Learning Haiku from Shunryu Suzuki
“When my talk is over, your listening is over.
There is no need to remember what I say.” —Shunryu Suzuki
Shunryu Suzuki was a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who helped to make Zen Buddhism popular in the United States. He is best known for founding the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, one of the first Buddhist monasteries in North America—indeed, perhaps among the first Buddhist monasteries outside of Asia. He is also renowned for his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), which some say is the most widely read book on Zen Buddhism published in English. The casual lectures collected in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind were all recordings of talks given over the course of two years in Los Altos, California at what was known as the “Haiku Zendo,” so named because it had cushions for only seventeen people. Suzuki’s wife, Mitsu Suzuki, has published two books of her haiku, Temple Dusk (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991) and A White Tea Bowl (Berkeley: Rodmell Press, 2014; see my review from Kyoto Journal). In the first of these two books, the introduction by Gregory A. Wood and Kazuaki Tanahashi reports Mitsu as saying that she and her husband wrote haiku together (9; references to quotations from all books are noted with page numbers in parentheses). Even if Shunryu Suzuki did not write haiku often, or if few or none of them have been preserved, he still has much to teach readers about this poetry—in a sideways manner—through his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and its sequel, Not Always So (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), both of which collect texts of Suzuki’s informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. Just as “beginner’s mind” is central to a Zen perspective on life, so too can it be vital to the writing of haiku poetry, whether one has any affinity for Zen or not. As Suzuki once said in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “When you understand a frog through and through, you attain enlightenment” (83). Perhaps he meant Bashō’s frog.
Introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
“This is the purpose of all Zen teaching—to make you wonder and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature.” (13, introduction by Richard Baker, dharma heir to Shunryu Suzuki)
What does this have to say to haiku poets? That life is constantly something to wonder about—to be in wonder and awe of everything in life. It’s from this foundation that the haiku poet enters the world with passion and curiosity. We express what we discover by being true to our own nature, to let ourselves speak in describing what we see and smell and taste.
“The practice of Zen mind is beginner’s mind. . . . It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.” (13–14, introduction by Richard Baker)
The Talmud says “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” This is not just a Western propensity, but a human one. Zen—and haiku—would have us move beyond ourselves to see each thing as it is, in its own suchness. Many beginning haiku poets are apt to use judgment, analysis, and metaphor in their early attempts at haiku, all of which are reports of who we are, not the way things are themselves. This is a habit to work through, to get over, so that if one does use any judgment or metaphor in a haiku, if at all, it comes from the grounding of first seeing things as they are in their own suchness.
“The flow of his [a roshi’s, or teacher’s] consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present.” (18, introduction by Richard Baker)
If we seek any kind of mastery in the haiku art, we would do well to keep from puffing up with self-importance when we write our poems. Selflessness and compassion give rise to sensitivity and awareness from which we can write our best poems. The spontaneity and naturalness that we seek resides ever in the present moment—and, like the lily of the field, does not worry about yesterday or tomorrow. This is how we can slow down to notice the ripples on the pond from a passing fish as we sit in a fragrant wisteria arbour, or feel the chill of the fridge when we open it for a late-night snack. Or sit by a curtained window and wonder if it’s raining out in the dark.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” (21)
We can see the world more freshly when we cultivate beginner’s mind. This is not a mind that is allowed to become stupid or naïve, but one that is emptied of preconception, that pays close attention to sensory experiences and our emotions in reaction to them. When Bashō said to learn the rules and then forget them, I believe he meant not only to internalize those rules so deeply that we no longer have to think about them, but to know how to purge ourselves of rules that inhibit fresh seeing, that cloud our view of the world with our view of ourselves.
“We must exist right here, right now!” (27)
We have no choice. Here we are, wherever we go. And whenever. With acceptance of this immutable reality, we can train ourselves to be present, even while maintaining responsibility for our commitments to family, friends, and employers. I once heard of a study that said tourists who spend more time taking photographs than other tourists didn’t remember the details of their trip nearly as well as those who took fewer photographs. I’m a photographer, so this study is sobering to me. What have I been missing on all my trips, whether to foreign countries or to a nearby attraction? What do I miss even when I’m not carrying my camera, but remain preoccupied by what I choose to put right in front of me? I think of ski patroller Kim Kircher, whose book The Next 15 Minutes (Lake Forest, California: Behler Publications, 2012) chronicles her journey in supporting her husband through cancer treatment, using life lessons learned from skiing. Over and over she returns to the question: What will I do with the next fifteen minutes? This approach helped her get through the overwhelming predicament of dealing with cancer and other life challenges. Perhaps if we take that step, we can then take the next step of focusing down even to the present.
“We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are.” (33)
It is not enough to pay attention, to be in wonder and awe of the world in writing our haiku. Rather, our purpose is to see things as they are. Here are three poems by Mitsu Suzuki that may do exactly that (from Temple Dusk, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Gregory A. Wood):
After planting lily bulbs
I notice the color
of the sky (22; 1971)
left to the rain
tea room kettle boiling (105; 1982)
I cut a flower
dew on my glasses (144; 1986)
“Instead of time progressing from past to present, it goes backwards from present to past. Yoshitsune was a famous warrior who lived in medieval Japan. Because of the situation of the country at that time, he was sent to the northern provinces, where he was killed. Before he left he bade farewell to his wife, and soon after she wrote in a poem, ‘Just as you unreel the thread from a spool, I want the past to become present.’ When she said this, actually she made past time present. In her mind the past became alive and was the present. So as Dogen said, ‘Time goes from present to past.’ This is not true in our logical mind, but it is in the actual experience of making past time present. There we have poetry, and there we have human life.” (33)
The art of poetry, including haiku, is to make the past present. By freezing a moment in time, haiku turns the past into the present. Indeed, haiku are always written about the past, even if the moment happened just a few seconds ago. It is our task as haiku poets to remember vibrantly, regardless of whether that memory was thirty minutes or thirty years ago. If we capture that vibrancy in our haiku, we are not actually capturing or freezing that moment, but releasing it into the present.
“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us. . . . Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” (65)
Too often we think of writing a haiku—or composing it, as the Japanese say. This stance presumes that we control and own the process. But what if we shift our thinking to become receptors, to receive haiku? Have you felt those moments when the poem just seemed to fall in your lap? Those moments are rare and precious. The moment is not the poem, of course. The poem can begin by our being receptive to the moment. We need not be entirely passive to receive such inspiration, but can cultivate it by participating in the seasons as they unfold, by walking in nature, and noticing the details of life more closely—along with our emotional responses. By such cultivation, the moments of reception can multiply and deepen. Furthermore, if our hands are closed around each haiku we write, they cannot be open to what happens next.
“When we sit in the cross-legged posture, we resume our fundamental activity of creation. There are perhaps three kinds of creation. The first is to be aware of ourselves after we finish zazen [Zen meditation]. When we sit we are nothing, we do not even realize what we are; we just sit. But when we stand up, we are there! That is the first step in creation. When you are there, everything else is there; everything is created all at once. When we emerge from nothing, when everything emerges from nothing, we see it all as a fresh new creation. This is non-attachment. The second kind of creation is when you act, or produce or prepare something like food or tea. The third kind is to create something within yourself, such as education, or culture, or art, or some system for our society. So there are three kinds of creation. But if you forget the first, the most important one, the other two will be like children who have lost their parents; their creation will mean nothing.” (67)
How is this true of haiku? I think often of E. E. Cummings, who said “since feeling is first.” But Suzuki would have us believe that nothingness is first, before intellect and even before feeling. When walking, we must walk, and when sitting, we must sit, and, as Ummon said, we must not wobble. But before all that, we just are. It is from this nothingness, this mind of the beginner, that we can create our haiku. Oh, the rain is dripping outside my window!
“The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment. . . . If you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature.” (75)
Should we use haiku to express things as they are, or to express our own true nature? Deep down, I think it’s both. If we empty our minds to beginnerness, we can express both our true natures and things as they are—both at once. Some haiku poets might be drawn to dark subjects—such as a rabbit dead at the side of the road. Others might wish only to write about the beautiful—such as the wisps of fog that curl between yellow aspens. If we let these choices be utterly natural, then our poems will reflect the suchness of things. This suchness is, simultaneously, the suchness of ourselves.
“When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and the pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all that they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual.” (78)
A fish swimming in water knows nothing of the water. In a different way, the trees are just standing in the wind, and know nothing of the wind, even as they creak and bend. But if we are outside the water, and outside the trees and the wind, we can write about them. In this sense, writing flirts with separation, with putting ourselves outside our subjects, which is a danger. Bashō said to learn of the pine from the pine, and of the bamboo from the bamboo, and that, in Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation, “When you see an object, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself; otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn. The object and yourself must become one, and from that feeling of oneness issues your poetry” (The Year of My Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960, 18). We begin by listening, at which point we may be separate from the object, when we hear the wind in the trees. But then we become the wind and the trees, through interpenetration, and we write our haiku. This is why Shunryu Suzuki also says, “When you are you, you see things as they are” (83).
“[A] Chinese poem says ‘Rozan [in China] is famous for its misty, rainy days, and the great river Sekko for its tide, coming and going. That is all.’ That is all, but it is splendid. This is how we appreciate things.” (84)
Is haiku any different? This is why Suzuki says “you should accept knowledge [and experience] as if you were hearing something you already knew” (84), and “If you are ready to accept things as they are, you will receive them as old friends, even though you appreciate them with new feeling” (85). Haiku, more often than not, come to us, as readers and writers, as something we already knew, but perhaps didn’t know that we already knew. It’s wonderful, too, to think of each haiku we read—and write—as an old friend.
“When we say something, our subjective intention or situation is always involved. So there is no perfect word; some distortion is always present in a statement. But nevertheless . . . we have to understand objective fact itself—the ultimate fact. By ultimate fact we do not mean something eternal or something constant, we mean things as they are in each moment. You may call it ‘being’ or ‘reality.’” (87)
If we accept the notion that there is no perfect word, that our haiku will always get in the way of the essence within experience, then we can relax and let the words we write do their best. Alan Watts and Eric Amann wrote about haiku being a “wordless” poem. It is a superficial understanding to believe that this means haiku should be as short as possible. It means, I believe, that the words should be as transparent as possible, so that we see through them utterly, instantaneously knowing the essence of experience that the poet felt, as if the words were not even there. Thus we cocreate the moment by reading or hearing the poem. The poem doesn’t just record an experience; rather, a good haiku is the experience. As Suzuki says, “We should find the reality in each moment” (119). Haiku poems seek that ultimate fact, here and now, in every passing moment.
“We say ‘Everything comes out of emptiness.’ One whole river or one whole mind is emptiness. When we reach this understanding we find the true meaning of our life.” (94)
Enter this emptiness to write your haiku. Enter your emptiness to write your haiku.
“We do not slight the idea of attaining enlightenment, but the most important thing is this moment, not some day in the future.” (101)
Haiku are sometimes described as moments of insight—little enlightenments. But perhaps a haiku just is. As Roland Barthes put it in Empire of Signs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, 83), “the haiku diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation. It’s that, it’s thus, says the haiku, it’s so. Or better still: so!” When you’re enlightened, who cares about enlightenment?
“The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change.” (102)
Haiku dwells in seasons (rather than just nature, strictly speaking). Each unfolding detail of the seasons is a point of change. This too shall pass—or it is Not Always So, as the title of Suzuki’s sequel to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind reminds us. It is the ephemerality of every moment that haiku seeks—not to capture it, as I’ve said before, but to release it.
“For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem. To be natural is something which we must work on.” (108)
Perhaps we need to be like stones. Bashō once said, “To write haiku, get a three-foot child.” This observation is sometimes used to praise whatever undisciplined and uninformed utterance a child might make in the form of haiku. I see this as a misunderstanding of Bashō’s intent. Rather, I think he was emphasizing beginner’s mind, and the value of seeing freshly without preconceptions—but that this freshness still needed refinement. No, children are not naturals at haiku, because they often lack craft. The truth remains that our utterances in haiku are something to work on, something to practice, to refine—all in a delicate dance of not holding on too tightly. The self-evident contradiction here, to work at being natural, is also true of haiku. We have to work at each haiku to make it feel like it happened all by itself, as naturally as a leaf that falls from a tree. But to work at it, and to find out how, we need beginner’s mind, and can start by letting go. Haiku bubbles from the spring of nothingness.
“While you are practicing zazen, you may hear the rain dropping from the roof in the dark. Later, the wonderful mist will be coming through the big trees, and still later when people start to work, they will see the beautiful mountains. But some people will be annoyed if they hear the rain when they are lying in their beds in the morning, because they do not know that later they will see the beautiful sun rising from the east. If our mind is concentrated on ourselves we will have this kind of worry. But if we accept ourselves as the embodiment of the truth, or Buddha nature, we will have no worry. We will think, ‘Now it is raining, but we don’t know what will happen in the next moment. By the time we go out it may be a beautiful day, or a stormy day. Since we don’t know, let’s appreciate the sound of the rain now.’” (117–118)
Write a haiku about that!
“All we want to do is to know things just as they are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to grasp. We cannot put emphasis on any point. Nevertheless, as Dogen said, ‘A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.’” (120)
It’s that “nevertheless” that keeps us writing haiku. And yet, and yet.
“[F]or Zen students a weed, which for most people is worthless, is a treasure. With this attitude, whatever you do, life becomes art.” (121–122)
And it can become haiku, too.
“Buddhism emphasizes the world of unconsciousness. . . . Buddhist philosophy is so universal and logical that it is not just the philosophy of Buddhism, but of life itself. The purpose of Buddhist teaching is to point to life itself existing beyond consciousness in our pure original mind.” (130)
In this way, is haiku not the expression of life itself? Not a poetry of consciousness but an essence and reality deeper than that? Isn’t it integration and beyondness that each haiku is trying to point to, at least beyond the images we can experience with our five senses? Yet there is nothing to point at, nothing to grasp. All is emptiness. And yet.
“Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth. In the East I saw rhubarb already. In Japan in the spring we eat cucumbers.” (138)
Oh, it is dark, and the rain is dripping still, outside my window.
Not Always So
“When you are not thinking that you have another moment, then naturally you can accept things as they are, you can see things as they are.” (13)
True of the haiku moment—just to be here now.
“When you see plum blossoms, or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.” (35–36)
Are we ready in every season to receive the letters that nature sends us?
“[A]s soon as we conceptualize something it is already a dead experience.” (37)
This is a reminder to notice the thing as it is, yet not to stop there. For the sake of haiku, we do well to also notice our emotions—to feel, to dwell in emotion. If we marry the image and the feeling together, we come to the point of integrating nature and human nature.
“For artists or writers to express their direct experience, they may paint or write. But if their experience is very strong and pure, they may give up trying to describe it: ‘Oh my.’ That is all.” (37)
Sometimes the haiku that get away are the best ones of all. I remember the first time that happened to me. It was a pleasure to be okay with that, to have let a haiku go into the dispelling wind, remembering only that it had once existed, and that even the poem itself was as ephemeral as the subject it was written about. But there is no shame in keeping a few, because, as William J. Higginson reminded us, the purpose of haiku is to share them.
“When we see and accept things as they are, we have no need to replace one thing with another.” (38)
Haiku need no metaphors. Metaphors are detours to the thing, not the thing itself. This is not to say that a good short poem, and even a haiku, cannot be written with a metaphor—indeed, all writing is metaphor, in the sense that the word is not the thing (as Suzuki says, “You cannot eat a recipe” , or as poet William Stafford has said, “It is not the sound of the ax that cuts the tree”). But often the best haiku keep the interpretativeness of overt metaphor from entering into the poem. This allows any metaphorical interpretation to bloom in the reader as he or she completes the poem in a participatory way.
“When you observe the precepts without trying to observe the precepts, that is true observation of the precepts.” (86)
This is what I believe Bashō meant by “learn the rules and then forget them.” As Suzuki also says, “True egolessness has forgotten egolessness” (86). He also says, “It is necessary to master the teacher’s way completely, before you are free from it” (91). There is no try; there is only do. It may take the beginner a measure of time to get to the point of doing rather than trying, but it is a natural extension of Noel Burch’s “Four Stages of Competence,” which apply to haiku as much as they apply to anything:
It’s that last stage, unconscious competence, that amounts to observing the precepts without trying to observe the precepts. But do not worry about this—just write. Or as Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “Just to sit, that is enough” (130).
“The true, direct experience of things can be intellectualized, and this conceptual explanation may help you have direct experience. Both intellectual understanding and direct experience are necessary, but it is important to know the difference.” (99)
Likewise, I believe one must control objectivity and subjectivity in haiku. We just need to truly know the difference. As Suzuki adds, “Direct experience will come when you are completely one with your activity” (100). Ah, yes, the rain is dripping outside my window.
Christopher Herold is one of the most respected haiku poets writing in English, and cofounder of The Heron’s Nest haiku journal. I shared this essay with Christopher shortly after it was published because I knew he had been at Tassajara in 1968, where he wrote his first haiku—without knowing what haiku was. I knew he had also studied under Shunryu Suzuki (pictured here). In an email message of 6 December 2016, Christopher wrote the following to me from Port Townsend, Washington: “I enjoyed your essay thoroughly. You may be interested to know that I was present for many of Suzuki’s lectures at the Haiku Zendo. In fact, I helped build it, and that was before I even knew what a haiku was. When I was in monk’s training at Tassajara, it was just the second-ever training session in this country. It’s amazing to think back to those days. And here I am, still sitting most every day at The Snail’s Pace Zendo in our back garden. I never know how many people will show up to sit with me. Sometimes, it’s just me. Other times there may be as many as seven other sitters. It’s like the weather. I don’t know ’til I’m there.” He also included the following poem (from his book Inside Out):
before we enter
after we leave
the meditation room
In another message on 9 December 2016, he added that “Suzuki’s Peninsula meditation groups were established in 1965. For the first few months the groups sat in Palo Alto (morning group) and Redwood City (evening group). In the summer of the same year the morning group moved to Marion Derby’s home in Los Altos, California (her daughter was my high school sweetheart). Early in 1966 the evening group moved there, too, thus consolidating the practitioners. Zazen was being held in the living room. I hadn’t started sitting at that point. On June 24 of 1966 work began to renovate Marion’s garage into a zendo. The opening ceremony was held just six weeks later, on August 4. Even though I hammered a few nails, I still hadn’t begun sitting practice. Sure was interested by that time, though. Reading a lot, and was constantly asking Marion questions. Took me another year before I actually plunked my butt down on a cushion at the Haiku Zendo.”
—10 December 2016, Sammamish, Washington