Friday, April 30, 2010

Hokku, Koan & Zen Buddhism

Falling leaves
lie on one another;
rain beats on rain

~ Gyōdai

It is a Hokku by Gyōdai. Hokku is the pre-modern form of Haiku.

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870 - 1966) and Reginald Horace Blyth (1898 - 1964) are the two important pioneers who studied Japanese philosophy, literature and culture. Their works on Zen and Shin Buddhism and the Hokku and Haiku forms of Japanese poetry are considered to be the authoritative introductions on the subject. It would be interesting to note that the Japanese Professor D.T.Suzuki mentored the English gentleman R.H.Blyth, who was almost three decades younger to him. Both of them became close friends and later they were buried next to each other in the Tōkei-ji Zen Temple (The Divorce Temple) which was built in the 13th century. While the works of D.T.Suzuki had a profound impact on C.G.Jung, the works of R.H.Blyth influenced the interesting Beats like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Out of their enormous body of work, I could read only the two works of D.T.Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (with a foreword by Carl Gustav Jung) and Studies in Zen; and only one work of R.H.Blyth, A History of Haiku (in two volumes - one from the beginnings to Issa and the other, from Issa to the middle of 20th century). The two books of D.T.Suzuki are indebted to the Jean Genet Project and the book of R.H.Blyth was a great discovery in the archaic shelves of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai some time ago. We shall dwell into the mysterious Jean Genet Project at some other opportune moment. Therefore, let us leave it that and get back to the Hokku and the Koan, as contemplated by our dear Anonymous.

What is Hokku?

R.H.Blyth explains it lucidly. It is not a poem and it is not literature! It is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.

In Hokku, it is crucial to distinguish between what we see in Nature, and, out thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature. Hokku stresses that our thoughts and words should not obscure the truth and the suchness of the thing we see in Nature. Things in nature should speak so loudly that we should not hear what the poets have said of them.

That is the fundamental distinction between a Hokku and a Haiku. In modern Haiku, the Poet, with a Capital P, is the most important thing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the poet, the individual ego as embedded in the name of the poet is the pivot. Whereas in Hokku, Nature is the pivot. In Hokku, there are no poets. The writer is simply a mirror which reflects Nature. It is the duty of the writer to keep on cleaning the mirror from the dust of thoughts, words and self-will. The writer of Hokku should therefore reach a maturity and realisation of the dynamic of the Self, the words and the thoughts. Modern Haiku has never been able to achieve this because it is too much attached to the name, the will and the ego of the poet and to the writing of poetry. The pre-modern Hokku is then a remarkably humble and simple form of verse, where the writer disppears and the reader becomes one with the Nature and the thing which he experiences by reading about. It was Masaoka Shiki (1867 - 1902) who renamed the traditional Hokku which have started to incorporate the modern elements of the poet and the poet's individualised will in the process of writing, as Haiku. Theoretically then, we can say that there are elements of Hokku in the works of the Haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa. Hokku predates these three Masters and the tradition continued through them, till it got fossilised into an opening stanza of the Japanese orthodox poetry, at the turn of the 19th century. There is no need to get confused between the theoretical distinctions between Hokku and Haiku, and suffice it to understand that though there are finer distinctions between the two, both the terms are being used interchangeably. As my beloved Tamil poet Achutan Aduka's beautiful poem says, The flowers keep blossoming and we keep naming them, it would be a rewarding exercise to experience the poetry than to get caught in the naming of it.

The very idea of the disappearance of the writer in Hokku, would be something totally incomprehensible to the rational, modern mind. This is radically different from the concept of automatic writing as espoused by the Surrealist Movement of the 1920s, from the post-structuralist concept of the Death of the Author as enunciated by Roland Barthes in 1967 based on the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida and from the riposte of Michel Foucault in his essay What is an Author? published in 1969. They are a far cry from what Hokku calls for.

Hokku signifies the art of putting sensory experiences of various seasons of Nature and making the reader to experience it without the interference or the interpretation of the writer. It is also not a way to make a name for one's individual self as a poet. It is a way of life, a profound spiritual path in which all the clutter and dust of the mind gradually disappears. And the writing and the living becomes unified and holistic without any difference the two. Hokku and Haiku are both actually the processes of a lifetime and cannot be extricated out of its historic and cultural moorings, to be aped at one's own whim and will.

Descending geese -
their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night
~ Kyoroku

Falling leaves
lie on one another;
rain beats on rain

~ Gyōdai

These two Hokku by Kyoroku (1655 - 1715) and Gyōdai (1732 - 1793) are similar in their tonality though they are different in their tenor. By their very nature, a Hokku or Haiku, would demand each reader to be a poet. Without cultivating the art of evocation, it would be difficult to decipher out what gets succintly recorded in poetry from an observation of nature, in which certain truths and beauty of life gets subtly revealed.

Let me restrict myself to muse on Gyōdai's poem alone.

In autumn, the leaves would keep falling from the trees. The season of autumn and the withering of leaves are associated with the feelings of loneliness and melancholy. The falling of leaves from a tree symbolises the withering away of life. The following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke's poem Autumn Day would sum up the experience of such an autumn:

Who now is alone, will remain so for long,
will wake, and read, and write long letters
and back and forth on the boulevards
will restlessly wander, while the leaves blow.

That is autumn and that is falling leaves.

The feelings and emotions that are evoked while observing the falling of leaves would be at stark contrast to what happens when one looks at the falling of flowers from a tree. In this poetry of Gyōdai, it does not stop with the falling of the leaves. Instead, the falling leaves then lie on one another, bringing a totally new dimension to it. At this juncture, two important elements get embedded to the poetic experience : a companionship and an ancestry. The newly falling leaves lie on the already fallen leaves which is a movement in the temporality of life. In Zen Buddhism, it is called the being-time amidst the flow of change. This bestows a deeper meaning of continuity and a wider sense of time to the whole phenomenon. The poem then ends with a metaphorical reference to the rainy season, when the rain drops beat on rain to merge into unison. Rather it expresses a longing for such a confluence in time and space.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

~ A Zen Koan

A Koan is a riddle or a perplexing question, a dialogue or a statement, or just a story which can never be comprehended by the rational or logical mind. It gets unravelled only by intuition and wisdom. In Zen Buddhism, Koans are used as a meditative tool for the awakening of the inner self. The Zen Masters use Koans to probe the students in order to validate the authenticity of their insights (Kensho and Sartori) and fathom the depth of their realisation. The Koan, What Is The Sound Of One Hand Clapping?, propounds the fundamental question as to whether the object and the subject of relentless seeking are one and the same. It is a way of Zen meditation to realise that the self seeks the self not directly but under the guise of the Koan itself. When this realisation is achieved, the two hands become one and that is the sound of one hand clapping!

Does it sound too weird?! Some of us might dismiss Koan as a simplistic bit of cleverness or a sheer waste of time in mental gymnastics. It does not seem to be so. Am yet to read the famous 13th century book The Gateless Gate which is supposed to be having a compilation of important Koans along with their commentaries. I've been searching for this book everywhere and not yet found one. But the fundamental issue is not about reading this or that book.
It is about meditation..

Let me conclude, with my favourite poem of Naojo, a female poet of medievel Japan and a beautiful Huna Koan, which is based on the ancient Hawaiian system of metaphysics :

Naojo ~

A shame to pick it -
A shame not to pick it -
The violet flower

A Huna Koan ~

What is the sound of one person loving?


  1. Brilliant piece.
    Da way u've expressed u'r reading of da poem 'Falling Leaves' is marvellous. Itz deeply meaningful.
    Whether it can be called as a Hokku or Haiku, doesn't matter, for a rose is a rose is a rose!

    Regarding 'wat'z da sound of one hand clapping', I wud add to wat u've said dat, only if two hands become one, it can clap. It shud also answer da final question, only if two persons become one, dey can love.

    Reading u'r blog has given me a renewed impetus to read more about Zen & Haiku.
    Thanks buddy!

  2. And one to my dame.(sir,knight)

    ''I sit at my desk
    each night with no place to go,
    opening thee wrinkled maps of Milwaukee and Buffalo.'

    I got little time to go into your blog,itz one of ur best blogs-commendable job.
    I need to have zen state of mind to appreciate haiku or hokku,which at present i dont have..long way to go..Haiku is known for its brevity,yet it needs such a detailed essay to get some insight...i remember one famous zen saying

    Before enlightement-chop wood,carry water

    After enlightment-chop wood,carry water.

  3. Sathya, you have got really charged up! Is it because of the questions posed to you or the fact that they were by 'Anonymous', you only would know. But what you have written is like flash flood. A deluge. It is difficult to stand up to it. Part of it is Over Head Transmission. But before signing off, I would humbly submit my take on Gyōdai's poem Falling leaves; lie on one another; rain beats on rain.

    In Autumn, when leaves fall and lie on one another, at that time if one sees from the perspective of a young leaf, it may go through various emotions. It can feel proud of the fact that it is young, when others of its like are withering away. But an intelligent leaf would immediately sense as to what would be its fate in a short time when it would lie on other leaves, waiting to become one with the mother earth. At that moment, it may feel one with the creation, with whatsoever no difference between it, other leaves, mother earth, the creation and the creator. The feeling of being SHIVOHAM would pervade its entire being on this realisation. Rain beats on Rain. I.e. Brahma, Shiva may have been existing ever since, but the leaf contemplating on them is no different. Aham Brahmo Asmi, AnalHaq, Tat Tvam Asi, Shivoham or Rain beats on rain, whatever way one expresses it, they all carry the same meaning.

    Regarding-A shame to pick it -
    A shame not to pick it -
    The violet flower, even though you have not asked but I feel like interpreting it. According to me The violet flower is denoting liberation here. The poet says that it would be shame if we do not seek liberation. At the same time he laments that even when we ask for liberation, there is still some asking left in us, which is a shame. Does it make any sense to you!

  4. After long arguments as to why kurukshetra war should not be fought, Arjuna lamented that his limbs could not bear his weight, his mind is whirling, his skin is burning and he cannot even hold his Gandiva.He resigns himself completely and sits in the back portion of the chariot.He says even if the brethren of Dhritrashtra kill him with weapons when he is empty handed -it is all the more better'.He has given up love of life also , what to say of the kingship of three worlds.

    He says, "i will not fight" and becomes totally silent.He has surrendered himself completely.Nothing is left to be done.He has given up all efforts.THERE IS COMPLETE SURRENDER AND NOW SHREE KRISHNA SPEAKS AND ARJUNA HEARS.That is the sound of one hand clapping.When one mind is in union with the other.There is music,there is interaction but in oneness.It is conversation with self yet not the self.
    In meditation, when one hears the Anahata nada, there is none but one hand clapping.When the nature sings,it is the music of one hand clapping.When one hears the unspoken words of another, it is the sound of one hand clapping.Since all sounds emerge from OM, all creation emerges from Om,Om is the sound of one hand clapping.When two lovers meet in complete unison, it is the sound of one hand clapping.
    When one is in a state of meditation or surrender, there is one hand clapping and when one intellectualy analyses, one writes the theory of one hand clapping but there is no clapping going on.
    leaves falling, leaves lie on leaves,rain beats the rain.

    I saw the fall of leaves, yet i did not notice it.
    But Gyodai says, see , the leaves fall continuously on each other,the process of life and death is a continuous one.Death is not a discontinuity.If leaves are falling and falling and falling, and falling, see the magic, it is infinite-the creation is infinite.After falling, they lie on each another, another life-they are closer.No doubt,they shall decay and merge in one another completely and be reborn again.Why ,O mind, do you associate fall with melancholy?Rain beats the rain.Again, a sense of continuitywhen the each rain drop follows another, takes its place and flows down.It is a haiku on the temporariness of lifeas well as its continuity.For an observer, it is process and not an incident and the individuality in fact becomes totally irrelevant from the universal viewpoint of the observer.

    a shame to pick it,
    a shame not to pick it,
    the violet flower.
    To be or not to be,
    the dilemmas of life,
    The crown of being,
    the violet chakra
    , how to reach it,
    how to cross it
    and enter the unknown world?

    Sathyu dservs on hand clpping for his excellent article!

  5. red earth and pouring rainMay 4, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    Respected Sathyu Ayya, Ms.Madhuri Gupta, IFS, who was arrested recently in espionage activities, is said to be expert on Sufism. She was seriously thinking of doing doctorate on Great RUMI, but could not do either due to non-cooperation of RUMI or non-enlightened soul of his boss.This trait of MS. traitor was reported in one magazine who otherwise utterly simplify the issue. I am not going to say anything serious about the dichotomy of the personality who can be RUMI Reader and Traitor simeltaneously. This will ne taken care of by Derridas n Foucaults. I just pray my Beloved Folk Gods n RUMI to give the Lady sufficient Peace inside the Quarantine so that she can complete the doctorate thesis. Pardon me to write something unrelated to violate the ORDER and DISCIPLINE of this Blog.

  6. Who'z dis funny johnny with crackpot ideas?
    He/She is having a nice sounding pen name, which, does not befit what has been blurted out! Therefore, it makes me suspect dat da guy/gal must have lifted da name from somebody. Besides, I also feel dis is a serious case of dementia or some such cognitive disorder. Like many other literates, I've also read about dis news item at length. Wat'z da big deal in it?

    Instead of asking for a pardon at da end of an indigestive dysentry, it wud have done good to all of us, including this gentleman/lady, if it was done initally itself & remained silent. Little knowledge is dangerous. But half-baked knowledge is fatally lethal!

  7. Came to know more about Zen & Haiku from u'r blog. Keep it up.

  8. red earth and pouring rainMay 5, 2010 at 11:16 PM

    I climb the road to cold mountain,/ The road to cold mountain that never ends./ The valleys are long and strewn with stones;/ The streams broad and filled with thick grass./ Moss is slippery though no rain has fallen;/ Pines sigh but it is not the wind./ who can break from the snares of the world / and sit with me among the white clouds?

    High on the mountain's peak/ infinity in all directions!/ the solitory moon looks down / From its midnight loft/ Admires its reflection in the icy wind. / Shivering, I serenade the Moon.

    Both by Han Shan.

    To the dim cottage / Overgrown with thick - leaved vines / Comes the dreary autumn: / But there no people come.
    The Monk Egyo.

    These three pieces are reportedly zen poems, the category of poem, the biography of the poet, its covert/overt meanings should be certified by the BIG BROTHERS. what I understood is that these 3 poems are not very meditative but more evocative. the beautiful pattern of words like "who can sit with me among white clouds", " the solitory moon from its midnight loft admires its reflection in the icy pond", " in its loneliness comes the dreary autumn time" are the openings in the respective poems which allowed me to enter its innerscape. Then one could feel the vast meadow of the poem.

    I am not carrying any pedigree to comment about Haiku poetry. But, I would like to know whether the beauty of the Haiku poetry is in the meditative quality of the poem or the poetic experience of meditation on Nature.

    I would reply to the earlier comment on my title and the content. the title is not secretly stolen . it was metaphor for the meeting of lovers written by nameless poet of sangam generation of Tamil Literature, atleast 2000 years ago. it was translated by A.K.Ramanujam couple of decades ago. if i am not wrong, it was also used as title of the novel by indian english writer vikram chandra. i never claimed copyright for the name.

    this is personal blog of someone. his known people are reacting to the writings in informal, carefree way. at times, the references can be personal, localised and idiotic also. the responses to the blog writing need not be considered for paris literary review.

    this self proclaimed censor board is pouncing at others on his own or with the approval of the blogger. better he learn decency and unlearn unwarranted verbal arrogance.

  9. Lol! Da whole of English-speaking literate world knows of Vikram Chandra & his feeble standing. He'z a third-rated writer. Now what to say of someone who copies da title of his novel? Both must be a shame to whatever be da original!

    I care a damn who dis blogger is & who u r. Neither i want to know him personally & nor u definitely. I go by wat'z written than da bullshit biographies of any of u. U all can write u'r own autobiographies & shove it up.

    I liked some of da writings in dis blog. So am following. Whatever i didn't like, i've been openly critical. Rest assured, da moment it gets mediocre, i wud quit.

    If dis is a personal blog of someone, y is it open in da public domain? Y don't u scratch each other's back & be contended in u'r smug, hypocritical lives? If u write muck, i'll say doubly so. Let u & da blogger be prepared to face it. Else make it private & do wat u please!

    I respect intellectual integrity. Itz a fast waning commodity in India now. Da print & visual media r full of crap. Thanks to da net, we've got spaces like blogging. There again, there r some crackpots who write completely unrelated idiocies like both da comments (including da latest blabber) by da above commentator. I'll continue to call a spade a spade. I don't have any axes to grind. Let dat be clear.

    Write sense & be responsible. If nonsense is what u want to blurt out, y don't u sms or mail to each other? But if u write all kinds of unrelated stuff in da blog, have da guts to face da criticism. A blog is a collective fora or known & unknown people. Linked only by da commonality of interests. Nothing else matters. Get rid of all u'r imbecile, cognitive disorders & get a life!

  10. Let us leave the blogger out of this spat. Even otherwise on a wonderful article on Haiku, the spat looks completely out of place. This is not to say that the blog is a sacred place. But at least the blogger should not be dragged into it.

    Ramacharitmanas in this context has a beautiful Chaupai - Nij Agyan Ram Par Dharahin.

    May Lord RAMA bless you all. OM Shanti.

  11. Dear chris and red earth and pouring rain,

    They say count to ten
    And your anger will abate
    Wise words to go by.


  12. red earth and pouring rainMay 6, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    sorry sathya. i should be the last person to contaminate the atmosphere of the blog. thirunallar sani bhagwan would have cast eye on me to react in that way. at times of provocation, i should maintain silence of degradable plastic as golden silence is not gifted to the weak genomes.

    your quoted lines of "master" 'rainer maria rilke' is not translated by stephen mitchel. i will add the remaining lines of autumn day ,

    lord: command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;/ grant them a few more warm transparent days,/ urge them on to fulfillment then, and press/ the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

    i pray that your blog read by more and more people and you convert all those beautiful starts into solid desertations of attainable more depth and width.

  13. I know of no other advice than this : Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find answer to the question whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analysing..

    - Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet)

    Let da blogger & da commentators keep dis advice always in mind. I don't intend to hurt anyone's soul. But i wud continue to hurt everyone's ego, including myself. Its one of my favorite pastimes. Am too old to change now. Therefore, i dont feel sorry for my remarks. I'll continue to write wat i feel as genuine. Similarly, am also aware dat others wud keep doing watever it pleases them. Everything is fine as long as it makes sense. Only our spiritual commentator Pankaj's blessings wud save all of us, including himself!

    Ohm Mani Padme Hum.

  14. The introduction to lesser known forms of literature is worthy of being a lecture. You should take it to college halls, ( if you have not already done so0

  15. Itz an engrossing topic which you have chosen!

    Till now my thought about haiku was one of the ways of expressing our thoughts in a short poetical form about which attracted us the most,doesn't matter how small it is.

    I gathered more knowledge about hokku from u'r blog only. The way you and chirs have expressed the views about the poem was very cute and nice.

    From my point of view, when comparing leaves at the top ,the leaves lying on the land are just like close friends,enjoyong together. The rhythm they make while moving one over the another is very pleasant to hear. It looks like a flower carpet!

    Hats off u'r efficient work for responding to an anonymous person.

    Everyone should know that, Itz an amazing blog, where we must share our knowledge by posting comments about it.