The Inside of a Haiku

by Christopher Herold

First published in Woodnotes #23, Winter 1994, pages 36–37.

One of the many wonderful descriptions of haiku given to us by R. H. Blyth is this: “A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a hand beckoning, a door half opened, a mirror wiped clean.”

A hand beckoning refers to the skill with which a poet chooses words and structures them to attract attention to the experience. A door half opened refers to the poet’s experience itself—the sudden, miraculous transcendence of ordinary consciousness and dualistic thought. The mirror wiped clean is what readers can experience on looking deeply into a good haiku. Because the poet does not get in the way, readers can have for themselves the poet’s experience of self-recognition, one of timelessness, of unity.

There’s much to know about the outside of a haiku. Millions of words have been used to define and to redefine its parameters. In this context, I take the outside of a haiku to include content as well as choice of words, structure, and so on. But the outside of a haiku is not my focus. Instead, I look to the inside of a haiku.

The inside of a haiku is empty. It’s the wordless essence from which a haiku can issue, an intuited experience of the universal, triggered by some specific aspect of it—a sudden illumination, a single moment of presence.

So, how do you recognize a haiku experience? And what do you do when one occurs?

Blyth wrote that, “Moments of vision come when least expected, unbidden, and in most people pass into oblivion, unnoticed and unremembered.”

For haijins with some practice at tracking glimpses of insight, there is a danger of picking up a pen too soon. If an experience has sufficient power, chances are good that it will be recalled later, and perhaps crystallized into a haiku. More important (to me) than the recording of an experience is the thoroughness with which I immerse myself in it, purposefully not diminishing the moment with self-serving intentions. Upon return to an inexplicably deep experience, I may choose to heft a pen and struggle to find and structure words that will coax the sublime to the surface, making the poem accessible not only to my mind, but to the minds and hearts of others. It is at this time of struggle that I must be careful not to put my pen down too soon.

The emptiness in a haiku is not really emptiness, as in having nothing inside. Rather, it is complete reunion with our selves, with the myriad things from which we’ve been parted by self consciousness. Emptiness can also be understood as absolute fullness—the discriminating mind is discarded.

Buddhists have a saying; it forms the basis of the Prajna Paramita Sutra: “Shiki fu i ku, ku fu i shiki; shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki.” Literally: “Form not different from emptiness, emptiness not different from form; form is the emptiness, emptiness is the form.”

It is this emptiness, this total immersion in the present moment, from which the best haiku spring. Working on a haiku can lead to this state, just as being in this state can give rise to a haiku. No matter what direction one takes, what is of ultimate importance is not the production of haiku, but simply to be more conscious of life. In doing this, we are enriched and thereby enrich the universe.