so fleeting. Haiku poets, perhaps more than any other group of writers, are reporters on the transitory nature of this world.

the owner of the cherry blossoms
turns to compost
for the trees

– Utsu ( his death verse)


In both Zen and haiku there is an appreciation of the unadorned, of the worn and the weathered. When writing haiku, we pay attention to what is overlooked, to what is on the margins, to what people so easily miss in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Naturalness means being one with nature, in harmony with the seasons and our own changing circumstances.

the wind brings
enough fallen leaves
to make a fire

– Ryokan


One day a layman said to Ikkyu, “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?” Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word Attention. “Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?” Ikkyu then wrote Attention Attention. “Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much subtlety in what you’ve just written.” Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times: Attention Attention Attention. Half angered, the man demanded, “What does that word attention mean anyway?” Ikkyu answered, “Attention means attention.” This dialogue about sums it up: Haiku is the art of paying attention.

peeling pears—
sweet juice drips
from the knife blade

– Shiki


We live in a dynamic universe and we are called upon to respond. As haiku writers, we respond to the world through our writing. Haiku, by revealing the hidden affinity between things, confirms the basic interconnectedness of all life.

each time the wave breaks
the raven
gives a little jump

– Nissha

The raven becomes one with the waves, and we return to the where we started in our list of Zen qualities.


Editor’s note: This article is a condensed version of a plenary session delivered at the Haiku Festival Aotearoa, Wellington, March 4-6, 2005. We thank Richard for allowing it to be reproduced here. Richard von Sturmer lived for 10 years at the Rochester Zen Centre, a Buddist Community in upstate New York where he undertook training. He returned to New Zealand in 2003 and now lives and works in Auckland. For further information, see the Auckland Zen Centre website.

Read Richard’s Showcase page, which includes poems.