milky way

Published: Under the Basho, 2013; Simply Haiku, 2012

by Don Baird

Zoka, the continuum (energy) (spark) of creation (the creative) and transformation, may very well be the soul of modern haiku (hokku). As David Barnhill mentions in his interview with Robert Wilson, “it is the vitality and creativity of nature, its tendency and ability to undergo beautiful and marvelous transformations.”1 It is the inclusive recognition and hearty embrace of the activity of things and, in particular, the interactivity – the comings and goings of everything. (I’m using “haiku” as a general term for the purpose of this essay. Basho wrote hokku; later on, Shiki developed haiku along with his famous notion of shasei. Though markedly different, haiku does retain much of hokku’s rich DNA.)

The poet’s real enlightenment is his or her ability to open up to it, tap into it, and translate the zoka at hand into haiku. The poet recognizes what’s going on before his eyes and begins the journey of placing it into a haiku that relays what the poet has been vitalized with. Written in plain and common language without trickery, the activities of zoka do not demand intentional complexity or layers as poetry. Those aesthetic attributes naturally occur through the pen of an attuned poet.

From the Wu Chi there comes the Tao – the Great Tao – the yin and yang of things – the becoming of things (koto). These qualities interact in various ways. Some collide; others cohabitate in a quietude of refined harmony. Strategically, the poet of the Edo period would look to the elegance and harmony of these natural activities while buffering the rougher sides of life. There was a dignity in their approach; there was old and tailored honor. The Japanese approached poetry in a sensitive, humble dignity in regards to nature and her essences. By combining this tradition with a sense of mono no aware, zoka, koto (becomingness), kigo (season root/indication) and a proper structure, the hokku grew in beauty, strength and depth of meaning. Basho, became a hokku hero – and arguably the most famous person of all time in Japan.

Within zoka, transience and the sense of impermanence are additional aspects and clearly Basho haiku/hokku aesthetics. They are uniquely entwined in the guttural tide of zoka. In this, there is no link needed “between” haiku and zoka; they are one and the same.

even in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto

(Basho, translated by Robert Haas)2

You can sense the longing in this hokku. It is fraught with a lingering of feeling that puts you in deep touch with the inner workings of Basho’s psyche – his heart psyche. This isn’t a poet “using" wabi-sabi; this is a poet “living it” and doing so effortlessly. Clearly, Basho was deeply connected to the “what is” of things. Basho is in "awe" of everything; he is not in a moment of ah-haa but rather in a moment of celebration - a celebration of the Tao in its glory and exciting continuum. He, himself, “follows zoka, returns to zoka.”3

I connected with this very deeply when I realized my German shepherd, Kimbo, was dying. While I was petting him and stroking his soft fur, I was missing him at the same time – while he was alive. I was longing for him yet he was in my arms. There was no separation of things; there was no esoteric link between me, him, zen or the Tao. Not at all. There was only unity; there was only one – a perfect, harmonious oneness. It isn’t something anyone can try for; it’s just what happens when . . .

. . . in some way,

“there is nothing that you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon.” (translated by Reginald Horace Blyth).4

It is said that “the Tao that can be described is not the Tao.” 5 And, in some way, the zoka that can be described, therefore is not the zoka. Nevertheless, by discussing around and in of it, one can begin to see its vastness. One can begin to sense its richness and meaning without it being exhaustively defined. Through the expansion of understanding, the poetic mind is set free. It is through understanding, intuitiveness, engagement, and knowledge of the aesthetics of writing haiku (hokku) that brings a moment to life – that brings a haiku to light.

(the) old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

(translated by R. H. Blyth)

This hokku/haiku is one of the most interesting of Basho’s. It’s very revealing as to how he creates and develops his poetry. As it appears today, Basho wrote lines 2 and 3 before he composed line 1. He did not actually see a pond; he did not actually see a frog. But he heard a familiar frog-plop or at least one that clearly reminded him of a frog plopping. He didn’t know for sure as to what factually happened. But, from the sound of water-plop, Basho determined the scene in his mind – in his creative self. From reacting to water’s sound combined with the possibility of a frog, Basho figured the possibility of what took place and began constructing through his profound imagination, a poem. The final touches of the “where” became all he needed –“Old/ancient pond.” Basho completed his memorable hokku.

This poem birthed from the collectivity of Basho’s poetic skills, experiences. It arose from the belly of his knowledge and imagination combined. It became clear to him, through his intense understanding of the Tao, of zoka, and of the mutual interactivity of things and their importance to poetry, how he must write his poem. As the common story goes, an associate with him at the time had a different suggestion of which Basho summarily discarded for his preference - “ancient pond”.

We have before us, in Basho’s haiku (hokku), an action-packed transient moment of nature – of life and one that is demonstrative of zoka. Millions and millions of times a day nature repeats these activities and yet, none of them are identical. And, if they were, the Tao wouldn’t care. To the Tao and zoka, it’s impersonal. To the poet, it’s the richest of things colliding into meaning. As Barnhill continues in his interview, “rather than the crude notion of pretty flowers and moon, everything is beautiful, because everything is the transformation of zoka . . . we should see everything as beautiful (flowers and moon).”

Zoka is a constant changing within-it-all and yet never changing as an aspect of existence or truth. We, when aligned with the zoka, are able to dwell in a constant state of readiness without tension, control, demand or force in its company. In our relaxed readiness, we create the balanced internal environment for a poem to become.

“By surrendering ourselves we become ourselves,” Young Ik Suh.6 We see, feel, and sense the essence of zoka all around us and we are engulfed deeply within its activities. In that surrender, our openness and child-like freshness connects us with What Is – the comings and goings of all things – the interactions of all activity – and the activity itself.

There is nothing happening and yet everything is happening. It isn’t important and yet its importance is succinctly clear to a poet with an empty mind – a mind without thought in a pure, pristine, ready position. This unique place of non-thought may be the abode of the primal creator of all poetry.


Notes and References:

  1. David Barnhill, Simply Haiku, Spring, 2011 - Interview by Robert Wilson
  2. The Essential Haiku, edited and translated by Robert Hass.Copyright © 1994 by Robert Hass. First published by The Ecco Press in 1994
  3. Basho’s Journey,Translated by David Landis Barnhill, State University New York Press, 2005 “Nothing one sees is not a flower, nothing one imagines is not the moon. If what is seen is not a flower, one is like a barbarian; if what is imagined is not a flower, one is like a beast. Depart from the barbarian, break away from the beast, follow the Creative (Zoka), return to the Creative (Zoka).” (Zoka in parenthesis is my clarification)
  4. Matsuo Basho, translated by R.H.Blyth
  5. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, 6th Century B.C.
  6. A comment that martial art master, Young Ik Suh, would make during class. It endured as one of his class mantras. (1970s)

Publisher Credits:

  • Simply Haiku, Summer Issue, 2012
  • As the Crow Flies, 2013, Don Baird, The Little Buddha Press