Taking a Bite: The Haiku McMoment

First published in Modern Haiku 47:1, Winter–Spring 2016, pages 54–60. The Rilke excerpt at the end is a new addition. Originally written from November 2014 to March 2015. See also “A Moment in the Sun: When Is a Haiku?”

                Today I pass the time reading
                a favorite haiku,
                saying the few words over and over.

                It feels like eating
                the same small, perfect grape
                again and again.

                                —Billy Collins, from his poem “Japan”

What do we mean by the present moment? Tricycle magazine has offered a Buddhist answer to this question in the context of what it called “today’s secularized mindfulness movement.” In an essay titled “The Present Moment” (Tricycle, Winter 2014), Jack Petranker provides four distinct approaches to apprehending the present moment, designed to “get underneath the cliché,” a problem that he describes as “McMindfulness” or “a simplified, less nourishing version of dharma that turns meditation into a form of self-help.” To the extent that haiku, too, seeks to dwell in the present moment as a means of presenting an image, experience, and emotion that is happening here and now, these four approaches to the present moment have something to say to those who write haiku poetry.

Therapeutic Presence

Petranker begins, in fact, with three approaches, and culminates in a fourth. The first is what he calls “therapeutic presence.” This, he says, is simply letting go of the past and future, so that we don’t have to be consumed by regret or worry, nor by reliving or anticipating, fantasy or daydream. As a result, we can quell desire and judgment. Petranker, who is the director of the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley, California, provides Western antecedents for valuing the present by quoting Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. For example, when discussing “therapeutic presence,” he quotes Marcus Aurelius: “If you separate from . . . everything you have done in the past, everything that disturbs you about the future . . . and apply yourself to living the life that you are living—that is to say, the present—you can live all the time that remains to you until your death in calm, benevolence, and serenity.”

Joyful Presence

The second approach to the present is “joyful presence.” This seems to be most immediately the realm of haiku poetics. Petranker defines it as cultivating a “full appreciation of the rich experience available in each moment.” He asks us to “Think of the . . . practice of slowly, mindfully eating a raisin,” and writes that “It has been argued that this dimension of mindfulness meditation owes less to classical Buddhist teachings than to the unacknowledged elements of 19th century Romanticism that color modern Western Buddhist understanding.” He notes that joyful appreciation, or complete acceptance, is “now firmly embedded in modern Buddhist practice.” Here, again, he turns to the Epicureans, who he says “insisted that only in the present moment is happiness possible.” He quotes Pierre Hadot’s summation of Epicurean perspectives by saying that happiness comes “when we learn to accord infinite value to the slightest moment of existence.” Petranker also quotes Epicurean poet Horace, coiner of the phrase “Carpe diem,” or “Seize the day,” which he says is an adage that “can stand in for joyful presence, for that is how it is most understood.”

Mindful Presence

The third approach in apprehending the present is “mindful presence,” which Petranker calls “presence that remembers.” He points out that “the word translated into English as ‘mindfulness’ (sati in Pali, smriti in Sanskrit) has ‘remembering’ as its fundamental meaning.” This remembering means to remember “what has value, what matters most,” a sort of priority-setting that serves as a context for present awareness and attention. In this sense, for the haiku poet, “mindful presence” includes remembering aesthetic values, and also memories of experience. Some haiku poets write only from direct “present” experience, which is always the poet’s choice, but such a choice may be driven by a “therapeutic” or “joyful” sense of the present, rather than by a deeper sense of “mindful” presence that embraces remembering. As Petranker notes, “With mindful presence . . . we move beyond immediate sensory experience and disregard for past and future, beyond joyful and therapeutic presence.” And then, surprisingly, he adds, “In fact, mindful presence might seem to take us out of the realm of present-moment attention entirely.” This sort of mindfulness has something larger to offer us than mere therapeutic or joyful presence.
        Mary Oliver treads similar ground in her poem, “Mindful,” which she begins by saying “Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight.” At first she seems to be focusing more on a joyful presence than a mindful one, but by the end of her poem she refers to growing “wise with such teachings as . . . the
untrimmable light of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass,” which—one hopes—embrace memories as much as experience.
        Turning to haiku, it is worth remarking that the notion of the so-called “haiku moment” is chiefly a Western concept, not strictly a Japanese one, one that first appeared prominently in Kenneth Yasuda’s The Pepper-Pod in 1947. To the extent that Buddhism has informed haiku in centuries past, if not today, it could be that Japanese mindfulness, as manifested in Japanese haiku poetry, is more akin to “mindful presence” than it is to “joyful presence” and that it’s Western McMindfulness that permeates much of our haiku poetry.
        Indeed, it is surely not by chance that the title of Haruo Shirane’s most influential essay on haiku in English is “Beyond the Haiku Moment” (Modern Haiku 31:1, Winter–Spring 2000). As Shirane notes, “
One of the widespread beliefs in North America is that haiku should be based upon one’s own direct experience, that it must derive from one’s own observations, particularly of nature. But it is important to remember that this is basically a modern view of haiku, the result, in part, of nineteenth century European realism, which had an impact on modern Japanese haiku and then was re-imported back to the West as something very Japanese” (49). This is much like today’s reimportation to the West of avant-garde Japanese gendai haiku as a repackaging of French surrealism from a hundred years ago. Shirane also says the following, as a foundation for the use of allusions and place-name references that connect haiku across space and time, not just here, and not just now in the present moment:

We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English language haiku (such as D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the Beats) who mistakenly emphasized Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku, that haiku should be about the “here and now.” This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience. Haiku is extremely short, and therefore it can concentrate on only a few details. It is thus suitable for focusing on the here and now. But there is no reason why these moments have to be only in the present, contemporary world or why haiku can’t deal with other kinds of time. (52–53)


Shirane adds that, for Bashō, “
there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems. As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō, Bashō believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting” (53).
        Jack Petranker expands on his sense of “mindful presence” by saying that we can “see it as inviting a broader sense of what it means to inhabit the present moment,” emphasizing that “We can see this clearly if we focus on the fact of mortality.” He says that although one’s imminent death is in the future, “the certainty that you will die is a present reality, true in each present moment.” Here it is worth invoking the Spanish concept of duende, or having soul and authenticity in an awareness of impending death—a trait of living and writing that American poet Edward Hirsch has called a “joyful darkness.” It results in passionate, intense artistry, as seen in Flamenco dance and guitar, and in passionate poetry, something Lorca wrote about extensively, and demonstrated with his own poetry. In effect, duende makes haiku not a one-breath poem but, as poet Charles Gramlich has put it in his 2008 haiku book, Wanting the Mouth of a Lover, a last-breath poem. In Voices, translated by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), Antonio Porchia said, “Everything is a little bit of darkness, even the light” (69).
        Here Petranker quotes Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius again, from eighteen centuries before Lorca: “Let your every deed and word and thought be those of one who might depart from this life this very moment.” He then clarifies that mindful presence does not, after all, turn away from the present moment, but “requires us to rethink what goes in that moment,” reminding us that “we live in a present that draws on the past and the future.” A larger awareness of the present, he explains, is informed by “ongoing stories that we use to make sense of the way things are,” and that “the story of our lives—unfolding from past to future, shaped by memory and anticipation—structures our experience at the deepest level.”
        At this point Petranker notes that Stoic writers invited their followers to memorize “short sayings or maxims [like haiku?] that embody Stoic teachings.” He quotes the Stoic philosopher Seneca as saying that these short sayings exemplify precepts that the practitioner must fully embrace, and that “he must cling fast to them and make them a part of himself, and by daily meditation reach the point where these salutary maxims occur to him of his own accord.” To me, this recalls Bashō, who said to learn the rules and then forget them—studying and learning until you come to the point where the “rules” are so ingrained that you follow them of your own accord. Petranker concludes by saying that “The present moment is not defined solely by letting go of past and future (therapeutic presence), nor by accepting and appreciating what arises right now (joyful presence), but by choosing in this very moment how we make sense of the world (mindful presence).”

Active Presence

Petranker does not stop there, however, but offers a fourth and more transcendent way of “practicing attention in the present moment.” He calls this “active presence.” It’s a matter, he says, of “choosing how to act in this moment,” embracing all three of the other kinds of present-moment attention: “In therapeutic presence, you actively choose where to focus your attention. In joyful presence, you actively choose how to react to your experience. In mindful presence, you actively choose how to make sense of your experience” (emphasis added). As an “open-ended engagement with experience,” he says, active presence “puts everything into play.” It strikes me, therefore, that active mindfulness is not an attachment to the present moment, but a letting go of it. This perspective echoes with the appealing idea that haiku does not capture a moment, but releases it.
        Petranker then invites his readers to take the “present-moment plunge.” He quotes Seneca’s phrase, “Toti se inserens mundo,” or “plunging oneself into the totality of the world” (as translated by
Pierre Hadot). Petranker describes this commitment as the heart of active presence, of “being here now,” of having “fearless presence” with “total involvement, holding nothing back.” I feel shades of duende here, of writing haiku as last-breath poetry, of putting oomph into your poems. I’m also reminded of Dag Hammarskjöld’s notion of “saying yes to life,” explored in his book Markings (New York: Knopf, 1964). Petranker concludes by saying that “active presence offers a way into the deeper existential and universal concerns that the Buddha raised through his teachings,” and that, through active presence, “When we engage the present, we engage the whole of our lives. When we plunge into the world, we accept the whole of what is.”

Integrating the Infinite Now

What these understandings mean for haiku poets, I hope, is a larger sense of the unfolding present—the infinite now—and how we apprehend and respond to it. For many poets, it means taking a vow to poetry. By moving beyond the Haiku McMoment, we can embrace the here and now with both memory and anticipation, and set priorities in wider and deeper contexts. Our poems can thereby become an overarching integration of the moment in each of the four approaches—as therapy, joyfulness, mindfulness, and activeness. The present moment, in haiku and otherwise, is not an object of worship but an object of integration. Haiku is not a moment of time, but a moment of timelessness. As Jeanette Winterson put it in her book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (New York: Knopf, 1996), “If truth is that which lasts, then art has proved truer than any other human endeavor. What is certain is that pictures and poetry and music are not only marks in time but marks through time, of their own time and ours, not antique or historical, but living as they ever did, exuberantly, untired” (ix). In haiku, we have the opportunity to write about our experiences and emotions as an instinctive consummation of everything we know in life. Thus, haiku can be the freshly picked fruit of a total absorption in here-and-now active mindfulness, an attentiveness that integrates all of the past, all of the present, and all of the future. Haiku lets us take a bite—not of raisins or even of grapes, but of something with far greater nourishment.

                Here is the time for telling. Here is its home.
                Speak and make known: more and more
                the things we could experience
                are lost to us, replaced
                by mindless doing.

                                —Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Ninth Duino Elegy”
                                    (Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, translators)


Note: Jack Petranker’s essay “The Present Moment” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tricycle (accessed 18 November 2014).