Haiku as the Present Moment

The Buddhist Patriarch Bodhidharma traveled from India to China to establish Buddhism there. Over the centuries, Buddhism spread from China, including to Japan where Zen ultimately developed as a spartan version. Some scholars say that haiku is a further refinement of Zen.  I accept this notion.

James Hackett (1929 – 2015) was an American poet who is known for his work with haiku in English. The James W. Hackett Annual International Award for Haiku was administered by the British Haiku Society from 1991 to 2009. His books include The Way of Haiku, Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems, and A Traveler’s Haiku.

I am currently reading an account of Hackett’s ‘Way’, by English poet Paul Russell Miller. Hackett was an early initiator, perhaps the first and certainly the most renown, of both the Nature and the Buddhist traditions of English-language Haiku. He has written that “the present is the touchstone of the haiku experience.” Hackett considered himself a “life worshipper, not an apostle of poetry or art.” He recognized the haiku moment in whatever form he met it as “the very pulse of life itself.” Further, he wrote: “Haiku is more than a form of poetry. I discovered it can be a way—one of living awareness. A way which leads to wonder and joy, and through the discovery of our essential identity—to compassion for all forms of life.”

Robert Spiess, Hackett’s publisher and a poet himself, wrote: “There is no haiku moment of true awareness if the previous instant is not dead, if the ego still clings to what it has named in order to feel secure in its desire to perpetuate itself. The haiku poet needs must live only by continually dying. The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future—and thus a true haiku is vitally important because it is a moment of total and genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.”

Thus, we are reminded that, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, the ego is an illusion.

The challenge for me in haiku is to reconcile the observations of this self I call “I”, which writes for others to see, while allowing this “I” to recede to a minimum while also allowing the moment to pervade my senses and direct my pencil.

But let’s get practical. What form does the haiku take? We know about 5-7-5 and the seasons and Nature. I like that there are three lines: a beginning, a middle and an end. I like that one uses as few words as possible to express the present moment, which just ended. I think it not important to be precise about 5-7-5, and possibly not even the three lines. As in a religion, there are a lot of sects in the writing of haiku that have rules which may or may not get in the way of expressing this present moment, depending on one’s point of view or how strong one’s “I” is.

I have corresponded with Paul Miller, author of “The Wild Beyond Echoing; James Hackett’s Haiku Way.” He wrote me: “What constitutes a proper haiku is finally for each individual poet to decide, I think, yet hopefully arrived at without undermining the genre’s history or fundamentals. A certain restlessness and desire for novelty seems all-too common at present, sadly, mirroring society at large.”

Basho, the most renown of the ancient progenitors of haiku, tells us:

“Haiku is simply what is happening in this place at this moment.”


PS: To be true to the original form, one should use concrete words. If there is to be a feeling or thought for the reader to discern it must come from the juxtaposition and flow of the concrete words.