milky way

Get rid of words and get rid of meaning: poetry remains.
                                          Yang Wan-li, Sung dynasty

Haiku is the most universal poetic genre of our century. It's also a sublime fusion of culture and religion. As such, it can serve as a tool for teaching Religious and Values Education (RaVE), interweaving the Five Strands approach encouraged by the Dialogue Australasia Network into one, simple, golden thread.

I've introduced haiku for a couple of decades now, and children clearly get it best. The initial course I offer whether to adults or children is virtually the same – except for one thing. In addressing children, early on I ask them to recall when they were around 6, 7, or 8.(If they're 10, or 12, or 14, this isn't such a stretch; when you're over 20 or 30, it's a reach.) I ask them to remember how life ‘flashed’ at them: when it seemed moments were one with nature and the universe, unexpectedly and wordlessly glimpsing something bigger, or beyond.

At this juncture, the children invariably wonder what I'll say next. So, I continue, haiku is a way of keeping that sense alive – that 'child mind' – but in an adult, responsible way. Childlike, not childish (Matthew 18:2-4). By this point, most of them are taking the bait. I then reel them in, get them on board, and – best part of all – leave it up to each to make of haiku what they will. Since haiku (like all poetry and spiritual work) has a subjective as well as objective aspect, this demands a different approach than 'I chalk and talk – you memorize and repeat.' After introducing the topic and the lesson plan, teachers can step back and play Guide Along the Side, rather than Sage on the Stage.

I'd come to this pedagogical re-evaluation after I'd been teaching haiku from time to time at a Zen temple. Before dinner one night, one of the senior monks declared, Haiku cannot be taught. Why not?, I asked. Haiku, he explained, can barely even be written. Putting into words what's a fleeting taste of the ineffable already takes it a razor-thin slice away from the source. When read by others, it is yet another razor-thin slice further away. Teaching is another step back.

Each haiku is just such a very personal, intimate encounter with the core of life. Over time, I've come realize haiku is an opportunity to mentor native intuition, innate spiritual capacity, and the spontaneity of creativity. Discovering that, yes, they can write haiku, it is especially empowering for children to be able to realize these valuables for themselves, on their own.

I begin class with a definition. Haiku is like a light, breezy sketch, in words. It presents two images, often of uneven length (and often with a seasonal reference) – so brief and minimal it's up to the reader to co-create. Both singular and plural, the word haiku can be a verb as well as a noun; just as God is a verb. Reading haiku is haiku, as is writing – as is seeing and experiencing haiku occurring in life itself. Haiku invites us to participate in the unfolding of the universe as a living text.

From there, my lesson plan consists of 1) exploring some examples, and noting a) lifelikeness, b) nowness, c) hereness, d) formal shapeliness, and e) particular modes of feeling and perception. Each of these rubrics have spiritual dimensions. Lifelikeness is another way of saying naturalness; close to nature.

Lifelikeness is another way of saying naturalness; close to nature.

sudden rain –
rows of horses,
twitching rumps.

Nowness refers to haiku being a spot of time reflecting the eternal present. A unique feature of haiku is the frequent reference to the four seasons.

the spring day not long enough
for the lark to sing its full

The art of seasonal reference (kigo) is, like haiku, often indirect. A haiku about fireflies or geese would be understood to be about autumn; butterflies would be a clue for spring. Dragonflies or frogs for summer. Given the space-time continuum, life happens in a particular time with a specific location: as accurate as a GPS, haiku have a sense of hereness.

the scent of new-mown hay
raked into rows …
horse-tail clouds
                                 Rodney Williams

Taking these three components together, we see the Tao: that which is naturally happening at this time in this place. I've saved formal considerations for later, since so many people have a misconception that anything parsed in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables is automatically a haiku (the affliction of a society obsessed with quantity and packaging, rather than quality and essence).

So long as you evocatively join two vivid images, separated clearly by pause, in a brief package of 17 syllables or less, that can cover the form, for beginners. But it's worth pausing here to consider one tremendous spiritual implication of haiku form. Consonant with the Fifth Strand, haiku are intimate with silence. As such, they illustrate the wisdom in Buddhism, which equates form (phenomena, events, shape) with blank infinite possibility(sunyata). So while they're remarkably vivid, they marvelously point to the immeasurably abundant, vital source of creation, beyond all conceptualization, the Ground of All Being and Nonbeing.

                          old pond …
          frog leaps into the
sound of water

From the form, we can proceed to consider the last rubric, modes of moods, Japanese aesthetics. In the austere brevity of haiku we can see the ascetic, monastic quality of wabi. Its minimalist simplicity evokes sabi.

winter stillness …
the least leaf on the bush
curling into itself
                                  Jeanne Emrich

Two more primary classical Japanese moods, or modes of awareness: mono no aware and yugenAware is the touchingness, the Ah!ness of things, a pathos prompted by the impermanence of things. (Summer grasses… all that remains of the warrior's dreams. Basho) Yugen is elegant, elusive, enigmatic. (The winter storm hid in the bamboo grove, and died away. Basho) There are many more (furyu, hisome, sono mama, etc), but three or four are enough.

After such introduction, 2) we spend an equal amount of time going outside, strolling slowly and silently, with notepads and pencil, attuned to encounters with haiku in the wild. Experiencing haiku moments for ourselves. In Japanese, such a walkabout is called ginko. This harmonizes with the Pali word ehipassiko, encouraging each person to investigate and witness Buddha's teachings through direct experience. (Taste and see. Psalm 34:8)

After returning to the classroom, 3) we share our haiku. Using the blackboard, I show how editing can be part of haiku. We might vote on our favorite haiku of the day. Given an hour for each phase, all this takes three hours.

Studying haiku examples, our reading is not mere rote, but a creative interpretive process(ie., exegesis and hermeneutics). Each haiku comes alive for each reader engaging with it. As we explore what's said, and what's unsaid, we're practicing the deep listening necessary as part of our spiritual career. Indeed, many haiku can be a wonderful basis for lectio divina, for those who wish.

Here are five specimens.

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting on a fence
without any necks.
                                 J. W. Hackett

panicking children flee
out of the tiger cage
            a wasp
                                 David Cobb

the moon lengthens
   in the icicle
                                 David Cobb

my head in the clouds in the lake
                                 Ruby Spriggs

         a flash of lightning
the jagged screech of geese
         flying through the night
                                 Yosa Buson

The longer we linger, reading haiku yields further depths and grace. Consider the fifth example, lightning and geese. So what!? Well, both limn a similar shape. Not straight like a city street. More like a flag flapping in the wind, or the contour of a shoreline, or a cloud: jagged, fractal, wild. Lightning zigzagging like how a pane of glass shatters into slivers. The voices of birds not in perfect pitch or rhythm, but rather sounding as random notes, some nearer some farther off. Irregular.

Now look deeper.

Not a story… but distinct images, side by side, draw a resonance between them. Lightning, spanning up and down, from way on high to us down here. Geese, migrating from far behind to way ahead, father than our eye can see. Both measuring vast sky, its wide openness, sheer possibility.

And the length of these two images aren’t a neatly symmetrical matched pair, as in Biblical apposition. One line’s short, Shazam!, lightning. One’s longer, a chorus of geese voices, spilling over (enjambment) into the next line.

Both seemingly separate images side by side link together, to point to something bigger and subtler than either of them could say on their own. It's so real it's occurring beyond the
frame of the poem.

Look deeper.

Sense your senses. Lightning is visual, yetimplies sound. Seeing lightning, and knowing thunder will follow. Meanwhile, there are already sounds, also dropping down from the heavens. Perhaps this too involves sight, hearing then looking up and seeing a gaggle of geese. Or maybe unseen, vividly imagined in mind’s eye.

How many other senses can you feel?

If you were here, might you be thrusting your hands deeper into your pockets, for warmth? Sense that nice feeling of cozy warmth? (You score extra points if you feel the pockets have a soft, fuzzy lining.)

Beyond the five senses, is there perhaps a sharp tang to the air, like sailing into a cove of fresh ozone? You don’t need a barometer to sense this atmosphere. I note ‘atmosphere’ has an affinity for the Sanskrit word for deepest soul, atman, which is, in turn, inseparable from Godhead. This may not be too peripheral here, as primal spirituality appreciates the correspondences between inner and outer weather; breath-wind-spirit, say.

In this tang, there’s an instinctual, primal, atavistic sense, as of tracking an animal deep in the wilderness, or a shaman leading a tribal ceremony, or a communion with profoundly intuitive Child Mind. We've noted geese imply autumn. You don’t need a weatherman to see this haiku’s about to rain. It’s implied from the very get-go. Lightning. But, with an almost theological precision, this haiku's not about rain, per se – but that about-to-rain feeling.

Like the almost imperceptible shift from summer to autumn, or from one moment to another. Like the pause between in-breath and out-breath. An immeasurable fractional instant pregnant with the precious, nourishing waters of the heavens.

Haiku shows us how reading is itself creative. Haiku is an invitation to a process, not a fixed, finished product. Work-in-progress, haiku needs us to bring them fully to life, enlisting our participation as co-creators.

Looking still deeper, we can see a whole picture develop beyond the words. Where are we? Looking out a window? Indoors? Outside? Maybe both. (Japanese architecture favors bringing the outside indoors.) I don't think we’re in a city apartment here, noticing the tapping sound of radiators and suddenly knowing it’s about to rain. Feeling it in our bones. Maybe we're on an open front porch, or in the front yard; maybe the middle of a meadow, or field. We’re part of that big sky (the heavens). That immensity about to drench everything in sight, and beyond. An enormous stillness – a hushed pause – before a rainstorm's symphony.

Pausing there, we can return to where we came in. (Haiku are recursive, circling back on themselves, over and over.)

There is almost a story here (an inkling of 'flash fiction'): stopping what we were doing, putting a bookmark in our personal story and peering out, looking up, in anticipation of something else. More than just a random perception, this moment is priceless. Deeply felt, we feel it too: in our soul. As if we’re there too.

Its introspection draws us inward to the highly personal as it looks outward to the universal commonplace, imparting a sense of something vaster than ourselves, of which we're intrinsically a part.

Seeing how a dozen words can prompt such a unique deep reading, we can also appreciate how haiku can open doors of world religion. Originating in Japan, haiku distill universal insights of Buddhism (chiefly the Zen and Pure Land sects). When Japanese took to Buddhism, they found myriad ways of expressing it – rock gardens, shakuhachi flute, ikebanna flower arrangement, chado tea ceremony, haiku, etc. As the second largest religion in Australia, Buddhism's worth a bit of class time. Trying to understand it in Christian terms is natural, but better to bracket out our native framework and delve in on its own terms. Here's a quick sketch of some of the philosophy.

Buddha (awakening) sits on a three-legged stool, supported by 1) wisdom, 2) ethics, and 3) meditation. (A more detailed map of these three is known as the Eightfold Path.) All three are interconnected, because all things are impermanent and intrinsically interconnected. This applies to us too, as not separate from all beings. (These are key themes in haiku, as well). Attention given to such a view of reality engenders compassion, for ourselves and others; even if we cannot perfectly map ‘salvation’ onto a Buddhist equivalent (Enlightenment?), we can joyfully share Buddhism's emphasis on wise compassion.

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.
                                  Kobayashi Issa

Such a philosophy isn't handed down from on high, but tested through our own ethical behavior. Yet the Buddhist moral code is quite similar to the Decalogue; the Golden Rule. It manifests in haiku, as well, as reverence for life, generosity of spirit, true love – through first-hand knowledge, direct experience. This is why newspapers running 'headline haiku' competitions misunderstand haiku, as mainstream newspaper headlines tend towards the violent or salacious (blood, fear, greed, sex, etc) – and are second-hand sources of information. Actually, haiku are an antidote. (Drinking a cup of tea, I stop the war. Paul Reps)

Grounded in a wisdom tradition and an ethical path, meditation then becomes authentically viable. Buddhism extends and expands the silent meditation of a church service, 'a quiet moment,' into a longer, deeper stretch of silence and stillness. ('Be still and know.' Psalm 46:10) A contemplative awareness is necessary for haiku, too – whether as readers or writers. (Not an art for divas hooked on the limelight, proclaiming 'I, me, mine' – the haiku point of view points to A Bigger Container (ABC). There is an author to the geese / lightning haiku, but she/he isn't wearing his heart on his/her sleeve; not even saying I. Yet we feel the author's heart, and our own, deeply, as one.)

Just as architecture shows off sunlight, haiku depend upon silence. They are an art of silence. Through them we hear the silence before and after, from which haiku emerges and back into which haiku dissolves. Moreover, each haiku (being composed of two images) contains space in the middle, a caesura or pause. Consider this haiku by Moritake: Is that a flower returned to the branch? – No, it's a butterfly. The question prompts a moment of reflection. After the pause (the dash), then the answer – we next circle back to the beginning again, now in silent wonder. Each haiku is a balance and coordination of silence and speech, the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension, blank essence and vivid phenomena. (In nondual awareness, true speech and true silence are not two separate items.)

A heavy snowfall disappears into the
sea. What silence!
                                    - Zen saying

As poetry, we sound them out, aloud. A poem is like a piece of sheet music, waiting to be played. Teaching haiku in class thus also encourages students to speak from their heart. And they're welcome to learn more and find their voice at haiku societies and affinity groups which demonstrate the spiritual value of beloved community. (In Buddhism this is known as sangha.)

But I'm not sure if haiku are properly poems. Unlike most poetry, there's no title; no meter (except a Japanese quantitative one, which doesn't really map onto English); no metaphor. If poetry puts a magnifying glass to language, haiku puts poetics into a cyclotron. Please consider these portals of the immeasurable an art unto themselves.

the stillness --
the chirr-chirr of crickets
sinking into the stones

Gary Gach was a Keynote Speaker at the 2011 DAN Conference in Sydney, and has been a guest lecturer at numerous venues around the world. He's hosted a weekly mindfulness sangha, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, for six years and recently taught in the global online doctoral program at Sofia University. Visit him online:

Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen; Weatherhill (1978).
Blyth, R. H. The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H. Blyth on Poetry, LIfe, and Zen. Hokuseido Press (1997).
Blyth, R. H. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. The Hokuseido Press (1942).
Donegan, Patricia. Haiku: Learn to express yourself by writing in the Japanese tradition. Tuttle Publishing (2003).
Gach, Gary. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism (3rd ed'n.) Penguin-Random/Alpha Books (2009).
Gach, Gary, editor. What Book!? – Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. Paralla Press (1998).
Gach, Gary. Introduction to Buddhism 100-minute talk to high school students at Centre for Ethics, Newington College, co-sponsored by Dialogue Australasia Network.
Gach, Gary. Teaching Truths: Buddha at the Blackboard. Dialogue Australasia. Issue 25.
Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet's Guide. Modern Haiku Press. (2003)
HaikuOz: The Australian Haiku Society.
Hass, Robert, translator/editor. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Turtleback Books (1995).
Kacian, Jim; Rowland, Philip; Burns, Allan; editors. Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Norton (2013).
Koren, Leonard. Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press (1994).
Koren, Leonard. Wabi Sabi: Further Thoughts. Impermanent Press (2015).
Lanoue, David G. Pure Land Haiku – The Art of Priest Issa. Buddhist Books International (2013).
McGee, Margaret D. Haiku – The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines. Skylight Paths (2009).

1. being present ['now thyself']
2. non-metaphoric, direct seeing ['show, don't tell']
3. mindfulness [intelligent alertness]
4. form = emptiness / emptiness = form
5. suchness [tathata, mono aware – as is, just so]
6. change, metamorphosis [annica; impermanence]
7. nonseparation / interbeing [pratityasamutpada]
8. intuition, creativity, imagination
9. spontaneity, nonintentionality / [selflessness; anatman]
10. community / sangha [haiku society]
11. child mind, beginner's mind [mushin]
12. Inklings of Zen in Haiku

Reprinted from Dialogue Australasia - Issue 33 May 2015 with the author's permission