Haiku as an Approximation of Reality

I opened a book I hadn’t read in years, “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra.

After I read the initial pages I was moved to write this:

I see the same words I read years ago
I understand more than I understood then
The years have been a good teacher

If I read this book ten years from now
Will I understand even more?
Or should I read another book?

Don’t seek an answer
Accept knowledge as it comes
The wise do not force

The third stanza is in the form of a haiku, but it is not a true haiku, something I regret, often, when writing in this form. The discipline of limiting a thought or impression to seventeen syllables is compelling to me, and I tend to forget that the essence of this form is to present ‘reality’ in an indirect, non-linear way. The above poem is too direct.

Here is what Capra writes. I have edited this passage only to eliminate words which I feel are not essential to the message:

Taoists use paradoxes in order to expose the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication and to show its limits. This has passed on to Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have developed it further. It has reached its extreme in Zen Buddhism with the koans, riddles used by many Zen masters to transmit the teachings. In Japan, there is yet another mode of expressing philosophical views, extremely concise poetry used to point directly at the ‘suchness’ of reality. When a monk asked Fuketsu Ensho, ‘When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error?’ The monk replied:

I always remember Kiangsu in March—
The cry of partridge
The mass of fragrant flowers

This form of spiritual poetry has reached its perfection in the haiku, a classical Japanese verse of just seventeen syllables which is deeply influenced by Zen.

Leaves falling
lie on one another;
The rain beats the rain.

When eastern mystics express their knowledge in words with the help of myths, symbols and poetic images, they are aware of the limitations imposed by language and linear thinking.

Here is a definition of the haiku form of poetry:

Haiku (俳句) is a very short form of Japanese poetry typically characterised by three qualities:

1. The juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
2. Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5.
3. A kigo (seasonal reference).

There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences. (Source).

Upon completing my first reading of this book, I wrote this:

To be self-conscious,
The Universe created
Man, who now asks, ‘why?’

Again, this is not a true Haiku, but I review it here to observe, in public, my perceptions of some time ago.

I have many books, in English, about the history of haiku and its ancient masters, especially Basho, Buson, and Issa.


on a leafless bough
a crow is sitting—autumn
darkening now


the evening breezes
the water splashes against
a blue heron’s shins


“the peony was a big as this”
says the little girl
opening her arms

(Issa is noted for his humor and whimsy)

The nature of eastern spiritual or philosophical thought (or ‘way’ is probably better) is to avoid abstractions, focusing on ordinary everyday things. I wrote these some years ago:

hiking God’s garden
lavender, forget-me-nots
myriad green lives

moon’s full face follows
summer traveler through the hills
brown from sun’s long kiss

horseshit pile on path
reminder of plainspoken
one preceding me

These words speak more directly to me of reality than the millions of words uttered and written by the great philosophers. Yet, I still read them.

one’s contradictions
should be carried carefully
like a basket of eggs

You can read and download the book in its entirety here

The Divided Self

The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James, 1842-1910

… is a series of university lectures in the psychology of religion given around 100 years ago by the great American psychologist and educator William James. Three contiguous lectures of the twenty have captivated me and I am poring over them to be sure I understand fully what Professor James has presented. These three lectures are named The Religion of Healthy-mindedness, The Sick Soul and The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification.

[Please note that the full text of the three chapters discussed below lies under the links immediately above]

Healthy-mindedness and The Sick Soul

The chapter on “healthy-mindedness” explores the psyche and other aspects of the person we might call a typical optimist. The following chapter on the “sick soul” can be similarly assigned to the pessimist. We have elements of each of these characteristics within us, but our inherent natures will cause us to lean, on balance, one way or the other. I was surprised to see that James feels the “pessimist” has the more apt outlook. I quote here from The Sick Soul:

(T)here is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may be after all the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deeper levels of truth.

The above tends to validate two of my father’s many borrowed aphorisms: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”; and “Murphy’s” famous law, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

The Divided Self

Around age 21 I perceived I had two aspects: the watcher and the watched. That is, the evaluator and the actor (in life) being continuously evaluated. This “evaluator” was relentless and harsh in my early years, but after some very large ups and downs, and after several decades of living fully, the evaluator seems to have faded from, or merged with, the “actor.”

This perception of a divided self and an ultimate resolution or “unification” is what James addresses in The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification.

Nikos Kazantzakis, 1883-1957

Nikos Kazantzakis, a passionate man, wrote this in his Report to Greco: “Fire and soil. How could I harmonize these two militant ancestors inside me?”

The writer Alphonse Daudet remarks at the beginning of his Notes on Life, “The first time that I perceived that I was two was upon the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘how truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.'”

Annie Besant, a leading figure in the beginnings of the Theosophical movement, states the following in her autobiography: “I have ever been the queerest mixture of weakness and strength, and have paid heavily for the weakness…An unkind look or word has availed to make shrink into myself as a snail into its shell, while, on the (speaking) platform, opposition makes me speak my best.”



The Process of Unification

Professor James give further examples from the writings of Leo Tolstoy, John Bunyan and Henry Alline, among others, most of whom dwelt upon the resolution of their “divided self” as being in the religious or spiritual realm. But finding a new religious or spiritual path is not the only mean of unification, as Prof. James writes:

John Bunyan, 1628-1688

(T)he process of unification…may come gradually, or it may occur abruptly; it may come through altered feelings, or through altered powers of action; or it may come through new intellectual insights, or through experiences we shall…designate as ‘mystical.’ However it come (sic), it brings a characteristic sort of relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is cast into the religious mould. Happiness! Happiness! Religion is only one of the ways in which men gain that gift. Easily, permanently and successfully, it often transforms the most intolerable misery into the profoundest and most enduring happiness.

“But to find religion in only one out of many ways of reaching unity…For example, the new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual’s life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic devotion…

“These examples may suffice to acquaint us in a general way with the phenomenon technically called ‘Conversion’.” (Note: Conversion is the title of the subsequent lecture and can be read in full under the preceding link).

Although it was in the making due to some recent personal hardships and, as I mentioned earlier, having lived fully for decades, I had a conscious realization of this unity at the age of 60 and wrote this as a poetic memoir of it while observing a sunrise during a solo, early morning hillside hike on Easter Sunday of 1997:

This Sixty-Year Journey

Yes, there was pain,
But why dwell on it
Except for the lessons learned?

Yes, there was disappointment,
But then,
What was I expecting?

Yes, there was joy,
But I was too young
To fully know of it.

Yes, there was love,
But until now,
I did not understand it.

Until now,
I was trying to be
Someone not-me.

I now know there is
A wisdom residing within
That will let me know what is right.

I now know that love exists, endlessly,
And to drink of it
I need only to be open to it.

I am reborn!

I have a lifetime of experience ahead.
I enjoy my moments.
I laugh at my mistakes.
I love unrestrainedly.
I have plans.
I have no Plan.

My journey recommences;
I’ll see you along the way…


In accordance with Professor James’s citation of love as being one of the many triggers for such a realization (“Unification”? “Conversion”?), I was newly in love when I wrote this poem.