The Haiku: Zen, Alaukik and Sublime

For a few days now, I've been trying my hand at the Japanese poetry form. At first interacting with Haiku (at a much younger age) , the abstract depiction of nature seemed to me very menial and I couldn’t possibly fathom why someone would consider this poetry. But I came into contact with haiku recently again, and the experience was much different. The nature depicted in the three lines struck a chord with deeper emotions that I was feeling. An one day with my own ‘haiku moment’ , I too experienced something you could liken to ‘Zen’. And this is what came out.

Kretek crackles; sparks fly
Sweet clove taste.

It talks in common parlance about smoking a cigarette, but is actually speaking of a different kind of emotion (which, is not too well translated for the lack of talent). Haiku are mainly about simple everyday nature, but the brevity of Haiku is the crux of its complexity. The haiku tries to capture a much larger overall emotion by depicting simple nature.

It is finally the form that makes the impact. Haiku is a poetic form from the Japanese culture. It has very strict rules to adhere to. The most common form for Haiku is three short lines. The first line usually contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line contains five syllables. Haiku doesn’t rhyme. It’s only three lines, but multi-layered, offering you a new experience every time you interact with it.

A Haiku must “paint” a mental image in the reader’s mind. Haiku combines form, content, and language in a meaningful, yet compact form. Haiku poets, write about everyday things. Haiku do not make much use of the extraordinary simile and, on the whole, a plain style is preferred so that the focus of the poem is on the thing-in-itself. But while haiku do not use metaphor, they may often be metaphor.

Waterfall roaring - though the sparrow sings unheard, still he keeps singing (James Kirkup)

The above is an observation that captures something important about the spirit of sparrows, and, by extension, all creatures, especially poets! It is a small variation on the theme of Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Cockadoodledo. It addresses the true subject of poetry: the indomitable life-force, its energy and abundance. It It takes on symbolic power and is invested by the reader with a wider significance. A kind of zen. Haiku are supposed to be written in a moment of Zen.

Zen Buddhism has significantly shaped the historical development of Japanese haiku.

“The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (dʑjen) (Modern Mandarin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna .In Zen Buddhism there is a great enlightenment called satori, sought through many years of disciplined meditation, or as we Indians would put it Dhyana”

To compare with Indian aesthetics, you could say that, as any form of art, Haiku too has its own Rasa. Haiku lays emphasis on the ‘vyabhachari bhav’ the fickle emotions which keep changing. Change is a central concern of haiku, and thus a lot of haiku poetry is about the changing seasons. The vyabhachari bhav of nature together in contrast with human emotions give rise to the overpowering rasa of the haiku.

Priyadarshini Patnaik explains that rasa can be roughly understood as “aesthetic emotion or rapture” — an experience in which the properly sensitized reader/adept transcends his own identity, his world, his differences, attaining, as it were, a state of selfless bliss and enlightenment. The singular enlightenment which is an ideal that the zen philosophy drives too toward. Apart from that, there are also many little flashes of enlightenment, called kensho, which are intense forms of those everyday noticings that surprise us or please us because they seem to reveal a truth, or to be exemplary, or to connect us again, momentarily, with the sense of awe.

Haiku is a momentary, condensed poetic form and its special quality is that it is perfectly adapted to give the reader that little instant of kensho insight. Basho developed the haiku form so that each haiku became a little burst of awakening. A little bit of the sublime, like Longinus put it, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport,”

The purpose of a work of art is to elevate you, overpower you to another world. A fitting sentiment for Haiku writers who reach beyond logic, to the wellsprings of the Sublime. The Kensho insight that the Haiku gives, is as the Indian traditions would put it a “Alaukik”. It confirms to the Longinus’ theory of the aesthetic expression being an otherworldly experience.

“the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions.”

The concept of the sublime is generally accepted to refer to a style of writing that elevates itself “above the ordinary”. Finally, Longinus sets out five sources of sublimity: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement”

The Haiku aims at an everyday sublime, depicting the nature in a manner that albeit simple, hints at a much higher level of enlightenment and enthralling experience. Fitting an abstract thought into a simple depiction of nature by translating it into a three line poem of seventeen ‘on’ (A Japanese equivalent to the western ‘syllable’ , which differs in certain aspects though) The poem seems to depict something fairly simple , but is actually implying things at much deeper metaphorical level. Usually, if you think about the haiku long enough and deeply enough, one can find the author’s truth. To quote someone’s experience while reading a haiku that seemed fairly simple and talked about a menial thing when read at first

“ I know I have quickly read a link in a renga and thought the author was kidding me or had gone off the deep end. Sometimes it is days later when I will go, “Ah-ha!” and in that instant understand what the ku was truly about.”

It is this experience that moves you which is the core essence of a haiku. An experience that echoes in the recesses of your mind. In Indian theory you would term it as the Dhvani. It is the Dhvani (resonance) that creates the aura around the Rasa and makes it linger in our minds long after the input has faded away. A beauty that you can enjoy even in its absence

Now, Kant says about beauty “ Beauty is a form of finality in an object so far as perceived in it, without the representation of an end’ like a tree which is complete at every stage of it’s growth. Or in my perception like a circle, which is beautiful in it’s essential form, without a beginning or an end. Why this makes sense in context to a haiku is that the a haiku arises out of a moment of Zen, and the iconography symbol for Zen is a circle. A circle, a thing of such innate beauty, without an end . That is the kind of Zen ideal , a sort of meditative beauty that haiku writers are striving for.

Haiku when I started writing seemed to me only a very basic form of poetry, that could be completed in short words, but now the complexity and higher purpose of a haiku makes you truly understand and appreciated the works of the masters that have lived. Here’s ending on Basho’s most famous Haiku , “The frisky frog”


furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
a splash of water

This was an essay written for and Intro to Aesthetics course, Sem 7, at the National Institute of Design


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