Zen and Haiku

Whereas the significance of Zen Buddhism in haiku writing can often be overstated, it is certainly true that the two have had links in Japanese culture.  The haiku master Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was a student of Zen, as was Santōka Taneda (1882-1940) who ordained in the Sōtō school.

Even in Kyoto
longing for Kyoto
— Bashō

Going deeper
And still deeper —
The Green Mountains
— Santōka

Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831) was another Zen monk who practiced calligraphy and wrote poetry, including haiku, living the life of a Buddhist hermit in his Gogoan hut.  In his later years he met the young nun, Teishin, and they exchanged haiku poems.  She remained with the monk until his death.

Left behind by the thief —
The moon
In the window.
— Ryōkan


Zen is a form of Buddhism that was said to be brought to China by the Indian monk, Bodhidharma, in the 5th or 6th century CE.  It takes its name from the Japanese form of the word Ch’an which is itself the Chinese version of the Sanskrit dhyāna, meaning meditation or meditative absorption.  Mixing with the native Chinese religion of Daoism, Ch’an/Zen dropped away a lot of the Buddhist culture that had been accumulated since the time of the Buddha, and focussed on just sitting in meditation in order to find stillness.  Simplicity and a connection with the natural world are also characteristics of the tradition.

Haiku often use images from nature in order to point to certain truths such as the impermanence of all things and interconnectivity of life.  These truths are central to Buddhism and especially Zen.  Of particular note is the use of cherry blossom imagery – the intense beauty of the flowers is brought into sharp focus because we know how quickly they fade.  Bashō himself comments similarly on the song of the cicada:

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they are
about to die

The endpoint of Zen practice is to achieve satori, or enlightenment, the realisation of the true nature of life and oneself.  Haiku may both express such insight and play a role in precipitating it.  Not all haiku express Zen insight but it is not uncommon.

In more recent times, the Rinzai Zen teacher Robert Aitken (1917-2010) has analysed the poems of the great haiku masters from a Zen perspective in two books which respectively explore the work of Bashō (A Zen Wave) and Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki (The River of Heaven).

River of Heaven

Mitsu Suzuki (1915-2016), the wife of revered Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, was a noted writer of haiku as was Soen Nagakawa (1907-1984), the abbot of Ryataku Monastery and teacher of Robert Aitken.

Valley temple bell —
with the last ring
a new century
— Mitsu Suzuki

One hand
waving endlessly
autumn ocean
— Soen Nagakawa

Former Zen monk, Clark Strand, writes and teaches haiku in the Hudson Valley region of NY.  His book Seeds from a Birch Tree is a spiritual guide to haiku writing much loved by modern poets.

The dogwood blossoms
mean nothing particular
by the color white
— Clark Strand

As well as Zen haiku writers, there have been several notable poets with connections to Pure Land Buddhism. The most important of these is Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), one of the ‘Great Four’ men considered masters of haiku (the others being Bashō, Buson and Shiki), who was a lay priest in the Jōdo Shinshū sect. He wrote a very famous haiku, still much quoted today, in which he reflects on the nature of reality after the death of his daughter:

This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .

One of the earliest female haiku poets, Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), became a Pure Land nun at the age of 52, taking the name Soen. She started writing haiku at the age of seven and continued throughout her life, studying with several of the disciples of Bashō.

my fishing line —
the summer moon
— Chiyo-ni

I practice Zen in the Sōtō school of Ryōkan and Santōka and see them very much as role models both for Zen and writing.  In order to produce good haiku, I believe that learning to notice the small details of life, especially in relation to the natural world, is very important.  This skill is very similar to that whch is developed in meditation practice.  There is no striving to achieve this but it happens very naturally as thoughts drop away and even the notion of the separation of our own self and the rest of life.

Being able to convey this in verse is a very lovely thing.