By Dr. Satya Bhushan Verma
The beauty of Japanese haiku poetry, inspired by Zen Buddhism, lies in the brevity of expression which conveys a world of meaning and emotions
Hito ha chiru/Totsu hito ha chiru/Kaze no ue
A leaf falls/ Lo, another leaf falls/ With the wind
This is haiku written by Ransetsu, a Japanese poet, before his death in the 17th century. Haikuis known as the ‘poetry of nature‘, but it is more a poetry of life through communion with nature. The above haiku is a short but succinct commentary on our transitory world. Let us take another example by the poet Issa:
Kiru ki to wa/ Shirade ya tori no/ Su o tsukuru
The tree will be cut/ Not knowing the bird/ Makes a nest
Like the bird of this haiku, is it not true that we engage ourselves in all kinds of activities for the future, without knowing what destiny has in store for us?
Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, is a short verse of 17 syllables in three metrical sections (lines) of 5-7-5 syllables. A compact yet profound and evocative form, haiku gives an objective, suggestive, pithy and fleeting picture of its subject. What is said is important but what is unsaid may be more important. The poet may talk of nature but what he is conveying may be some deep feeling, an intuition or a concrete experience of life. Haiku is more concerned with human emotion or with experience than with human acts, and nature is used to reflect or suggest that emotion.
Kigo, a word or phrase suggestive of a season, is a must for haiku. It is the kigo‘s constant presence that creates the wrong impression that haiku is poetry of nature. In the absence of detail, it becomes impossible to depict an actual scene, so it becomes imperative to pare down to the bare essentials. Kigo is one of the elements that make such compression possible. It maybe an animal, plant, event, custom or any other word symbolizing the season.
For example, Sumireso (violets) will bring to mind the warmth of spring and violets in bloom along with a solitary mountain path. Tsuki (moon) will stand for the full moon of autumn; Kangetsu for winter moon and Oborezuki for spring moon. Hana(flower) will mean cherry blossom. Butterfly is associated with spring, firefly with summer, milky way with autumn and snow with winter. In the 15th century, Sogi in his Azuma Mondo gave a long list of such words used for various seasons. Even today, several glossaries of such Kigo words known as Saijiki are compiled and widely used by haiku poets.
Being a poem, haiku is primarily intended to express and evoke emotion. Kenneth Yasuda calls it an ‘aesthetic experience’. Because of its brevity, it has to depend on the evocation of a mood, the beauty of nature or some experience of life. A clear-cut picture serves as a starting point for a train of thought and emotion, but it seldom gives a complete picture. In this sense, haiku closely resembles the Sumie (black ink paintings) of Japan. Let us take an example:
Here is another example:
Ugoku ha mo/ Naku osoroshiki/ Natsu kodachi (Basho)
Even leaves don’t move/ Awesome is the / Summer grove
Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Taneguchi Buson (1715-83), Kobayshi Issa (1763-1827) and Masaoka Shiki (1866-1902) are the four pillars of haiku poetry. Many of the haiku poets even wrote travelogues in haiku. The most famous being Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) by Basho, which became a classic. A Japanese woman named Niwa Kyoko has translated this work in Bengali. Basho’s first verse in this new style, which became a model for many later haiku poets, is:
Kare eda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ aki no kure
On a withered bough/ A crow alone is perching/ Autumn evening now
(Tr. Kenneth Yasuda)
The feeling of loneliness or solitude deepens by a simple description of the lonely crow perched on the withered branch of a tree. Autumn nightfall adds to that solitude. Basho’s most famous haiku, translated into almost all the world languages and known to all haiku lovers, of course, is:
Furu ike ya/ Kawazu tobikomu/ Mizu no oto
Ancient pond/ A frog leaps in/ The sound of water
(Tr. Donald Keene)
But, one may ask, what is poetic in this? Many critics have tried to search for deep and esoteric meanings in this simple verse and long explanations have been given to this poem as an example of the Zen attitude to life.
Zen in Japanese is dhyan (meditate) in Sanskrit. Dhyan written in Chinese characters was pronounced as Ch’an, and was read as Zen in Japanese. Tanka, Renga, Chinese poetry and the practice of Zen were all used to train haiku poets in medieval Japan. Zen seeks a Bodhisattva in every being, and the only way to achieve it is to seek realization within oneself. Zen does not believe in rituals or book learning and the practice of Zen does not involve following a rigid routine.
You must enter into the practice and become one with it: The doer and the deed become one. You have to divorce yourself from the deed and achieve Buddha-heart, Which is egoless union with life. Zen satori, or enlightenment, is a strong emotional experience which is called ‘realizing of reality’, or a feeling that nothing is alone or unimportant in this universe, leading to a wide sympathy and an acute awareness of relationships of all kinds. It is this emotional experience which is central to haiku poetry. Even the smallest of beings, like insects, become the subject of haiku:
Gyosui no/ Sutedokoro naki/ Mushi no koe (Onitsura)
Hot bath water/ No place to throw/ Insects singing all around
Here is another haiku:
Soko fumu na/ Yube hotaru no/ Ita atari (Issa)
Do not tread on the grass/ Where fireflies glowed/ Last night
(Tr. Asataro Miyamori)
Apprehension of the ultimate truth of life and of things is the Zen attitude which is reflected in the haiku poetry in numerous ways. In the words of R.H. Blyth, an authority on the subject: ‘A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment in which we see into the life of things.’ Every word of haiku, rather than contributing to the meaning as in a sonnet or Urdu ghazal, is an experience. Tranquility of mind is so important in Zen that it is said that in a Zen temple, even the ringing of bells was prohibited.
Now let us take Basho’s famous haiku. There is an old pond in lonely environs, it may be surrounded with shrubs and abandoned. A frog suddenly jumps into the water and the tranquility is broken with a splash. To quote D.T. Suzuki: ‘This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the whole universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.’
By the end of the 19th century, various translations of haiku began appearing in English. Trying to make the poems comprehensive for the non-Japanese reader, the early translators did not care for the brevity of the haiku form and freely translated the 17-syllable poems with rhyme and explanations nonexistent in the original form. Let us take another of Basho’s haiku:
Natsugusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato
Summer grass/ Great warriors/ Remains of dreams
The English translation by C.H. Page is:
Old battlefield, fresh with spring flowers again
All that is left of the dreams
Of twice ten thousand warriors slain
The original does not go that far. What is suggested in the original has been explained in too many words in the translation, for a reader who is not familiar with the haiku tradition.
With no knowledge of the Japanese language and no direct access to the original works, the first interest in haiku in India was developed through such translations. Some of the Indian poets started writing similar poetry in their own languages. In the ’50s, we find a new form of poetry developing in India, which was short and expressive but free in style. Here are some examples from Hindi poetry:
The first shower of rain/ The sky has thrown/ Its roots on earth
The butterflies/ Jumping from flower to flower/ Love letters of spring God
Here is a poet’s view of an aerodrome:
The lake of cement / Spread far and wide/ Aluminum swans swim and fly away
With the changing times and increasing political and social restlessness in the country, this form soon became witty and satirical and became popular. With heightened interest in haiku, many Indian poets translated Japanese haiku into their own languages, and some of them even started writing original haiku. But most of these poems neither conformed to the 5-7-5 pattern nor had any concept of season words. Gradually the concept of 5-7-5 developed in Indian haiku poetry, and many such collections have been published in regional languages. Here are some examples:
Earth returns/ Kisses from sky/ In blossoms
(Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore)
Peak after peak/ I climb only to find/ A new peak
A naughty pipal/ Laughing mischievously/ Inside the well
(Marathi, Suresh Mathur)
New crop waves/ Walks like a peacock/ Village damsel
(Punjabi, Satyanand Jaya)
Rainy season has set in/ Muddy weak hutments / Lie buried in worries
(Urdu, Mumtaz Arif)
So far Indian haikus are not able to match the satori intended and achieved by the Japanese poets. But then the Indian lovers of haiku and Zen can always go back to Basho and Buson, Issa and Shiki, for an experience that transcends the merely aesthetic.
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