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In 2018 Seattle Zen Dojo’s senior Zen Master Taiken Yokoyama talked about Zen and creativity and turned to the Japanese haiku as an example of the relationship.

He began with the definition found in Haiku is a form of poetry that focuses on a brief moment in time, and a sense of sudden illumination or enlightenment... A haiku is usually written in present tense....  

The definition also said the haiku usually doesn’t rhyme and has seventeen syllables in three lines of five-seven-five syllables. While that definition describes the “external” parameters of the haiku, it does not go into the essence of what makes it different from other poetic forms. For this, Yokoyama Roshi turned to Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki’s haiku description from his book Zen and Japanese Culture:

These images are not figurative representations made use of by the poetic mind, but they directly point to original intuitions, indeed, they are intuitions themselves. When the latter are attained, the images become transparent and are immediate expressions of the experience. An intuition in itself, being too intimate, too personal, too immediate, cannot be communicated to others; to do this it calls up images by means of which it becomes transferable.

Suzuki’s description focuses on the immediate experience of the person who writes or recites the haiku and the immediate response of the person who hears or reads the haiku. The framework – words, syllables – is incidental; what matters transcends the form.

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was an acclaimed poet and critic of the haiku form, for which he became known. Yokoyama Roshi referred to one of Bashō’s most well-known haiku to illustrate what he and Suzuki were pointing out.

Frog Haiku by Matsuo Basho

The original Japanese:  古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音

Furu ike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

Translation by D.T. Suzuki:

Into the ancient pond

A frog jumps

Water’s sound!

There is no need for anyone to intervene to tell us how to feel, see or hear. It is our experience alone: the ancient pond, the frog jumping; the water’s sound. Not concerned with the number of syllables – after all, the English translation does not necessarily match the same syllable count as its Japanese counterpart – Suzuki seeks to capture instead the intuition directly. 

Compare Suzuki’s translation with Eli Siegel’s translation below.

         Pond, there, still and old!          A frog has jumped from the shore.          The splash can be heard.

He has taken great pains to maintain the 5-7-5 syllabic haiku form. In so doing, though, he has inserted some-thing or some-one else – into the experience.

Do you sense that distance?

Zen is about essence not form.


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