On the Redthread retreat in October 2004, members were asked to comment on what the Way of Haiku meant to them. The following contributions were offered:
“The phrase “on a spiritual path” has probably been used too loosely and too often to mean very much, without explanation, and there are, of course, as many paths as there are different people, or pebbles on a beach. This is as it should be. Buddhists acknowledge that the journey is without goal – you begin your journey from wherever you are, so anyone who wishes to set out, can travel “on the path”. It is not an exclusive club.
This ancient spiritual metaphor implies movement – intention and action, but not a “goal”, in current management terms, because, on this kind of path, the walker is not in control of the journey, only of his feet. The path is made up of many footsteps, and it becomes clearer the more footprints are made. A footprint is an authentic action taken, a feeling and intention manifested, something which appears from nowhere when energy produces movement or internal change, causing something to happen, internally, as in “realization” and growth, and externally too, as in artistic creation.
Every footstep on such a path begins with the practice of silent devotion, or “emptiness”. Until the mind is still and cleared of the distraction of thought-chatter, the path is foggy, reality is not apprehended.
In Buddhist terms the Way includes the Base, the Path and the Fruit, in which the base is where you are, the path is where you struggle, and the fruit is the result. This may describe many methods of progress towards realization and enlightenment, but can also be applied to dedicated creative processes.
The Way of Haiku might be described as a necklace strung with beads of “being”, like translucent bubbles, held together by the life blood of passion – the “red thread”.
Traditionally a haiku is a bare, objective version, in three brief lines, of a “haiku moment”, often a natural image provoking some kind of realization – an expansion of perception – which is open-ended enough to allow the reader space for interpretation. Topics can vary; they are usually focused on natural phenomena, but Zen and haiku are not separate from ordinary life, so it is plausible that a modern haiku could involve driving the car or a message on the mobile phone. The haiku is contemplative and should leave the reader's state of mind subtly changed. Silent sitting is part of this practice, because it helps the writer to see more clearly what IS, rather than a personal projection. It is a creative method, using words in a particular form, which, because of its brevity, is particularly suited to use as a “practice”. Although any poetry can be written out of emptiness, and often is, just as many artists “lose themselves” in the process of making something inspired by intense visual experience of external reality, the haiku writer is consciously trying to embody the objectivity that emptiness brings to the work.
In another context, the Japanese tea ceremony, and other religious rituals such as Tibetan thangka painting or mandala-making, are methods of doing something with focussed attention and awareness by which the sense of self recedes. As Master Dogen said, “When the self recedes the ten thousand things rush in”. The result is an experience of unity with the action itself, not only with what triggers it, as in artistic creation. Whatever is done or made – a poem, a painting, a garden, a meal, or a bridge – it is how you do it and the energy you bring to it, that makes the difference.
As a writer and artist, and as a Buddhist, a walker, gardener, wife and grandmother, I was pulled in many directions until I realized they were all simply different stages in the one journey. We need to learn how to allow things to be as they are, including the acceptance of “failure”, this being the first step towards freedom of action (the dance of emptiness and form). The more silent sitting I do, the more I can integrate what I discover into everyday life, and practise with all kinds of small problems, particularly those to do with personal relationships, by working with the energy of emotion, without getting stuck IN it.
When I sit I find that useful stuff usually surfaces, while the rest drops away. After a while I can trust the process and its results. Everything moves and changes. If I keep moving I can pass through rocky patches, by watching where I put my feet, not looking back or too far ahead, trying not to judge and compete. If I accept the “here and now” as it is, it can change; I can move towards freedom – from fear, guilt, anger, resentment and emotional pain – towards confidence and compassion, particularly in difficult circumstances. As I learn to live lightly, with more kindness and humour, then problems are more likely to solve themselves.
For me, the Way of Haiku is a form of practice, in looking and listening, and producing words. For years gardening and walking were spiritual practices too. To feed the process of poetry and making pictures, and to keep moving on the journey, silent sitting, or simply staring at and becoming absorbed by water, land, sky and the staggering variety of grandeur and detail in the world around me, continues to be essential.
As I learn to look and listen I find my base and apprehend the world in a new way. The way from there is the struggle to clarify, accept and transform experience, including the expression that communicates that reality – the “suchness” of things. Then the fruit could be a piece of work, or hopefully that relaxed sense of unity which can eventually develop into continuous, all-embracing love. A small example might be the sudden flood of joy at the smell of a rose, or the birth of a baby. To be that open and full of love all the time, I suppose, would be enlightenement”.
- Jane Whittle
“I am a Quaker. Through our largely silent Meetings for Worship, and any times when I sit in the Light on my own, I learn to see myself and the world as they really are, beyond my ego. Haiku too help me to see the world as it is, as I become still, and receptive to everything around me. They give me a language for the reality I find in the stillness. Thus I oscillate between Quaker stillness and haiku in my ongoing attempt to see reality as it is. I have to be still either to write haiku or to sit in the Light: both show me if I am not still, and alert me to the inner restlessness and noise, so I can do something about it. As I learn to sit in the Light and to write haiku, everything becomes new – the world around me, my relationships and my attitude to myself. I find myself able to reach out to others in new ways, and to treat everyone and everything with a new reverence.”
- Michael Gunton
“My Buddhist practice infuses all I do. The Way has no edges: one is in the Way, not on it. There is the wonder of being in the middle of a cosmic dance of energy (which William Blake once defined as ‘eternal delight’). In my sitting meditation especially, the sentient and insentient worlds nurture a rapt, compassionate gaze, an awareness that encourages the poetic instant of celebration which is haiku (or even tanka or haibun). The conciseness of the haiku form offers a discipline that restricts the expression of ego so that the ‘ten thousand things’ may be celebrated with affection and sympathy. (And the latter qualities may be found also in tanka and haibun of the best kind). “
- Helen Robinson
“As a beginner to the writing of haiku, I feel I’ve embarked on an exciting, demanding journey that requires of me everything that I believe my Buddhist ‘practice’ to be about. The mind-state that I may (or may not) develop on the cushion is that which I hope to bring to my everyday life and certainly to both the reading and writing of haiku.
The usual descriptions ‘emptiness’, ‘spaciousness’ partly capture it. Most important is a ‘self-out-of-the-wayness’ which allows clear-seeing, ‘clean’ perception, unobscured by ‘me’ and my memories, associations, projections. So whatever is there is seen in its fullness, for what it is at that moment: now.
The approach is fundamentally one of mindfulness, which increasingly renders every task, everything heard and seen so much more vibrant. With the awareness of impermanence, each vibrant moment then is experienced fully, taken in to me and me going out to it. Then the joy, however brief, of some sort of merging, of oneness.
At its best, this is what I practice and this is the process I see involved in the approach to haiku.”
- Anne Griffiths