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Haiku: A Spiritual Path

Some thoughts and suggestions by Brother Toby . . .

Why Haiku?


First, a couple of thoughts from our old friend Cliff Edwards, who is a professor of world spirituality and of haiku at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Cliff has written many books on haiku. In one that his students use, entitled The Haiku Way to Enlightenment, Cliff writes,

A haiku can be described as a moment of enlightenment during which we enter and share the life of even the smallest things around us. … The haiku becomes a doorway into the meaning of the here and now, and so a doorway into the meaning of our own life.

Cliff has written a haiku every day for decades. So has the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, environmental activist, and Zen Buddhist, Gary Snyder who once made this observation,

All the great civilized world religions remain primarily human centered… Well, what do you say to Magpie?

Cliff and many others, including myself, believe that haiku is one way of balancing all of the Earth’s rhythms and creatures.

Now onto some basics …



Part 1: Haiku Moments in Life


In 1955 I both became an associate and trial lawyer in a busy labor law firm —and I was first introduced to haiku. Since that time these little poems have helped balance my life in many hectic periods. On several occasions I have been something of a tutor introducing people to haiku and what follows is an adaptation of material in THINKING WITH THE HEART (2001, PageMill Press), GUIDING GOD’S CHILDREN (1983, Paulist Press) and other things I have written. However, most of my experience with haiku has been as a “beginner among beginners.”


Like everyone I know, my preoccupations and distractions often warp my vision of existence. Mitzu Susuki, wife of the revered San Francisco Zen roshi Shunryu Susuki, wrote of a wonderful “haiku moment”:


After planting lily bulbs
I notice the color of the sky.


It is helpful if we both dig in the earth and are mindful of the sky. Perhaps the two things are really a single process. I experience haiku as a facet of spiritual growth which simply means cultivating an openness to those “haiku moments” we all experience but may not always treasure.

In North America, early haiku often built on the appreciation of nature found in works like Henry David Thoreau’s (1817-1862) “Walden Pond.” One such book was Vincent Tripi’s (1941- ), “Haiku Pond” published in 1987. Spiritual influences came from the works of writers like the Catholic monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968). As a deep interest in Buddhism began to spread North American haiku poets, including writers like Merton, began to be refreshed directly by Matsuo Basho’s (1644-1694) famous “Old Pond,”


“Old pond” equals
a-frog-jump-in-water-sound.


It seems to me that North American haiku often reflects several riddles that cannot be teased out by logic. One of these is, “How can a hunger for contemplation exist without loneliness?” Or to look at it the other way around, “How can human bonding exist alongside a quest for solitude?” Ruth Yarrow (1934- ), who comes from a Quaker background, shared an amazing “haiku moment” in one line:


after the garden party … the garden


The path for learning to live with any of life’s riddles starts in whatever our garden may be.

Literature of Haiku

Before Basho

From early times there was a form of poetry called tanka or waka. It was composed of thirty-one syllables: 5-7-5-7-7. When more than one person contributed to the poem, such poetry was called renga or “linked verse.” These poems were chains; each link was to be poetically related to the preceding verse. There could be as many as a hundred links. At the imperial court there was the practice of giving the 5-7-5 part (hokku or “starting verse”) and then having a competition to see who could supply the best remaining two lines (7-7). This was sometimes called “verse capping”. It is still the custom for haiku writers to link verses, i.e., for several poets to supply alternate poems when they are writing together.


In the thirteenth century poets began to simply write a poem of 5-7-5 syllables. This was the beginning of haiku. The first haiku were called “sporting verse” or “haikkai renga.” These early poems were often crude and shallow. Others were genuinely humorous. The poets were attempting to outdo each other’s cleverness. The situation gradually improved until the stage was set in the seventeenth century for the entrance of Basho and the great masters who followed him. Now a spiritual significance was being sensed in the “one breath poems” focusing on a single moment in life.


Four Haiku Masters

What follows are a few poems and comments on four poets: Basho, Buson, Shiki and Issa. Yes, for me, especially Issa. The poems below are not really translations but quasi-literal renderings which let the reader get a brief whiff of the poet’s genius.

No attempt has been made to render these poems into 17 English syllables, though, of course, in Japanese they are 17 syllables. 

Haiku Circle

Connect further

We have developed a community that allows those who use haiku as a tool of spiritual growth to share their poems with each other. Circle members include those who have taken haiku workshops from Brother Toby and users who subscribe to the attitude of our friend Cliff Edwards of Virginia Commonwealth University;


“A haiku can be described as a moment of enlightenment during which we enter and share the life of even the smallest things around us. … The haiku becomes a doorway into the meaning of the here and now, and so a doorway into the meaning of our own life.”


If you have questions about joining, contact us.

Monday Haiku

Haiku & You: Learn More

Literature of Haiku: 4 Poets (pdf)

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Part 1: A Brief Haiku Exercise (pdf)

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Part 2: Beginning to Write Haiku (pdf)

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Part 3: Collecting Your Haiku (pdf)

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Part 4: Writing With Other People (pdf)

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Holiday Haiku (pdf)

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