That Haiku Just Might Be a Koan

If some of the koans that I have posted here just baffle you, perhaps you can step into warmer koan water by thinking of haiku as a kind of koan.

The most famous haiku poetry from Japan are those attributed to Matsuo Basho,  Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa.

A well known Basho haiku from 1686 translated to English:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.

So simple. This moment of action and sound of the water that captures the poet’s mind.

But, why is it an “old” pond? He might have used the sound of the frog itself singing, but instead the water “reacts” to the frog as we react to the sound.


The crow yells at me.

While I napped by the creek,
the muddy water cleared.

Unfortunately, most Westerners don’t study haiku very much. I am no expert, but whenever I read more about them, their meanings become clearer.

A Buson haiku that I read recently was not translated into the familiar Western 5, 7, 5 syllable format we are used to seeing in English.

An elephant’s eyes smile-
Mountain cherry blossoms.

I read those lines and then I read further that elephants didn’t even arrive in Japan until after the medieval era. But they were known as sacred and mythical animals from stories about them in India and China. There were places named for them (such as Elephant’s Head Mountain) and it turns out that Buson visited there and wrote the haiku inspired by the place and the elephant eye shape of that mountain shrine.

Basho was Zen-trained, and ordained as a priest, but did not seem to actually practice as a priest. But Issa lived for several years in monasteries. His taken name “Issa” means “one tea” as in a bubble in a cup of tea and suggests the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and change.

I found online that he seems to have also used the name Haikaiji Issa. Haikaiji means “haiku temple.” And, when he was paralyzed by a stroke at age 58, after he recovered, he changed his name to Soseibo, meaning “revived priest.”

Here’s a poem by Basho that is often noted as a Zen haiku:

From the white dewdrops,
Learn the way
To the pure land.

His lesson, seen in the drops of dew, is that as they form over night, they will then gather in the morning and then fall into a pond or the soil and become part of it. Simple oneness.


“Pure land,”  is a reference to Pure Land Buddhism. The Pure Land is described as a place of beauty that surpasses all other realms. More importantly for the Pure Land practitioner, once one has been “born” into this land, one will never again be reborn.

In the Pure Land one will be personally instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until one reaches full and complete enlightenment. Being born into the Pure Land is akin to escaping samsāra.

Sansāra literally means “continuous flow” and is the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation that is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, Bön, Jainism, Sikhism, and other Indian religions.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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