That Art Thou:
An Interview with James W. Hackett

by John Budan

First published in Woodnotes #30, Autumn 1996, pages 34–39. That Art Thou: My Way of Haiku, referred to near the end of this interview, was never published as a book but is available in an “abridged” version on the Hackett website. See James W. Hackett’s Wikipedia page.

James W. Hackett is one of America’s most distinguished haiku poets. A pioneer in the field, he began writing haiku over 40 years ago when haiku was almost unknown in America. A long-time practitioner of Zen, his haiku are known for their mélange of Zen qualities. His poetry has been endorsed by R. H. Blyth, Alan Watts, Harold G. Henderson, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton, and other notables in the field of haiku. His books The Way of Haiku, Bug Haiku, and The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems are known worldwide. The following are excerpts from an interview that took place in November, 1995, at Hackett’s home in La Honda, California.

Your work is synonymous with Zen. Indeed, you are often referred to as a Zen poet. Your last book was entitled The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems. Could you tell me how first became interested in Zen and was it your interest in Zen that led to haiku or vice-versa?

My interest in haiku and Zen goes back to the early 1950s when I was at the University of Washington studying philosophy and history. I lived then in an intellectually abstract world, until I was given a book of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku by a friend who had been to Japan. Also at that time I began to listen to Alan Watts’ Taoist and Zen lectures on Pacifica radio and found in them a compelling wisdom. So, as an adjunct to my studies of academic philosophy, I read a lot about Zen, especially the works of D. T. Suzuki. My interest then was mainly intellectual, although metaphysics had always been a favorite subject. After graduation, I had a very serious accident and didn’t know from one breath to the next whether I would continue living. From this traumatic experience I discovered that the eternal Now I read about in the Hindu Upanishads and in Zen writings was not just a concept, but a living truth, one that still brands my soul. I made an oath that should I live, I would devote my life to singing the glory of God’s creation, which every moment. But how could I express my new-found reverence for nature and life’s eternal present? Of all the arts, haiku was the one that could best express my awakened soul. So the study of Zen and haiku was concurrent—or, more exactly, the haiku was really an outgrowth of the Zen insight, experienced with such bloody clarity in my accident: the deep realization that the eternal present alone is real. Zen was the only philosophy that focused on this truth.

Are you affiliated with any particular Zen group? I know you practice zazen daily. Could you tell me about your practice?

Along with my haiku, I began an intense practice of zazen, closely following guidelines of the great Chan masters quoted by D. T. Suzuki in his Essays on Zen Buddhism (Volume 2). Early on, I chose not to be connected with any groups. And I’ve always held that haiku, and Zen as well, should not be regarded as foreign or exotic, for their spirit is universal—quite beyond the relativity of religion and nationality. My practice of zazen eventually resolved my spiritual questions. To me, Zen is not a “religion,” if by religion we mean ritual and ceremony; those aspects too often are an end in themselves. I regard Zen as preeminently a philosophy to be lived. I took seriously Buddha’s last words: “Work out your own salvation with diligence.” And if the will to know is strong enough, one doesn’t need a monastery. The real test of Zen is how a person acts, and what it is they value. To me, by far the best definition of Buddhism is “The religion of the all-compassionate heart.” In haiku that means the poet’s empathetic interpenetration with each haiku subject, just as Bashō so ardently advised.

Could you discuss how your haiku writing evolved? You were one of the first Americans to be writing and publishing haiku. You mentioned earlier that R. H. Blyth was an influence.

In the beginning, I read only Blyth’s haiku translations and did not know of anyone writing haiku in English. I wrote feverishly, and haiku soon became the most important thing in life. After sending some poems to Blyth, he replied with strong encouragement. We corresponded until he died, some six years later. It was due to his respect and encouragement that I continued to create haiku in English. I couldn’t have done anything without Blyth (and Zen), and I strongly recommend his haiku books, especially Haiku (Volume 1): Eastern Culture, as mandatory reading for anyone seriously interested in haiku, whether neophyte or experienced poet.

You mentioned writing a haiku about visiting Blyth’s grave in Kamakura on one of your trips to Japan and that he was buried near D. T. Suzuki. Please share that poem.

Here it is:

Over Blyth’s grave:

an offering of spring rain,

muddy knees, and brow.

D. T. Suzuki, in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, stated that haiku is a poetic form possible only for the Japanese mind and the Japanese language. You certainly are an example of a poet who has written many fine haiku that are appreciated not only here in America but in Japan, Suzuki’s own country. How do you respond to these statements by Suzuki?

D. T. Suzuki was a wise and erudite scholar, but I believe his remark reveals some ethnocentrism. Of course, all this begs the question of just what constitutes a haiku. It is true that in use of language and in seasonal emphasis Japanese haiku are unique. However, to me the quintessence of haiku is the spirit of Zen. Indeed, it is Zen’s universal spirit that makes world haiku possible. A Kyoto reporter asked me years ago, “How can you write a haiku and not know the Japanese language?” I replied that as a practicing Zen Buddhist, I had become aware of the aesthetic–spiritual qualities of haiku, and through this, learned not only to write haiku, but to live it. I am grateful that today my haiku are well known in Japan and feel honored by the respect my poems receive there. Last spring [1995] a Japanese television crew came to our home and taped me for an hour-long production on haiku in America for Japanese television.

You have mentioned interpenetration. Could you clarify your meaning of the term?

Interpenetration is a Zen quality that refers to an intuitive sense of oneness. It means to feel empathy with everything, just as Bashō did in his wonderful haiku about the monkey shivering in cold winter rain (translation from Haikai and Haiku, Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, 1958):

First winter shower—

the monkey too looks as if

he would like a small straw-coat.

Bashō’s empathy exemplifies the spiritual influence of Zen. And such interpenetration became very important in my way of haiku. The poet should strive for a sense of identity with everything, whether butterfly, bird, or piece of scat on a mountain trail. We don’t reason it out, but a sense of nonduality should pervade the haiku moment. For ultimately our true Self, our eternal, cosmic Self—if you will—is in everything. The centering focus of haiku is revelatory: this eternal Now, being a veritable cosmic mirror, reflects our true Self. This Now is the stage for life’s mystery play, where myriad roles are being played by the same masked actor. As the Zen master Ikkyu so deeply knew, there is ultimately no one to read our poems.

Do you differentiate between the haiku moment and the haiku poem?

Yes, it’s most important to distinguish the haiku moment from the finished haiku poem. The haiku moment results from a live and direct experience with nature: it’s an emotive experience involving a particular natural subject. I jot down such haiku moments in a notebook. It is a waste of time and awareness for me to try to finish a haiku on a mountain trail. The haiku poem is developed later, from notes of moment (just as was practiced by Japanese haijin). Wordsworth said, “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” That’s exactly how I view haiku writing. From detailed notes, the situation and emotion of the haiku moment is recollected. Then (hopefully), the art of haiku poetry shares this experience with the reader. However, the subtlety of some haiku moments can make their finished expression a real poetic challenge!

What do the Zen arts—tea ceremony, archery, haiku—have in common?

Haiku can be a spiritual way, as well as a way of poetry. For if one is centered in the present, then every moment is a koan solved by living. The loss of our usual sense of identity is a major effect of Zen, and in haiku this is manifest through empathy with the subject. When the Zen archer lets that arrow go, I’m sure he feels—in that moment—no separation between himself and the target. In the same way, when we write and live haiku, there is (ideally) no separation from the subject.

Do you think in Zen haiku there should be a dominant mood of yugen, aware, wabi, or sabi?

To me, muga (or self-less-ness), is the highest quality of haiku. And if muga is present, we may well at times be writing with the spirit of sabi or wabi. Such spiritual–aesthetic qualities are concomitant aspects of the spirit experiencing nature. Some poets today ignore haiku’s traditional naturalism. Speaking of which, I believe this reveals a shallow understanding of haiku’s aesthetic. Haiku is nature-centered because (like its companion art, oriental landscape painting) it reflects age-old Taoist and Buddhist values—where humans are present (if at all) within a context of greater nature. As in any art, the values of haiku poetry are necessarily selective. But we should cherish haiku’s enlightened emphasis on nature: it is a haven for the spirit and a blessing to ecology—given the myopic, destructive anthropocentrism of modern societies.

One of the criticisms we hear of today’s haiku poets is that their haiku are merely little “picture poems.” How do you respond to that criticism?

I believe the best haiku offer more than a picture in words. Long ago, Harold G. Henderson stressed to me that the haiku poem should always suggest some kind of sensation or emotion such as irony, surprise, compassion, loneliness. If we were moved, just what caused us to note a particular haiku moment? Some of today’s haiku appear to be mere “snapshots,” without discernible feeling or emotion.

For most readers haiku seems so simple. A random haiku of yours, for example, from Zen Haiku:

Dry pasture, ribboned

by the flowers and butterflies

of a hidden spring . . .

Well, the seeming simplicity of haiku is deceptive, in that it is often very dearly won! Expressing a haiku moment can at times be very frustrating, requiring much perseverance. But I love the creative challenge that haiku offers. The completion of any given poem has taken me from three minutes to six months. When writing a haiku, I ask myself exactly what motivated me to take note of this moment, and would anybody want to share it. A subtle haiku moment requires the most careful word choice, and this—along with syntactical decisions—can take time. Most importantly, a finished haiku poem should sound (and appear) natural, however long this takes.

I think a lot of people started writing haiku after hearing the Alan Watts tapes, but that amazes me. I never got the impression that Watts was that knowledgeable about haiku. [See “Haiku Missionary: An Annotated Response to Alan Watts’ ‘Haiku.’”]

Many of us feel grateful to Alan Watts. I think he was an effective Pied Piper for Eastern philosophy. Alan was able to communicate with the Western audience better than Suzuki, and was eloquent and interesting whenever I heard him speak. He was always very kind to my work. Back in the 1960s, he read some of my haiku on his radio broadcast in San Francisco. He then suggested that haiku in English should make full use of poetic figures of speech, as is common in poetry. After the broadcast, I wrote Alan a respectful but critical letter explaining that the haiku moment, like Zen, is not a symbol of anything else, and should never be treated metaphorically or allegorically. Zen’s essential Suchness (the thing just as it is) must be reflected in the haiku; otherwise, haiku will be just like any other poetic verse. Still, I respected Alan’s individuality as well as his commitment to the spirit of Tao and Zen. About a year after the broadcast, Alan judged some 40,000 haiku in the first Japan Air Lines contest, and awarded first place to my poem:

A bitter morning:

sparrows sitting together

without any necks.

You’ve shown me a large collection of interesting poems and haiku that haven’t yet been published. What’s your next book going to be on, and when is it going to be finished?

My next work is tentatively titled That Art Thou: My Way of Haiku. It’s a summation of my views about haiku and Zen. By invitation I have presented portions of this essay to haiku gatherings in California, Ireland, and Romania, and parts have been published in British and Romanian haiku journals. I hope to finish the entire work by 1997. [This book was never published, but an “abridged” version of the text is available on Hackett’s website.]

I look forward to that book, Jim. To conclude, might you share some haiku from your recent trip to China and Japan?

Yes, John, I’d be pleased to.

Shanghai: Pavilion empty,

the old Shanghai gardener

dances with herself.

Xi’an: Bell tower strangers—

now beyond words, priest and poet

laugh and embrace!

Hangzhou: In a huge clay pot

temple lotus flowers

under a bamboo screen.

Suzhou: Templed with tourists

taped chant, and idoled in gold—

mountain master Han Shan!

Kyoto: Heavy summer heat . . .

zendo’s visiting roshi:

a lone cicada.

For information on James W. Hackett’s work or to order his books directly, write to Zen View, Box 313, La Honda, California 94020 [address no longer correct; later in his life James and Pat Hackett moved to the town of Haiku on Maui]. I am grateful to Mr. Hackett for a long interview and to his gracious wife Pat for her hospitality. I am interested in the connections between Zen and haiku, and welcome criticisms or comments. I can be reached at 19759 Calkins Lane, Newberg, Oregon 97132. —John Budan