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Haiku and the Martial Arts

Robert Gaut

Chiyo was a haiku writer in the mid 1700’s. Everyone in her town agreed that her haiku were superb, but she did not want to be known only locally; her ambition was to become more famous. When a traveling haiku master passed through her town, she demanded to know how to write the perfect haiku. He agreed to help and set her on the task of writing a haiku about a cuckoo that lived near her house. For three days and nights she wrote haiku about the bird. Each day the haiku master would read her work and tell her to try again. She simply did not know how to express herself more genuinely. Finally, one night, she concentrated on the cuckoo so intensely that she did not notice the passing hours until dawn began creeping into her house, awakening the bird. In that moment, she wrote:

Calling "cuckoo," "cuckoo,"
All night long,
Dawn at last!

In that instant, she became enlightened and saw into her own being and existence. Because there was no longer any calculation in her writing about the cuckoo, the haiku master accepted it as one of the finest he had ever read.

Discussing Japanese art is difficult, and possibly misleading, without recognizing the influence of Zen and, in particular, Zen Buddhism. Throughout Japanese history, Zen has had such a profound impact on the culture that most people are not even conscious of the individual concepts behind the Zen Buddhist movement. The merging of philosophy, religion, and culture is what makes the artistic endeavors of the Japanese so unique. Japanese art focuses on, for the most part, the everyday occurrences in our lives. It is a celebration of nature, God, our individual and collective efforts, and, in general, the common-ness of our existence. This examination of everyday happenings stems from the study of Zen, the practice of seeing directly into the depths of our own being which is, in Zen, Reality itself. An intuitive mode of understanding is exercised in which our concepts of reality are stripped away until the truth of our own existence is revealed. It is here that satori ("enlightenment") is experienced.

Martial arts, when viewed as an art form, provides a good example of this intuitive mode of understanding. In martial arts, we repeat movements and techniques until they become second-nature. We no longer have to consciously think about kicking here or punching there, we just do it. The concepts of movement become so familiar to us that we stop thinking about them and simply act from our intuition. In this state of intuitiveness, the relationship between Zen and Japanese art becomes apparent. For the Zen Buddhist, the creation of art while in this type of mental state moves us to the depths of our existence and becomes a divine work.

Possibly the most popular literary art form in Japan that expresses this idea is haiku. As the shortest form of poetry found in world literature, haiku consists of only three lines and seventeen syllables. Usually, the lines are split up into a line of five syllables followed by a line of seven syllables and ending with a line of five syllables. Despite its brevity, haiku has been used to convey some of the most profound emotions ever experienced. You are probably wondering how three short lines of poetry can express so much, right? Well, think of it this way: at the pivotal moments of life or death, we do not argue about trivial ideas or concepts, we take action, because our emotions cannot be dealt with conceptually in an instant. That is why the haiku is such a perfect expression of living in the moment. It captures the bare essence of living without the intellect getting in the way. Let’s look at a few examples of haiku. The first one was written by Basho (1643-1694) who has become known as the founding father of the modern school of haiku.

Furu ike ya!
Kawazu tobikomu,
Mizu no oto.

Old pond,
Frog jumps in,
Plop!

The significance of this is that Basho experienced the sound of the frog for what it was. The sound, to Basho, was the only sound in the Universe. He was engulfed with the sound and, in his own Zen way, became the sound. For that matter, in that instant, he also became the frog, the pond, the water, the wind in the trees, all of it! Basho did not contrive a witty statement on the subject nor did he try to write a charming rhyme to show how clever he was. He expressed the moment in an instant and, in that instant, became the moment.

Haiku is about more than capturing the moment; it is about capturing yourself (your "self"). It is about paying attention to the "plops!" of our everyday life and becoming the one who cries "cuckoo!" It is about forgetting our intellect for a tiny moment - just enough time to grasp at who we really are.

However, haiku do not have to be written only when an event is experienced. If something inspires a haiku in an instant the same as it happened for Basho or Chiyo, then it is a genuine haiku. What is important is that the feelings are genuine. Haiku comes from deep within, regardless of the subject matter. Here is an example of a haiku taken from the popular Japanese saying "The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection; the water has no mind to retain their image."

Geese fly overhead,
Moonlight blankets the still pond.
Ah! Eternity.

Notice that this haiku was originally written in English and holds true to the 5+7+5 form. Writing in this form forces the writer to choose his words carefully. This does take a lot of practice. There is a certain rhythm to haiku that is unmistakable. Writing haiku, after some time - even if you have to consciously force the words onto paper - you will find that your haiku start to take on the characteristics of traditional haiku. What is important, however, is the experiencing of the moment in which the haiku is composed.

Try it out! Write a haiku in the comments below. Have fun and enjoy the moment!

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