No-Self and the Paradox of Style

First published in Woodnotes #22, Autumn 1994, pages 4–6.       +       +

by vincent tripi


Two things as to the question of when to write a haiku book. The first is to believe that you have already begun. The last is to know that there will never be a “perfect” when.

Books are about raising our voice, the voice that we’ve been summoned by and echoes in the poems that set us free. We are, as Rilke said, “. . . on the track of the law of our own growth” (letter, June 28, 1902). Ideally there comes a time when each of us will recognize in our writing what is referred to as an individual “style.”

I remember stepping off a bicycle near a Zen monastery in New York state not far from Mount Tremper, on a chill March day, and being taken by surprise. What was that incense? It was plum blossom.

The actual point of identification of an individual style is one of the very best times to begin thinking about writing a book of haiku. Style has as much to do with looking within as it does with anything else. Above all it is inevitably connected with the individual writer’s ability to let go of the “self.”

There is in most of us the ponderous and incorrigible tendency to construct out of almost everything and every situation an “I,” a “me,” and a “mine” and then to operate in the world from that limited perspective. Hardly a moment passes without this happening, but it is so much a part of the fabric of our life that it goes completely unnoticed, much as the proverbial fish has no knowledge of water, so thoroughly is it immersed in it.

If you look deeply for a stable, enduring, individual self, for the core “you” that underlies “your” experience, you are likely to find it other than in more thinking. Your “name” is just a label. The same can be said of your age, your opinions, your height, and so on . . . none are fundamental to who you are.

When you inquire in this way as deeply as you can, you are almost certain to find that there is no solid place to land. If you ask: “Who is the I who is asking who am I?”, ultimately you come to, “I don’t know.” The “I” just appears as a construct that is known by its attributes, none of which, taken singly or together, really makes the whole of the person. Moreover, the “I” construct has the tendency continually to dissolve and reconstruct itself, virtually moment by moment. It also has a strong tendency to feel diminished, small, insecure, and uncertain, since its existence is so tenuous to begin with.

Then there is the problem of outside forces. The “I” tends to feel good when circumstances are supporting its belief in its own goodness, and bad when it runs into criticism, difficulties, and what it perceives as obstacles, defeats, and so on. We are likely to continually seek interior stability through outside rewards, through possessions, and from others who love us. In this way we keep our self-construct going.

Yet in spite of all this self-generating activity, there may still be no sense of enduring stability in one’s own being, nor calmness in the mind.

No-self does not mean being a nobody. What it means is that everything is interdependent and that there is no isolated, independent core “you.” You are only you in relation to all other forces and events in the world—including your parents, your childhood, your thoughts and feelings, outside occurrences, time, and so on. . . . Moreover, you are already a somebody, no matter what. You are who you already are. But who you are is not your name, your beliefs, your anxieties. They are a part of it, but not the whole.

If we cease trying hard to be “somebody” and instead just experience being, directly, what this means is that we start from where we find our self and work there. By no longer attempting to make oneself into more than we are out of fear that we are less than we are, whoever we really are will be a lot lighter and more free and more creatively present to it all.

By letting go of the “self,” we accord to nature a little more room where things can happen as they truly are.

Writing haiku is an act of praise, an act of generous “selfing-with” the planet. First you have an overwhelming sense of your own identity and your own importance, and then you begin to use your particular gift to communicate the truth of who you are to the outside world for its benefit, not your own.

The best haiku are hardly ever “just mine.” Only the lesser ones are mine for they are the ones where I can’t let go, am caught along the rocky trail-of-me.

Haiku at its highest level is written by that which I really am, but which I cannot possibly define or label. It simply defines itself by the way it writes me. The inmost “self” is beyond the kind of experience that says “I want,” “I know,” “I have.” It demonstrates its own way of saying and experiencing, which is a divine way and not a human one, a way of identity, of union, of harmony with everything around me . . . even silence.

Real haiku become impossible as long as the ego holds forth in its attempt to force them. As soon as the ego starts to fade, however, they become less bound, perhaps even effortless. The more we are attached to some particular concept of self, the more it will limit, to paraphrase Rilke, the ways in which the things themselves may move in us to say.

One cannot altogether lose this sense of “self,” but in haiku one must, in the end, transmute it. The very act (art) of transmuting it is collateral with the development of an individual style.

There is no timetable for the development of style. Neither is there an end point—a “final” style. It is, after all, a part of the discovering and forgetting and remembering in-the-moment “who” we are: the “self” of haiku moving through our life.

Another way of looking at it is that our individual voices are “here,” just “now,” at any moment. They have always been here, and it is never too late to find them.

The mountain gives us many rocks to rest on. Rocks to talk to. When we shout our name the mountain never echoes.


The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

—Li Po


The author first presented this essay on when to publish a haiku book at the May 1, 1994 meeting in San Francisco of the Haiku Poets of Northern California.