Haiku, by R.H. Blyth

Haiku, by R.H. Blyth is a four-volume collection published in 1949. I don’t know all that much about Haiku and I know nothing at all about the author of this book other than that he (presumably he, though not necessarily) does a fantastic job explaining the nebulous network of traditions that gave rise to what can be called Haiku. 

To be fair, honest and etc., my original interest in the subject comes from Salinger. Apparently Seymour did these spectacular translations of haiku. There are probably better or more interesting reasons for being drawn to a subject area than by a fictitious, suicidal mystic. I just don’t have one. 

Anyway what interests me most as I work my way through this 422 page collection of Haiku and Haiku history and tradition are the connections between the spirit of Zen and the moment of enlightenment or satori that makes it possible for the poet to create haiku. I am uncertain if create is actually even the right word. It seems more like the haiku is always there but some moment of enlightenment some spark must occur which allows the poet to see the haiku and bring it into the world using words. 

While I’m not about to define the goal of poetry in general, it does seem that haiku permits us to understand at a very different level of understanding the meaning of something previously unexplained or ignored because it seemed too trivial for our attention. Blyth says: Haiku is the apprehension of a thing by a realization of our own original and essential unity with it, the word ‘realization’ having the literal meaning here of ‘making real’ in ourselves. The one thing haiku is not, though, is didactic. 

Some excerpts:

5 The great problem of practical everyday life is thus to see things properly, not to evaluate them in some hard and fast moral scale of virtue and vice, use and uselessness, but to take them without sentimental or intellectual prejudice.

Unfortunately, Blyth doesn’t cite where he gets the following verses from. He uses these to point to the grounding of Haiku in the Zen spirit. Any ideas from where these come?

If you do not get it from yourself,

Where will you go for it?

Many words injure virtue,

Wordlessness is essentially effective.

There is no place to seek the mind,

It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.

Blyth also traces the influence of other traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism on Haiku. As I was reading I felt that he made it perfectly clear where Taoism differs from Buddhism on certain issues. Though, now of course I can’t find the highlighted passages. He does say however: The relation of Taoism to Zen is far from easy to make out. They may have originated together in the Chinese mind; Zen may be the practical application of the Taoist ideals, grafted on the Buddhist tree of religion. 

From Confucianism (Analects, Confucius)

Arise with poetry;

Stand with propriety;

Grow with music.

Standing by a stream Confucius said: It ceases not day or night; flowing on like this.

There is an interesting section on something called The Saikontan, literally vegetable root discourses. Blyth points out that this book, written by Kojisei in 1624 represents a synthesis of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism which occurred over the period of 3,000 years and resulted in a fourth tradition: Zen. What follows are excerpts from The Saikontan:

If the mind is clear, a dark room has its blue sky; if the mind is somber, broad daylight gives birth to demons and evil spirits.

The true Buddha is in the home, the real Way is everyday life. A man who has sincerity, who is a peace-maker, cheerful in looks and gentle in his words, harmonious in mind and body towards his parents and brethren, such a man is vastly superior to one who practices breathing control and introspection.

Water not disturbed by waves settles down of itself. A mirror not covered by dust is clear and bright. The mind should be like this. When what beclouds it passes away, its brightness appears. Happiness must not be sought for; when what disturbs passes away, happiness comes of itself.