Forty years ago, my mentor, the late Dennis Scott, introduced me to haiku. Since then, I've studied this concise form that can express intense awareness and mindfulness. Through books like The Haiku Handbook, The Haiku Seasons, Haiku World, and Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, I've learned techniques and been inspired by masters from Bashō to Richard Wright. But, in what I can only describe as a moment of serendipity, during my recent trip to Turkey, I discovered Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery, which made me see the links between Zen and the practice of haiku.
Like archery, haiku requires focus and precision. Each word must be chosen carefully to hit the mark, yet the poet must detach from expectations about the result. Ideally, the poem should flow naturally by concentrating on the present moment and accepting what arises. By cultivating presence and patience in observation, the poet allows impressions to sink in, and the experience shapes the poem organically. This process is very close to the idea of the "beginner's mind," popularized by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner Mind, of openness, eagerness, and a willingness to let go of preconceived ideas. By maintaining a beginner's mind, one can see the world with fresh eyes, which can create original and inspired haiku.
Haiku's meditative essence also derives from its intimacy with nature. Centuries ago in Japan, wandering poet-monks lived close to the land. Their direct experience yielded insights about transience and interconnectedness. As Bashō observed in his famous haibun travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North: "Days and months are travelers of eternity." This quote reflects his contemplation of the passage of time and the transient nature of life, a common theme in his writing.
Researching haiku's origins, I kept returning to Zen Buddhism and the idea of writing haiku as a ritual art leading to self-awareness that Bashō suggests: "The autumn deepens - on a path strewn with fallen leaves, I stride along, lost in thought." The simple yet vivid imagery of walking a leaf-covered path in autumn while lost in thought evokes the meditative quality and connection to nature that Bashō expresses through his haiku. It captures his ability to convey vivid sensory details and a mindful focus on the here and now.
In the original Japanese, haiku structured language to be spare yet evocative. This austerity parallels the Zen aesthetic (Wabi) of finding beauty in simplicity. The quietude cultivated by sitting in silence translates into haiku's use of empty space and juxtaposition, placing two images side by side to create new meanings. As Bashō said, "Do not just present a scene from nature as you have done, but juxtapose nature and something of the human heart."
Bashō wrote as inspiration struck, seeking to honor each fleeting moment. For example, note how Bashō uses imagery sparely to capture the immediacy, simplicity, and loneliness of a brief moment with just enough detail to spark the imagination.
a crow perches
on a bare branch
Through mindfulness or meditation practices like zazen, the poet seeks samadhi. This heightened focus allows her to zone in on fleeting moments and express them with the utmost brevity, like a sudden flash of insight. The cycle of experiencing wonder, surrendering to it, and preserving the moment mirrors Richard Rohr's description of the spiritual journey, where we are initially captivated by goodness, truth, or beauty beyond ourselves and then expand this realization to encompass all of reality, including ourselves. This process is akin to prayer. To access universal concepts, we must start with concrete experiences("No ideas, but in things"); the specific leads to the expansive, the present to the eternal, the here to the everywhere, the material to the spiritual, and the visible to the invisible. Contemplative practices like writing haiku show us how to embrace both the particular and the universal aspects of existence.
Reading Bashō, I'm in awe of how he captures both timelessness and impermanence, nature and humanity. Take his most famous haiku:
An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond—
Splash! Silence again.
This haiku captures a moment of stillness disrupted by a sudden action that evokes the sense of both sound and silence. It's a classic example of Bashō's ability to communicate profound meaning in just a few words. He also hints at Zen teachings, how each moment is singular yet part of the ceaseless flow.
While absorbed in nature, haiku also reveals our human perspective: fleeting yet profound--linking inner and outer realms. As Issa wrote, we can crystallize moments before they "slip away" by mindfully honing our verse. That is the gift of haiku—wordless, timeless, yet deeply felt. A dip into the streams of Zen, where poetry and being become one.