The Zen Art of Haiku

A lily in a pond with a frog
Classic Haiku imagery.

Federica Grassi/Getty Images

Japanese Zen is associated with many forms of art—painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, shakuhachi flute, martial arts. Even the tea ceremony qualifies as a kind of Zen art. Poetry is also a traditional Zen art, and the form of Zen poetry best known in the West is haiku.

Haiku, minimalist poems usually in three lines, have been popular in the West for decades. Unfortunately, many of the traditional principles of haiku writing are still not well understood in the West. Much western "haiku" isn't haiku at all. What is haiku, and what makes it a Zen art?

Haiku History

Haiku evolved from another poetic form called renga. Renga is a kind of collaborative poem that originated in early 1st millennium China. The oldest example of renga in Japanese dates to the 8th century. By the 13th century, renga had developed into a uniquely Japanese style of poem.

Renga was written by a group of poets under the direction of a renga master, with each poet contributing a verse. Each verse began with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively, followed by two lines of seven syllables each. The first verse was called the hokku.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is credited with making the first three lines of renka into stand-alone poems that we know as haiku. In some versions of his life, Basho is described as a Zen monk, but it's more likely he was a layperson who had an on-again, off-again Zen practice. His best-known haiku has been translated many ways:

Old pond.
A frog jumps in --

Haiku in the West, Sort Of

Haiku came West late in the 19th century, with a few little-noticed anthologies published in French and English. A few well-known poets, including Ezra Pound, tried their hands at haiku with undistinguished results.

English language haiku became popular in the West during the "beat Zen" period of the 1950s, and many would-be haiku poets and English language arts teachers seized upon the common structural form as the defining trait of haiku—three lines with five, seven, and five syllables in the respective lines. As a result, a lot of really bad haiku came to be written in English.

What Makes Haiku a Zen Art

Haiku is an expression of direct experience, not an expression of an idea about the experience. Possibly the most common mistake western haiku writers make is to use the form to express an idea about the experience, not experience itself.

So, for example, this is a really bad haiku:

A rose represents
A mother's kiss, a spring day
A lover's longing.

It's bad because it's all conceptual. It doesn't give us experience. Contrast with:

Wilted rose bouquet
Left in new grass
By the gravestone.

The second haiku is not great, perhaps, but it brings you into a moment.

The poet also is one with his subject. Basho said, "When composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy."

Haiku is about nature, and the poem should provide at least a hint about the season of the year, often in just one word called a kigo. Here's another haiku:

A cormorant dips
Into the pond; the floating
Yellow leaves bobble.

"Yellow leaves" reveals it's a fall haiku.

An important convention of haiku is the kireji or cutting word. In Japanese, kireji divides the poem into two parts, often setting up juxtaposition. Put another way; the kireji cuts the train of thought in the haiku, which is a technique for giving the poem bite. This is the oh! part that English haiku seems too often to leave out.

Here's an example, by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828). Issa was a Jodo Shinshu priest, and not Zen, but he wrote good haiku anyway.

From the nostril
of the Great Buddha
comes a swallow

Haiku in English

Japanese Zen has a strong aesthetic of "just the right amount," from how many flowers in an arrangement, how much food you eat, and how many words you use in your haiku.

You might notice most of the examples of haiku above do not follow the five-seven-five syllable rule. The pattern of syllables works better in Japanese. In English, it's better to use no more words than you need to use. If you find yourself adding an adjective here and there to make the syllable count work, that's not good haiku writing.

At the same time, if you are struggling to stay within the five-seven-five syllable rule, you may be trying to pack too much into one haiku. Try to tighten your focus.

And now that you know how to write a real haiku give it a try.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Zen Art of Haiku." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). The Zen Art of Haiku. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Zen Art of Haiku." Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).