MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

A Glimpse of Oneness: A Zen Practitioner’s Experience of Our True Self

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ICM House of Prayer (Photo: Baguio Zen Center)

When a flower blooms, the world springs forth.

THE BLUE CLIFF RECORD

Sometime in March of 1999, I attended a one-week Zen retreat. Up to that time, I was practicing Zen meditation on-and-off, mostly by myself, for a little more than 20 years. I attended the retreat to simply jump start my Zen practice. Never did I expect that something wondrous was going to happen to me.

The retreat started uneventfully. Sr. Sonia Punzalan Roshi, our Zen teacher, was late. She explained that the traffic was terrible. It started with an orientation talk.

For a day or two, we were asked to count our breaths, after which we were assigned the koan Mu. We were asked to synchronize the koan Mu with our breath. Sitting with an erect back in the meditation hall, we were asked to say Mu mentally with each out breath. These instructions, simple though they may be, when followed, has effectively transformed the lives of many Zen practitioners for almost a millennia.

To summarize, for Zen practice to be effective, Zen masters emphasize 3 things:

  1. Settle the Body
  2. Settle the Breath
  3. Settle the Mind

First, settle the body.

To settle the body simply means to take a posture where the spine is properly aligned, with the back erect, and with an attitude that is relaxed yet alert. The Three Pillars of Zen is one of the first English Zen books that came out which emphasized the need for practice. Written in 1965, it is now a Zen classic. Philip Kapleau, the editor of the book, who also later became a Zen teacher, writes:

We can now consider in fuller detail the reasons why Zen masters have always stressed an erect back… It is well known that a bent back deprives the mind of its tension so that it is quickly invaded by random thoughts and images, but that a straight back, by strengthening concentration, lessens the incidence of wandering thoughts… Conversely, when the mind becomes free of ideas the back tends to straighten itself without conscious effort.

Second, settle the breath.

We are now at the heart of the matter. In Eastern spirituality, the breath plays an important role in meditation practice.

A Zen teacher puts it this way:

Breath is life. The word spirit means breath. The words ki in Japanese and chi in Chinese, meaning power or energy, both derive from breath. Breath is the key to zazen. It is the vital force in our bodies. In zazen you will discover how breathing and posture are closely allied to your emotions…

In working with the breath you are automatically working with the body and mind. Body, breath, and mind are one reality. We tend to see them separately, but in zazen they unify and we experience their interpenetration directly. In sitting and in daily life, try to return to an open, balanced posture and full, even breathing. As you recognize and consciously influence your posture and breathing patterns, you will discover within yourself more patience, calm, and emotional stability. Such equanimity is an asset that imparts tremendous strength.

That is why when we are starting in our Zen practice, the Zen teacher usually assigns to us breath-counting meditation. Eventually, the Zen teacher assigns the koan Mu to those of us who want to know who we truly are. In Zen, the initial glimpse of who we really are is referred to as kensho, which literally means “seeing into one’s true nature.” Which brings me to the next point.

Third, settle the mind.

To settle your mind means to be one with your practice, whether it is breath-counting, following the breath or practicing with the koan Mu.

For those of us sitting with the koan Mu, these pointers by Yamada Koun Roshi from his commentary on the koan Mu are vital:

What does Mu mean?

This is the point of the koan. If you try to find any special meaning in Mu, you miss Joshu and you’ll never meet him. You’ll never be able to pass through the barrier of Mu. So what should be done? That is the question! Zen practitioners must try to find the answer by themselves and present it to the roshi. In almost all Japanese zendo, the explanation of Mu will stop at this point. However, I’ll tell you this: Mu has no meaning whatsoever. If you want to solve the problem of Mu, you must become one with it! You must forget yourself in working on it. Your consciousness must be completely absorbed in your practice of Mu.

As one Zen master said when he was asked about the essence of his teaching: “You must die!”

Indeed, Mu is the sword that kills and gives life!

Now for the practical matter of dealing with wandering thoughts.

If I’m not mistaken, when Zen master Dogen came back from China, one of the first things he wrote was Fukanzazenji or Recommending Zazen to All People. Part of that essay reads:

Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

These are enigmatic words. But herein lies the essence of our practice. What does it mean?

Simply this: not to be caught by thought, neither chasing after it nor resisting it. In other words, when thoughts come, let them come and let them go. Which reminds me of what Zen master Nansen said:

The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness.

And to borrow an image used frequently by one of the Zen masters, it is the process of “opening the hand of thought.”

To go back to the retreat, we assiduously followed these 3 basic points: sitting with an erect back and breathing Mu with each out breath, we sat absorbed with Mu for many hours in the meditation hall.

But it wasn’t easy sitting in meditation for about 5-6 hours daily. I spent most of the time putting up with the physical pain (at one point I was sweating because of the almost unbearable pain) and battling with mental distractions. I mentioned this to Sr. Sonia. She told me: “The reason you’re in pain is because you are fighting your thoughts.”

Somehow when I followed her advice not to resist my thoughts, but, instead, just letting it be – letting it come and letting it go – I felt better.

By the 4th day, I was achieving a certain level of stillness and depth during our meditation sessions. During our morning break, as I was holding a piece of biscuit in the dining room, something extraordinary happened to me.

In a flash, the world, as I knew it, collapsed! Time stood still, and space disappeared! There was no time and space, no I and you, no inside and outside! I had a glimpse of the world of Zen. I could only describe it as a thunder-and-lightning realization that the universe is a palpable Whole!

Touching a piece of biscuit,
Heaven and earth are recreated.
Sipping a cup of coffee,
Whole rivers are swallowed in one gulp.
Emptied of notions of “self” and “other,”
In a flash, the True Self revealed!

Initially, I was filled with trepidation and fear. I thought I was hallucinating, going crazy and losing my mind! I shared this with Sr. Sonia. She reassured me: “This is as close as you can get to experiencing your True Self.”

Those words of Sr. Sonia made a whole lot of difference in my life. Had this happened outside of the retreat without Sr. Sonia’s guidance, I would certainly have dismissed it as a hallucination, or, worse, a psychotic breakdown. And that would have been a monumental blunder on my part.

After the experience, I viewed the world in a fresh way. It was as if scales were peeled off my eyes and I saw the world for the first time in all its splendor and beauty! Everything and everyone was luminous and radiant! And I saw every being and every object as precious and having an absolute value.

This was accompanied by a deep peace which I haven’t experienced before. To use biblical language, it is what probably St. Paul meant by “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I experienced, too, a freedom and spaciousness in my life that is “as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament,” to borrow the words of one of the koans of The Gateless Gate.

The after-effects of the experience lasted for weeks. And just remembering those days gives me an exhilarating feeling of joy!

This happened many years ago, and looking back now I can see that my Zen experience has opened my eyes to possibilities in my life that I never knew existed. Above all, it has transformed my life in a way that I could not have imagined.

In the end, what Zen means to me is summed up in these words of Goto Zuigan Roshi:

What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.

Note: Seven months later, during a one-week Zen retreat, this experience was confirmed by the Zen master Kubota Jiun Roshi as kensho, i.e., a Zen enlightenment experience.

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

March 17, 2021 at 11:48 am

Moonrise

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View of the moon from our garden.

Over the city
The clear bright moon is rising
On a warm evening.

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

May 23, 2021 at 11:43 am

Shakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday: What It Means For Us

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The real Buddha sits within.

ZEN MASTER JOSHU

Today, April 8, we celebrate the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha. Sharing this short reflection about what his birthday means for us.

We could celebrate the birth of the Buddha thinking that we are having a birthday party for a somewhat mythological guy who lived several thousands of years ago. And that would be okay, but, it would really be missing the point. Because the point of Buddha’s birthday is to take a day out to celebrate a buddha being born, but to do that, really, we have to understand what “buddha” really is.

Now, scholars agree that there probably was a man who lived in this region of this world, around this time, and was a great person and a great teacher. And today is as good a day as any to deeply thank this person for what he brought to the world. But, today of all days is also a great day to really think about what a Buddha is, because what a Buddha is, is not limited to one person. What Buddha really is, is a moment whenever great wisdom and compassion come together in this world in a thought, or action, in kind word, a moment of selfless generosity, and helps to free up this world. That’s what Buddha is. What Buddha showing up in this world really is, is when any one of us, or anyone else in this world suddenly remembers how precious we are, and how important all the beings and things around us are, and how we are all so closely connected, and we act or speak or even think from that place.

Do you know these moments? Have you seen them? When the idea we usually carry around of ourselves as “me:” over here, and “the rest of the world:” over there, dissolves even for a second, and somebody, sometimes even ourself, acts with tremendous kindness and a deep, deep knowing of what is good and right to do in that moment. That’s a Buddha being born. There are Buddhas that last for ages, and there are Buddhas that last for just a few seconds, but it doesn’t matter, they are all wondrous gifts to this world. Moments of Buddhas showing up are ours to receive, and also ours to give, and both ours to celebrate!

So today we take a little time to remember to be joyful and thankful and to even have a feeling of a party together for the truth of great wisdom and kindness arising in our hearts, arising in others, and greatly benefitting, nourishing, awakening, delighting, freeing up and honoring this world.

–Dojin Emerson

Written by MattAndJojang

April 8, 2021 at 10:48 am

No Beginning, No End

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Painting: Enso (Artist: Soen Mugaku)

No beginning,
No end.
Our True Self
Is unborn and deathless;
It is empty,
Yet boundless.

–Matt

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March 3, 2021 at 5:21 pm

The Heart of Meditation

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You are the entire ocean in a drop.

RUMI

The contemporary meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, says that attention is life’s fundamental skill. And such a seemingly basic and simple skill as attention can have a powerful and transformative repercussion in our lives.

When we are fully attentive and absorbed with our meditative practice (whether it’s reciting a mantra, following the breath, sitting with a koan, or simply just sitting), the ego drops. When the ego dissolves, a whole new realm opens up – the world of Nonseparation… Boundlessness… Wholeness… Oneness…

We experience the universe as ourselves! We are no longer separate from the other – we experience the other as ourselves! When we see and experience the other as ourselves, we treat the other as ourselves, which is basically what compassion means.

When the Zen Master, Goto Zuigan Roshi, was asked what Zen is all about, he answered:

What is Zen? Simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude to all things past. Infinite service to all things present. And infinite responsibility to all things future.

That, for me, is the essence of the meditative life…

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

January 20, 2021 at 9:34 am

2020 Christmas Letter

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Lord, help me to live this day quietly, peacefully. To lean upon Thy great strength trustfully, restfully. To wait for the unfolding of Thy will patiently, serenely. To meet others peacefully, joyously. To face tomorrow confidently, courageously. Amen.

ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

2020 has been a year of unexpected events that none of us has ever asked for.

A lingering pandemic, devastating floods, wild forest fires, volcano eruption, not to mention the economic impact all this has wrought to us and the world.

I guess, none of us can truly understand why all these are happening, but I surmise that Someone is telling us something … I saw an FB post from a friend’s wall:

“I thought 2020 would be the year I get everything I want. Now I know 2020 is the year I appreciate everything I have. “

The year started with a visit from Susan, Martha, and company who came all the way from Canada. Matthew was so happy to see them after a very long time! It was such a joyful reunion.

Time spent with Jun is always a delightful experience. Jun and Matthew, who’ve been friends for almost 43 years, were brought together by their love for Zen and meditation. Hope to see you again soon!

By the end of January, we were overjoyed to see our dear, dear friends – Dave and Wawi – who came all the way from Manila. They had to come up to Baguio to attend a convention, and we appreciate it that they took time out to visit us!

Weng and Babes — Jojang’s friends from Manila – also dropped by our house. Our pleasant exchange of light-hearted conversations, lifted up our spirits.

Jojang had a chance to blow her birthday cake that Tita Teri and Tita Lety brought on their visit to celebrate her 60th birthday! Oh my! What a delightful and enjoyable time we spent together.

Come mid-March the country – and the world – was put on lockdown. It took us all by surprise but  I’m still blessed. Why?  Because I don’t mind being stuck at home with Matthew. #cheesy!

Last July, our dearest Tita Dory passed away. Matthew and I were deeply saddened by this news. We wanted to pay our last respects to her and dropped by for a short visit to the wake.

We are deeply grateful for the love and concern of our doctor and friend, Dr. Chona. She volunteered to give our flu shots at home to spare Matthew the risk of going out during the pandemic…. Thank you so much, Dr. Chona!

With most of us at home, most meet ups are virtual through Zoom or Google Meet. This has proved to be a big blessing especially for Matthew:

What turned to be a global crisis during this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic; turned out, for Matthew, to be a time of grace and blessing as Matthew reconnected with our Zen community – Bahay Dalangin Zen Community.

The weekly Zen meditation meetings, the bi-monthly zazenkais (one-day Zen meditation meetings) and sesshins (Zen retreats) has significantly deepened Matthew’s  spiritual practice.

Matthew is profoundly grateful to our sangha (Zen community), especially to our teachers — Sr. Sonia, Fr. Efren and Lydia…

Finally, we cannot end this letter without mentioning our blog. Now on its twelfth year, we have grown to have 384 followers and have surpassed the half a million hits at 531,439 .  As our cyber community continues to grow, we never expected this blog to touch so many people. Thank you for allowing us to share our lives with you.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas and may you have abundant blessings for the coming New Year.

— Matthew and Jojang

Written by MattAndJojang

December 9, 2020 at 10:17 am

The Dance of Life

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Photo: Israr Syed/Flickr

At the still point of the turning world…

There the dance is.

T.S. Eliot

When the boundaries between self and other blur,
The ego dissolves.
When I and you interpenetrate each other,
The self disappears.
There is just the dance of life–
Dancing itself!
Where is the self?
Gone!
Where is the other?
Gone!

Gate, Gate, Parasmamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
(Gone, gone, gone all the way over,
everyone gone to the other shore.
Enlightenment!)

–Matt

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November 17, 2020 at 9:33 am

The Matter of Life and Death

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When you have attained your self-nature, you can free yourself from life-and-death. How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?

THE GATELESS GATE

When we start to work and reflect on koans, certain koans stand out and resonate with us more than the others. One such koan for me is this koan from the Gateless Gate, which partly reads, “How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?”

At first glance, some of you may wonder why such a koan which deals with death is something that is close to my heart.

As some of you know, the Dalai Lama meditates 5 hours every day. And one of the things he meditates on is death. A journalist once asked him why he meditates on such a morbid subject matter. The Dalai Lama replied, “So that I can be prepared when it comes.”

How I wish I was like the Dalai Lama, who was so proactive about something which most of us wouldn’t even like to think about.

In my case, it was not a deliberate decision. I was forced to confront this reality somewhat early in my life.

Shortly after I was married 18 years ago, I was misdiagnosed. The doctor I consulted with gave me 36 medicines to deal with a heart attack that I supposedly had! I was hospitalized for 3-4 months, and nearly lost my life. I came to the hospital walking. But I was discharged from the hospital on a stretcher.

Later on, when I consulted with another doctor, I found out I never had a heart attack! But the damage has been done. My immune system collapsed and never recovered. My asthma, which I had as a child, came back with a vengeance. So much so that I couldn’t go out of the house anymore, because even a small amount of dust or smoke could trigger a bad asthma attack, which could send me to the hospital. 18 years of chronic asthma plus other medical conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, has definitely weakened and debilitated me.

You might say that for the past 18 years I’ve been on self quarantine.

Dogen Zenji spoke about genjokoans. Genjokoans are koans that arise from the personal circumstances of one’s personal life. My chronic illness has become my personal genjokoan. And it has forced me to confront suffering and death. In other words, the reality of my mortality and the impermanence of life, which is something that is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. But, in my case, it was brought home with such force and clarity.

“How will I free myself from life-and-death when the light of my eyes is falling to the ground?”

A few months ago, I had a bad asthma attack. As I was confined to my bed, a koan from Case 43 of the Blue Cliff Record, entitled “Tozan’s ‘Hot and Cold’,” came to my mind. For me, the koan deals with the inevitable suffering and pain that we are all subject to.

Commenting on this koan, I was struck when Yamada Koun Roshi wrote, “It is in the very midst of suffering that we are liberated from suffering.”

In connection with this, let me share an experience I had when I was hospitalized last year:

When I was rushed to the emergency room, one of the things that the doctor requested was for me to have my x-ray taken. Since I was too weak to walk, I was wheeled in my wheelchair by a medical attendant to the x-ray room.

I had to wait for my turn while sitting in my wheelchair in the common reception area for patients who will have their x-ray or ultrasound taken. With nothing to do, I began to look at the faces of the roomful of patients in the reception area.

All of a sudden there was no separation between I and them. Their fears were my fears. Their anxieties were my anxieties. Their pain was my pain. I was them, and they were I.

I realized that it is only when we are one with our suffering, that we find freedom from suffering. And when we are one with our suffering, we learn to be one with the suffering of others.

To paraphrase Yamada Koun Roshi, “If you haven’t wept with those who suffer, there is no enlightenment.”

With the raging pandemic all around us, sometimes I feel frustrated that there is little that I can do about it. I have to remind myself that by sitting in meditation for those who are affected by the coronavirus and for the safety and protection of family, friends and neighbors I am affecting the world. Because we are one, or to borrow the words of Philip Kapleau Roshi, “The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.”

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 6, 2020 at 9:23 am

Everything is Emptiness. Everything is Compassion…

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Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa (Photo: Thomas Merton)

Polonnaruwa with its vast area under trees. Fences. Few people. No beggars. A dirt road. Lost. Then we find Gal Vihara and the other monastic complex stupas. Cells. Distant mountains, like Yucatán.

The path dips down to Gil Vihara: a wide, quiet hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, which has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree. And the sweep of bare rock sloping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures.

Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tired vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The sheer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded (much more “imperative” than Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because completely simple and straightforward). The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, no “mystery.”

All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya[ ]everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual vitality running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa, my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered with garbage, Asian or European or American. It is clear, pure, complete. It says everything. It needs nothing. Because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.

–Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

September 22, 2020 at 9:46 am

The Haiku Path

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Zen Garden Path

Photo: Nathan Adams/Flickr

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but a semblance of the real thing.

— Bashō

Introduction

Haiku is about inter-being.

The word “interbeing” originated with the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It means: everything is in everything else. We experience this reality through mindfulness, through Being in the Here and Now. One life-energy is permeating everything.

Haiku means letting this energy/life/reality write itself.

Or, to put it simply: A haiku records an immediate experience of life.

Haiku writing is sometimes called a way of life, rather than an art. It could also be described as a way of seeing, listening, being.

Because haiku writing is rooted in experience, the best time to compose a haiku poem is right after the event. But the experience comes first! Only afterwards, when it is recalled, as vividly as possible, we can put it into words that convey, as directly as possible, what happened.

A. The Spirit of Haiku Writing

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets – seek what they sought.

— Bashō

The haiku spirit expresses:

• Simple awareness of the present

• Living this moment to the full

• Experiencing the flow of life energy

Calm winter evening:
A fishing boat returns
Laden with the sun

— T. Horiuchi

Haiku should be egoless – no self. One forgets the separate self in simple awareness. No self- centered sentimentality.

The bell fades
the fragrance of blossoms remains
this quiet evening

— Bashō

Avoid personal or possessive pronouns (especially I/me/my). In Japanese haiku, there is very little direct expression of emotion. The poet describes that which s/he experiences, not how s/he feels about it.

The longest night
more time now
for counting stars

— Barbara Campitelli

However, there is often an indirect expression of emotion, especially the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty, such as cherry blossoms, and the transitory nature of life:

Autumn by the lake
waves come and wash away
all footprints.

— Sarah Paris

Haiku is neither analytic nor judgmental. There are no comparisons. Haiku, as opposed to much of traditional Western poetry, does not employ metaphor, but describes what is here and now.

Through white cotton fields,
lifting toward the sunset,
a golden river.

— Richard Wright

Most of the time, haiku employs simple, descriptive words to describe an experience in the present (“cool evening”, “spring rain”, “grandmother’s quilt”). Avoid judgmental words (“amazing”, “frightening”) or abstract concepts (“eternity”, “consciousness”.)

Because there is such emphasis in haiku writing on simple, direct experience, the impression is sometimes created that a haiku is merely a short description of a pretty image. This is incorrect. A haiku aims to convey a deep, direct, non-dual experience.

If the experience is missing, the result will be a superficial description, not a haiku.

An example:

The red carnation:
leaves are light and feathery,
it smells of earth.

Communion

If haiku is practiced with the goal of achieving non-dual consciousness, the concept of “communion” is an essential element. This element is inherent in Zen-influenced classic haiku, but not often stressed in Western haiku.

Haiku as a spiritual practice will reflect an increasingly non-dualistic consciousness. In the poem, this often manifests as two or more different elements in communion through
one force, one movement, one flow.

The stillness:
Into the rock it pierces –
the cry of the cicada.

— Bashō

Note the two elements (stillness, cry) inter-being in the same flow of energy (both the stillness and the cry of the cicada are experienced as “piercing the rock”.)

Other examples:

Touching
the fishing line –
the summer moon.

— Chiyo-ni

The tennis court is filled
with balls coming and going
and the butterfly.

— T. Kawamata

Rain… Rain!
And countless frog’s voices
fill the river

— Anne Rees Anderson

B. The Techniques of Haiku Writing

1. Form

A haiku has three short lines with either:

a) 2-3-2 accented syllables (plus any number of unaccented ones), or
b) 5-7-5 syllables, or
c) free verse.

Examples of 2-3-2 accented syllables (plus any number of unaccented ones):

May rainstorm –
flowers bend as snails
pass in procession

— Janet Schroder

Listening with another
To the music of the mountain stream;
There is no other.

— Hando

Many English-language haiku poets use a system of 5-7-5 syllables (accented or not). This
system has the advantage of simplicity.

In the autumn dusk
A spider patiently darns
A hole in a wall.

— Richard Wright

The system of 2-3-2 accented syllables offers the advantage of greater flexibility and more naturalness. The natural rhythm of English and English poetry arises from its accented syllables. This is very different from Japanese, where typically each syllable is accented.

How to decide which syllables are accented? Usually, by reciting the lines aloud, the accents become clear. However, in haiku, it is mainly meaning which determines whether a word will be accented or not.

Fresh new
cyclamen leaves are peeking through
the autumn soil.

— Sheila Wyatt

Most of the time, articles (the, a, an), pronouns (he, you, this), conjunctions (and, but, when), prepositions (from, near) and helper verbs such as can, will, has, etc. do not carry accents.

Whether or not to use 2-3-2 accents or 5-7-5 syllables or simply three very short lines is up the individual. There are no right or wrongs or absolutes. All three forms are in common use in English-language haiku writing.

2. Present Tense

Because haiku deals with the present moment, haiku poetry is almost always written in the present or present perfect tense.

graduation …
a thousand chairs wait in the
drizzling rain.

— Mary Joyce

3. Language and Style

Haiku uses a minimum of words.

Old Pond
A frog jumps in –
sound of water.

— Bashō

This is one of the most famous haiku ever written, and the last line in particular has been translated in many different ways to indicate “sound of water” (see: One Hundred Frogs, in the suggested reading list at the end of this document.) It also has spawned a host of haiku alluding to it:

Placid waters
sitting still and serene
waiting for the frog

— Carolyn Franklin

NOTE: Sly humor, as in the above example, can be incorporated into haiku. However, haiku that are solely intended to be jokes (like the famous series of “spam haiku”, or the equally popular series of haiku about computer breakdowns), are not actually considered haiku, but fall under the category of senryu, humorous haiku-style poetry.

Use evocative, specific, concrete words:

On the Snowmass slope
even the magpies on the fence
sit in silence

“Cistercian Monastery”

— Hando

As in the above example, it is acceptable to use a title to indicate the context of the haiku.

Often, the words will convey layers of meaning:

Footprints in the sand
to here and there and nowhere
and the gull flying

— Hando

Repetition of the same sound is often used to express a feeling:

A gray dawn
again, and again the call
of the mourning dove

— Sarah Paris

Internal rhyme and alliteration can add to the beauty of a haiku.:

A long winter rain:
a whistling old man whittles
a dream on a stick

— Richard Wright

NOTE: Rhymes at the end of lines, as in traditional Western poetry, are not typical of haiku and tend to sound out of place.

4. Traditional Techniques and Grammar

Classic Japanese haiku usually contain a word or phrase that indicates a specific season:

On the bare branch
the crow has settled
autumn evening

— Bashō

Kireji – “pause” or “cutting” words – are often used in Japanese haiku to indicate uncertainty or a question or an accent. The are usually at the end of a line and heighten the emotion of the poem. In English, this effect is often produced by the use of punctuation. A semi-colon, for instance, cuts a sentence into two parts, with equal emphasis on both parts.

Last light
over the bay; the pelicans
are flying home

— Sarah Paris

A dash (–) emphasizes and adds to what follows.

mackerel sky
at sunset – a scattering
of childhood dreams.

— Pat Tompkins

Free grammatical structure is common, including abbreviation, free use/switching of subject-object, incomplete sentences, etc.

now only the sound
of snowflakes falling
New Year’s morning

— Barbara Campitelli

5. Presentation

Haiku, like most poetry, are meant to be heard, rather than read on a page. After writing a haiku down for the first time, it is helpful to read it aloud a few times and listen to how it sounds – this will often reveal whether or not the haiku “works”.

When they are formally presented to a group, haiku are always read aloud twice. This helps those who listen to get a better understanding – often, the deeper meaning is revealed only after hearing the haiku for the second time.

IN A NUTSHELL:

• Remember that a haiku is a poem that expresses your experience of everyday life. Therefore, be attentive to the here and now.

• Contemplate even ordinary things and events closely. Unseen wonders will reveal
themselves.

• Let yourself become one with that which you contemplate. Identify yourself with it.

• There is joy hidden in everything. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  — Gerald Manley Hopkins

• Then express your experience in three short lines. Keep working on your haiku until it says just what you want.

However, always remember that your experience is the heart of haiku. Keep returning to
your experience of life all the time you are working on your poem.

— Hando

Note:  Hando is the Japanese name of Fr. Thomas Hand, S.J., who studied Japanese haiku during the 29 years he lived and worked in Japan. Hando taught the writing of English-language haiku both in Japan and the United States for many years, and he founded and led the Mercy Center Four Seasons Haiku Kai (haiku group) until his passing in 2005.

Written by MattAndJojang

May 22, 2020 at 10:15 am