A Haiku May Be a Koan But

The crow yells at me
while I napped by the creek
the muddy water cleared

water bloom

If some of the koans that I have posted here baffle you, perhaps you can step into them gently by thinking of haiku as a kind of koan. I believe that a haiku can be a koan, but not all koans are haiku.

They both often ask us to consider a situation that is not obvious. Though sometimes haiku present a situation that seems so obvious that you wonder if you are not missing “the point.”

There are even “American koans” – a term that probably emerged from the distinction of American Buddhism and American Zen – terms that some may view as derogatory.

balanced stones

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

One well known Basho haiku from 1686 translated to English says:

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.

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

Here is a Buson haiku that I read recently which hasn’t been translated into the familiar Western 5,7,5 syllable format we are used to seeing.

An elephant’s eyes smile-
Mountain cherry blossoms.

I read those lines and then I read further that elephants didn’t arrive even come into Japan until after the medieval era. But they were known as sacred and mythical animals from stories of 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.

In checking online about him, I found that he seems to have also used the name Haikaiji Issa. Haikaiji means “haiku temple.” 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 him 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 during the night, 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, 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 (or samsāra) 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.

temple tower

Are haiku koans? Some may be. They certainly ask us most of the time to think more deeply about something in a focused manner. Many haiku can teach something, though I don’t believe that is always their purpose. Still, the continued study of haiku can be a practice of refining your vision, both literally and figuratively.

Under Pink Petals

cherry blossom ani

Cherry blossoms are a staple of the haiku poets as a sign of spring.

3 poems by Basho

Leafless cherry,
old as a toothless woman,
blooms – mindful of its youth

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms

Kannon’s tiled temple roof
floats far away –
clouds of cherry blossoms

(Kannon is the Bodhisattva of Compassion)

3 poems by Issa

cherry blossoms scatter –
snap! the buck’s antlers
come off

cherry blossoms
under every tree
a Buddha on display

on the paper amulet
cherry blossoms

(inmons are paper charms or amulets sold at Buddhist temples)


Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance
Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance

Washington D.C is famous for the thousands of cherry trees sent there as a gift from Japan more than a hundred years ago. In my home state of New Jersey, we have the cherry trees of Branch Brook Park in Newark which actually has more cherry trees than D.C.  Every spring, residents and visitors can see the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States there.

Branch Brook Park has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees that burst into full bloom during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that features various events for visitors of all ages.

The park itself is historically unique for being the first county park in the United States opened to the public. It was designed by the famed landscape architectural firm of Olmsted Brothers, a successor to Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.

The neighborhood on the east side of the park, Forest Hill, is Newark’s most affluent and is the setting for the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Basilica, the fifth-largest cathedral in North America.

From April 5-13, the park hosts its spring festival under pink petals. (see essexcherryblossom.com)

The Firefly

The Poet Basho (1744-94) chatting at a moonviewing festival,
from the series ‘100 Phases of the Moon’ by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Fireflies are starting to appear at night in Paradelle. This reminds me of a story about the haiku poet Basho. He once came upon a haiku that he found to be cruel. So, in an act of Buddhist kindness, he revised it.

The poet Kikaku had written:

A red firefly
   tear off its wings –
a pepper

Basho’s revision was:

A pepper
   give it wings –
a red firefly.

It is not very difficult to be kind.

from Basho: The Complete Haiku

Haiku Winter

Traditionally, haiku (in English) have 3 lines: first line, 5 syllables, second line, 7 syllables third line, 5 syllables. In Japanese, haiku also has three parts, but can be written as one line. And instead of counting syllables, the Japanese count sounds.

The haiku form “requires” at least the suggestion of a season. It might be directly, by using a word like snow or ice for winter, or indirectly, by tone or imagery. In English translations, many times the name of the season is actually used, but it’s likely it did not appear in the original.

Winter haiku by Basho

The sea darkens.
The voices of the wild ducks
turn white.

Winter seclusion:
once again I lean
against this post.

Grasshopper— you
be the cemetery watcher
after I die.

English: Kobayashi Issa - Portrait by Muramats...

Winter haiku by Issa

The older we get,
the more easily tears come
on a long day.

The winter sun-
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow.

Awake at night,
the lamp low,
the oil freezing.

First winter rain –
even the monkey
seems to want a raincoat.

When the winter chrysanthemums go,
there’s nothing to write about
but radishes.

First snow
on the half-finished bridge.

The winter storm
hid in the bamboo grove
and quieted away.

From The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa translated and edited by Robert Hass

Red Firefly

The Poet Basho (1744-94) chatting at a moonviewing festival,
from the series ‘100 Phases of the Moon’ by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

The haiku poet Basho came upon a haiku that he found to be cruel. In an act of Buddhist kindness, he revised it.

The poet Kikaku had written:

A red firefly
tear off its wings –
a pepper

Basho’s revision:

A pepper
give it wings –
a red firefly.

Basho: The Complete Haiku