the online magazine about life as a creative process


Haiku and meditation - Part 1


by Ray Rasmussen




A favorite haiku of mine by the Japanese poet Hokushi [d. 1718] carries a transcendent message:

ashes my burnt hut
but wonderful the cherry
blooming on my hill

When I'm feeling overwhelmed with my two teen daughters, with the stress of work, or with difficulties in a relationship, I like to visit these ancient poets. Hokushi reminds me that these difficulties are about being human, that life is composed of a series of burned huts followed by blooms on the hill. Of course, when ones hut is burning, looking to the blooms isn't as easy as it sounds. Still, it helps to have Hokushi's haiku singing in my ear.

I became interested in haiku poetry while photographing and then building a web site on the Kurimoto Japanese Garden, located near my home in Edmonton, Province of Alberta, Canada. I decided to provide a mix of Asian poetry and information on Japanese Gardens on the site. Using the Internet I found my way to a number of Asian poetry web sites, became enthralled with the poetic power of haiku, and started to read haiku poetry. While exploring, I found a number of lists where current haiku poets [called haijin] share their work and where interested novices can get instruction. I was on my way to writing my own haiku. What could be easier, I thought, than writing a 17-syllable, 3-line poem!

But, like producing quality photographs, it wasn't so easy to write a good haiku. Also like photography, composing quality haiku turned out to be more a process, a way of being in the world, than a quick route to a product. Both photography and haiku composition lead to an intense focusing on direct experience that is different from normal daily living. For example, normal practice when visiting a place like the Kurimoto Garden might be to walk around, chat with a friend, enjoy the sunshine, hold hands, look at the elements of the garden, that sort of thing. Instead, when engaged in the process of photography, I focus in, attempting to isolate forms and colors that strike my aesthetic sense. Looking through the lens, composing the frame, selecting the camera settings, imagining the print, all these provide a deeply relaxing contemplation of place. Time becomes frozen, passes quickly. I spent 5 hours at Kurimoto, shot 3 rolls of film, and suddenly found myself in darkness. Where did the day go?

Similarly, the process of haiku composition is not an activity that takes place exclusively at ones desk. Instead, on a walk in the woods or when visiting a coffee house, one learns to pay attention to events [called 'haiku moments'] that stand out. This spring, when the geese and ducks had just begun returning to Canada, I was deeply immersed in the silence of a nearby forest and heard a single sound -- the call of a male mallard. I stood listening in on his conversation with his smaller mate. Louis Armstrong's raspy voice came to mind. If you've ever heard Louie sing, "I'm in the mood for love," you understand the power of the rasp as I experienced it on that quiet day. I began to compose a haiku in my mind, played with possible verses, continued my walk, caught a streamside glimpse of Mr. and Ms. Mallard, and when I returned home, wrote this haiku:

mid-day hush
the rasp of a mallard
calling his mate

You may or may not like this haiku, and, yes, it matters to me whether you do. But, whether or not I produced a great haiku, I had a great walk, one that was enhanced by the practice of focusing my attention in the mallard's love talk, of paying attention to the stream of associations that flowed from that experience.

The Japanese haijin greats like Basho [Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694] were wandering monks. In his mid-30s, Basho spent years traveling the Japanese countryside visiting Buddhist monasteries and holy places. The name Bashó (banana tree) is a sobriquet he adopted around 1681 after moving into a simple hut with a banana tree alongside. Influenced by Buddhist precepts, his haiku captured those fleeting, momentary sensations on the edge of perception to which we don't normally give our attention. Here's Basho using his perceptions to describe life as a series of connected associations:

the swinging bridge
is quieted with creepers -
this tendrilled life

The haiku process encourages a meditative focus: stopping, looking, listening, contemplating, paying greater attention. And, later, back at the desk, the composition of the haiku itself is another meditative experience: remembering, re-experiencing, composing. I had but 17 syllables in which to attempt a description of my 'haiku moment' in the forest with the mallards. As I continued my walk, and then later at my desk, I played with phrases, tried to eliminate my natural tendency to interpret: 'a beautiful mallard,' 'his wonderful, raspy call,' 'the delicious afternoon silence,' the Louis Armstrong sexiness of the drake's call,' -- each of these phrases tell rather than describe. Instead, the goal is to describe in such a way that a person reading the poem has an experience akin to the immediacy of the poet's experience. A final component of haiku practice, itself meditative, is the reading of the haiku of other poets, the old masters as well as current writers. I've now formed the practice of reading aloud, of allowing my critical voices to pass and of moving imaginatively into the experience that the poet presents.

Given its origins in the wandering and writing of Japanese ascetics, it's understandable that many of today's competent haiku poets emphasize the Zen-like aspects of the process of haiku composition. For example, among the practices for writing good haiku offered by James Hackett are the following:
- NOW is the touchstone of the haiku experience, so remain centered in this eternal present of life.
- Remember that Greater Nature -- not human nature -- is the province of haiku.
- Contemplate natural objects closely: unseen wonders (and dramas) will reveal themselves.
- Spiritually interpenetrate and empathize with nature. Become One with 'things,' for ultimately, "That art Thou."
- Reflect upon your notes of nature in solitude and silence. Allow these recollected feelings be the basis of your haiku poem.


James Hackett, Suggestions For Creating Haiku Poetry, World Haiku Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1: March 2003

See Part 2

Photo of Kurimoto Japanese
Garden by Ray Rasmussen



Ray Rasmussen is a photographer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He spends a good deal of his outdoor time in Canyonlands National Park, Utah and in one of Canada's most remote and untouched provincial parks, Willmore Wilderness just North of Jasper National Park. He writes haiku poetry and its related forms haibun [prose plus haiku]. He is also active in creating haiga [haiku plus images]. In a previous life he was a University Professor. See website.






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