In recent posts, I’ve had a lot of fun with genre writing in haiku. I went back and reread those posts, and for some reason, I felt compelled to look deeper into the history of the haiku form. What started out as a whimsical Google search turned into a rather interesting lesson for me. I thought I’d share my experience with you.
Haiku, as we know it today, was largely pioneered by a wandering poet named, Matsuo Chuemon Munefus, who was born in the Iga Province of Japan in 1644. He quickly gained a following of dedicated students who came to know him simply as, Basho.
For Basho, the true spirit of haiku could be found only in one’s connection to the natural world. It is clear from his teachings that he had a profound reverence for nature. This quote attributed to Basho sums it up nicely,
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. In doing so, you must leave your preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.
For Basho, writing a poem was more than conveying an idea through beautiful language. The haiku was an extension of his beliefs in Zen Buddhism – an endeavor to learn a fundamental truth about existence.
At this point in my research, it occurred to me that I would probably never get the genuine Basho experience while composing haiku. After all, I’m a Westerner who’s inextricably tangled in Western minutia. Major League Baseball is right around the corner, there’s City Hall meetings regarding zoning ordinances, there’s three different deadlines I have to meet in the next 48 hours, there’s motor oil that needs changed, there’s last-minute deductions on Federal tax forms, and none of it is very useful for getting in touch with nature or writing poetry.
But, for whatever reason, I was determined to compose just one haiku in accordance to the teachings of Basho. So, I set out this afternoon on foot to do just that. My first priority was to find some nature. Luckily, I happen to live in a city by one of the Great Lakes.
At the edge of the lake there are plenty of woods that are crisscrossed with little streams and tributaries. And then the woods give way to the beach, and beyond the beach the water stretches to Canada. It seemed like a sufficient amount of nature to get the job done. Everything was nice enough. The temperature was right around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There were some gulls right at the water’s edge, and some racoon tracks in the sand. There was nothing really inspiring though, and I was pretty disappointed about it.
Then I realized I was missing the point. I showed up with an agenda, which was to write a haiku in accordance to Basho’s teachings. By doing so, I was only undermining his teachings. I was trying to pry something useful out of the surroundings – something I could use to achieve my end goal.
Realizing my error, I decided to chalk the whole endeavor up as a loss. What a waste of time. I sat down on a big rock to rest up before the long walk home. The air was cool, but the Sun was surprisingly warm on my face. I zoned out for a minute and took in the scenery.
Then I noticed a tangle of saplings half encased in dirty ice (pictured below). I had walked by it not ten minutes earlier, and didn’t think much about it. However, the effect it had on me the second time around was markedly different. It was suddenly full of nuance, speaking volumes by doing nothing at all except simply being there in front of me. I had a sense of how the saplings must have struggled to get a foothold in the rocky ground, and the violence of the wind screaming out of Canada, twisting them into knots. I thought about how the water starts to freeze in December, and the ice creeps over the beach, encasing all it touches in a shimmering tomb. Then, the ice must relinquish what it has taken, and life begins the struggle again.
These are exactly the kinds of things Basho wanted us to be aware of: How the seasons ebb and flow, the impermanence of everything, the importance of observing the present moment instead of speculating about the future or reminiscing about the past.
Okay, I’m not saying I attained enlightenment, but I did step outside of my comfort zone a little bit to see the world in a different light. That’s something I don’t do often enough, but I’ll be scheduling more of these little nature walks in the near future.
And, in case you were wondering, I did finally write a haiku based on the experience I detailed above. Here it is.
winter bleeds away –
I can feel tiny pulses
beneath the thin ice