“Buddhism and Haiku” – Report on the 150th London Eza

The 150th London Eza was held on 6th December. This was the first Eza to be held online due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions. As it was our first opportunity to take part in an Eza after a long period of time, many of us were very happy to have the opportunity to be together again as a Sangha. It was also the second anniversary of the sad passing of Mrs Hiroko Sato, whom we all remember fondly in our hearts. The focus of this Eza was a talk by Prof. John White on “Buddhism and Haiku”. Prof. White has worked with Rev. Sato to produce books containing 300 translations each of the three great haiku poets Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa. These books have all been published in the last two years and many people, including myself, have been enjoying reading them. For this reason, we were all looking forward to hearing Prof. White discuss this topic in more detail.

The talk began with a brief discussion of the link between Shinto and Buddhism, highlighting the fact that Shinto, the traditional religion native to Japan, gave Buddhism “a very special love of nature which it was only too happy to build on and develop” when it arrived in the country. Prof White went on to explain that there is also a strong linkage between poetry and Buddhist faith, reflecting the fact that poetry is often more straightforward to memorise than other forms of text, which was very important in the time of oral transmission of the Dharma.

The three great haiku poets, Basho, Buson and Issa were all devout Buddhists. However, Prof. White pointed out that haiku generally are important because they represent the “deeply held and personal convictions and beliefs” of the poets, rather than taking a sectarian or monastic stance. In such a way, the poets were not tied  to a specific dogma in their haiku. He explained that it is not appropriate for us to attach simplistic labels to them.

The talk then want on to begin to look at some examples of their haiku, and discuss them in more detail. An example that I found particularly striking amongst these is Issa’s:

by morning dewdrops

the way to reach the pure land

is being revealed

Prof. White explained dewdrops here are symbols of earthly perfection. For me personally, this haiku seems to capture perfectly feelings of connectedness that I have recently had whilst walking in nature. I feel that such “symbols of earthly perfection” really are pointing the way to the Pure Land and this haiku acts as a potent reminder of this fact. Prof. White presented a number of haiku with dewdrops in them and showed how they can also be used as a symbol of impermanence.

The next haikus presented in the talk showed how well the poets captured their daily lives vividly, in what was described as “the uniquely realistic approach of the Japanese haiku poets, both to their surroundings and to the life they lived”. Prof. White explained that by comparison, no British poets came close to such insight in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Next, he discussed the fact that haiku poems cover not only religious faith, but also relationships, matters of life and “all the wonders of the natural world” and that “by implication, love is everywhere”. This is one of the aspects of reading the haiku translations that I have most enjoyed and found most profound. I find it incredible that so much emotion can be condensed into relatively few syllables. An example of romantic love captured in a haiku given in the talk was Buson’s beautiful haiku:

all alongside the fence

where my love lives, shepherd’s purse

is found blossoming

Prof. White explained that the first part of this haiku “opens up a wealth of possible meanings or interpretations, and they are often best left to do so”. In other words, detailed explanations are not beneficial, and, this is why the explanatory notes have been kept brief in the published books of these haiku.

The next haiku presented showed examples where the poems “open new worlds and give cosmic meaning to some small event or detail in the natural world”, such as impermanence which is present in many places, reincarnation or the lack of an enduring or immortal self, common to Buddhism, such as in Basho’s:

out of a treetop

it was emptiness that fell;

a cicada shell

The next section of the talk discussed the use of language that resembles the modern medical term synaesthesia, where input into one sense organ triggers vivid and involuntary responses in another of the senses. For example, a colour having a smell. Prof. White presented examples in the  haiku such as the fragrance or colour of wind and the sound of darkness. One such example, in which “the fundamental concept of ‘the unity of all that is’ lies close to the surface” is Issa’s:

the cicada’s songs

sound just as thoroughly red

as paper windmills

He explained further that this poem also captures the interdependent origination of all things, in that the redness being described is not merely from one sound source, but in the organic and the inorganic and in Issa’s hearing, sight and imagination all combined.

Finally, Prof. White concluded his talk by highlighting that haiku, because of their brevity and their succinctness, can often form a perfect starting point for mediation on the road to the Pure Land. This has been my own experience in that, even though I know nothing about poetry, I have found so much pleasure in reading these haiku out loud and repeating them as I reflect on their meaning and see what emotions it stimulates within me, which in turn deepens my connection to the Dharma.   

After the talk, the chair, Andy B commented that it had given him a “fresh perspective on haiku and life itself”. Following this, I asked the question of whether there was any difference between the experience of translating the different haiku poets. Prof. White’s reply was that the important thing is to focus on the pure translation itself, otherwise it might change the poem too much if, for example, you tried hard to focus on the particular poet in question.

He also expanded that one should read haiku many times and keep coming back to it. In this way, you start to see more and more of it and “only in coming back to it will you make any real contact with the haiku”. He said that in this way it is like a Zen garden which you encounter more deeply upon each return to it.

Rev. Sato then discussed the enormous influence that Prof. White’s talk had on the Sangha at Shogyoji when he gave the talk to them online earlier this year. He said that the talk prompted various meetings which are still ongoing to absorb the meaning even more deeply. Also, that even to Japanese people, haiku are not always easy to understand just as they are, and so many people understood haiku for the first time after hearing his talk.

Rev. Ishii thanked John especially for the conclusion of the talk, which included Issa’s:

a butterfly flies

as if wishing for nothing

that’s here in this world

He commented that “John is living as this butterfly is, as was Hiroko san” and how he hoped to be like this butterfly.

Finally, Andy B. read out impressions from Shogyoji after they heard the same talk. In his impression, Goinge sama said to Prof. White that “Just as I recognise the deep sincerity with which you have always entrusted everything you hold to the truth of “the unity of all that is and is not”, so, too, do I sense something immeasurable from the world beyond emerging within me”.

Overall, Prof. White’s talk has greatly increased my appreciation of the haiku translations, despite the fact that I already enjoying the books immensely. As such, I now look forward to many more happy years continuing to read these haiku and, as he explained, I hope to make more real contact with the haiku.

Christopher Duxbury