Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: Haiku, An Anthology of Japanese Poems

What a delight this little book is. To hold it in the hand is a very pleasing experience to begin with: it is light (for a hardback), is not much bigger than an adult's hand, and is wrapped in a beautiful brown and gold cover, illustrated with a painting by Sakai Hoitsu (see above). The contents of the book are even more impressive. As the title makes clear, it is a collection of haiku translated from the Japanese by Addiss and the Yamamotos. And what an excellent job they've done! Divided into three sections, 'The Pulse of Nature,' Human Voices,' and 'Resonance and Reverberation,' Haiku also features brief biographies of all the poets featured, as well as black and white prints by Japanese artists including the famous Zen priest Hakuin Ekaku. Beautiful.

The Introduction gives the reader a concise account of the structure of haiku, its history in Japan, and an argument advocating a somewhat freer translation of haiku into English than the traditional seventeen syllables. In the Japanese originals of the poems that appear in this book, the standard form was seventeen sound units which amount to short syllables, so the word haibun consists of three such units, hai-bu-n (the final 'n' counting as a separate unit). And, as explained in the Introduction, Japanese uses more syllables to represent the same content than English generally does, so extra words are needed to pad out English translations of the japanese originals if seventeen syllables are rigorously kept to. The editors of this work have decided, wisely in this reviewers opinion, to ignore the seventeen syllable rule, and focus more on accurate and poetic renderings of the haiku.

To illustrate the above issues, the Introduction skillfully uses the example of the most famous of these poems, the 'ancient pond' verse of the greatest of all haiku poets, Basho (1644-1694). It argues that a faithful translation of this poem requires less syllables than in the Japanese original, coming up with the following on p.viii:

 Old pond
a frog jumps in -
                the sound of water

Other examples are used to elucidate the reader on other issues involved in the translation work, especially with regards to whether using a parallel translation (line-by-line), or a freer form where the line oder doesn't correspond with the original. The view here is that it depends on the particular poem, with some a parallel rendering works well, with others less literal version is required. Returning to Basho's frog haiku, the book contains a nice, albeit brief, exploration of the possible meanings of the piece; "old (the pond) verses new (the jumping), a long time span and immediacy, sight and sound, serenity and the surprise of breaking it" (paraphrased from p.xi). So much contained in so few words - the beauty of haiku!

Moving on to the main part of the book, the poems and black and white prints, the book really excels itself. The editors have chosen a wide range of haiku by many of the great poets from Japan's rich cultural history. Basho is joined by the other three masters of the form: Buson (1716-1783), Issa (1763-1827), and Shiki (1867-1902). Alongside these superstars of the haiku world, there are over ninety other poets featured. A real haiku fest in such a small book! Here's some more samples from the book featuring the three masters mentioned above:

  An old well
falling into its darkness
 a camellia
(Buson, p.5)

   Charcoal fire - 
my years dwindle down
just like that
(Issa, p.124)
       Killing the spider
then so lonely - 
 evening cold
(Shiki, p.150)
Taken in turn from each of the three sections referred to earlier, these poems each contain the subtle nuances of meaning not always apparent in the succinct nature of haiku. And in doing so, these haiku and the others in the book reflect the influence of Buddhism on the Japanese psyche and arts. Buson's camellia, for example, speaks of death and the unknown, whilst Issa's verse clearly refers to the Buddhist understanding of impermanence and aging, whilst Shiki talks of morality and regret…and the reader of this review can surely come up with his or her own interpretations also. This ambiguity inherent in haiku is one of their attractions, and for some, a source of infuriating vagueness. And yet, if this book is read cover to cover, this reviewer challenges even the staunchest of haiku-haters to deny the meanings and beauty contained in them!

Returning for a moment to the Buddhist sentiments that through much haiku, we might briefly explore what value this book has spiritually. Haiku speak of the moment, this moment, as experienced by the poet. In doing so, they give the reader a glimpse into eternity. For, eternity or the Deathless as the Buddha called it, is only ever known in this current present moment; it is never the product of memory or imagination. The haiku in this book have the capacity to jolt the reader into this current moment, leaving her or him with a taste of the eternal. Hopefully, this will be realized by the reader of this review with the batch of quoted poems given below:

        The autumn wind
takes the shape
        of pampas grass
(Kigin, p.73)
            At the sound of the sea
the sunflowers open
their black eyes
(Yuji, p.48)

How delightful
walking on dewy grasses - 
straw sandals
(Haritsu, p.150)

The above book is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at: 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wind Teaches Dharma

"One monk said that the wind was moving, while another monk said the banner was moving. They argued on and on, so I went forward and said, ‘It is not the wind that is moving, and it is not the banner that is moving. It is your minds that are moving.’"
Huineng (638-713), Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism

The wind is a great teacher. Just like the Buddha, Ajahn Chah or Zen Master Bankei, it teaches us the Dharma. Unlike those teachers it doesn't use words, however, nor does it have what we would normally define as a language to communicate its wisdom. Yet, in its own subtle way it's constantly teaching us the way things are, using what we might name 'the language of the wind.'

We might understandably wonder what form this language takes if it doesn't involve words. Well, we humans use languages that have no words when we pull a face to indicate displeasure, produce or listen to music to inspire pleasure, or construct a building in a specific style. (A Gothic cathedral with all its angels and devils communicates very different messages to us than a modern, shiny hospital. Although the inhabitants of both would claim to deeply care about people.)

So, how exactly does the wind teach us? We can't even see the wind, although we can hear it, especially clearly in a gale, for example. We can also feel it on our skins & in our hair as it blows past us. And, although we can't see it directly, we can see the effects of the wind, which I am enjoying as I write these words, occasionally glancing up to see the treetops waving back and forth as the gentle breeze plays with them.

Now, accepting that all this is the 'language' of the wind, why would interpret it as pertaining to the Dharma, particularly. Surely, we can understand this language in a variety of ways, not necessarily in terms of the Dharma. This is true, as it it of anything in life. We can look at the surface of an act involving thought, word, or deed and understand it in that specific context, so that those rustled trees over there simply mean that it's a windy day. But, we can look a little deeper into the implications of what we are seeing, and this what we do when we listen to the Dharma rather than to other aspects of life's many modes of communication.

Returning to those trees for a moment, I will pause in this commentary…the wind manipulates them, and teaches of the continual flux of this universe. They aren't still for a moment, swishing this way and that, in a kind of existential dance. Sometimes they slow down, only to speed up and become almost manic in their movements, all directed by the invisible wind. This characteristic of the wind, that it is unseeable, speaks of another important fact of life, which is that there are unseen forces at work, which we are usually (if not constantly!) unaware of. They are not only active in the wind, but also in everything else that exists in this wondrous cosmos, including in these bizarre constructions that we call our bodies, and which we normally (mistakenly, according to the Dharma), identify with.

Back to this present moment, and the wind softly caresses the skin of this body that sits on the balcony typing with its tapping fingers. It soothes the mind within this body, like an amorphous masseuse tenderly kneading limbs and head. It teaches that the body is part of nature, linked to it in invisible connections that include the wind's breath. But, learning the Dharma is not all pleasant feelings, and when the wind blows over those garments hanging from a clothes horse, annoyance arises in the mind. This too, is a teaching, for it is the same wind that blows on those clothes and this body. So, too, should the mind reflect the balance between what it deems good and bad, for such ideas do not always correspond to the way the world actually is.

Taking a moment to reflect on the quotation from the Platform Sutra at the top of this piece, Huineng's wisdom shines forth as if born on the wind itself, blowing away our delusion. He points to the discriminating mind that will argue over just about anything, including whether the wind is moving or those treetops over there are moving. Pointing directly to the mind that is moving, Huineng brings our attention to that which never moves, what he called our 'Original Face.' This Face, we might call it Buddha-face or even No-face, is what sees the waving trees; it is the space in which those branches and leaves have their being.

All this talk of wind-blown trees takes me back to my childhood and early teens when I used to gaze out of my bedroom window at the tree in my family's front garden. Bathed in the yellow light of street lamps, it was a real attention-grabber. Somewhat hypnotic in its movements, the tree flowed in the wind, its disparate parts unified in a graceful undulation of golden leaves. I would find my mind silenced in these moments, awareness tied to the tree's fluctuations.  A state of what Buddhism calls samadhi, or concentration, would ensue. This was my meditation at that time, long before I explored the teachings of the Buddha. And, what the wind taught on those quiet evenings long ago isn't so different from the Buddha's own words of wisdom that I later came to discover.

A bell tinkles in the wind, bringing attention back from the mind's reveries and to this actual moment. It was the mind that was moving after all! The shadow of a flag catches attention, reminiscent of an early satori, or enlightenment, experience from my late teens, when a fluttering plastic bag caught on a branch of a tree brought about a sudden awakening. Each moment, which is of course this moment, is a chance to glimpse, or better still rest in, this 'Original Face' that watches fluttering leaves, bags, or banners. And those trees, that bell, or a fluid shadow can all call to attention the Dharma, the way things really are, as they arise and dissolve in this No-face, this 'Buddha Space.' Time to go 'inside' now, the wind's getting cold!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Storm Haiku

The clouds have returned
With the promise of more rain
Birds sing from afar

Thunder cracks the mind
Wide open to the heavens
No salvation here

The torrential rain
Falls through present awareness
Into this no-thing

This mind is the rain
Falling in its own knowing
Eternal downpour

Rain floods awareness
Barriers utterly breached
In a surge of sound

Rain is splattering
Between the door's metal mesh
Calling out, "Awake!"

The rainstorm passes
Distant thunder fading out
Dogs now relaxing

Sun replaces rain
Ants swarm the corpse of a worm
Such transiency!

Peace is an absence
Of wind-battered mind moments
August rains reprieve