‘Enlightenment does not happen in time. It happens when time stops.’ (Papaji)

Review of Haiku Enlightenment by Gabriel Rosenstock

(Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2009)

This little book, containing haiku by practitioners from all over the world, ancient and new – and the new are as ancient as the ancient are new – this book will open up a universal path which you may have been walking already as it happens, without knowing it. Page after page, you will notice what little adjustment is needed – if any ‒ to our antenna in order to receive frequent sprinklings of enlightenment, leading to an acquired receptivity which allows us to be sprinkled and purified more and more – until nothing is left in the world which is not truly, in itself, a vehicle for liberation. (18)

The haiku path promises this much to the dedicated haiku initiate: freedom-through-engagement – freedom from the myriad distractions that assault us from every side, from without and from within, the flowering of a dynamic, ethical consciousness and a return to the roots of our innate Buddha-nature. Haiku is a perfect vehicle for this on-going process, bypassing cognition and intellectualisation, intuitively sublimating the duality of our existence, momentarily finding ourselves nowhere, everywhere, here on the boundless path. (92/93)


Reflecting the sublimely ornate prose and persuasive rhetoric prevalent throughout his book, these quotations from Gabriel Rosenstock’s Haiku Enlightenment serve as a fitting introduction to the central theme of this review which might broadly be summarised as an effort to find answers to the  key questions that a reader of the book might expect, in some degree, to be answered through reading it: most importantly – what exactly is haiku and what might be meant by “enlightenment “in this context? Further questions that could arise might include the following:

  • Might one invoke a haiku moment at will and, if not, what measures, psychological or practical, might help increase the incidence of such instants of enlightenment and deepen their significance?
  • What benefits could ensue from regularly reading and writing haiku?
  • What formal and procedural considerations should be borne in mind when recording the haiku moment and what might be some of the qualities or characteristics that should ideally be reflected by its general spiritual tenor?
  • Which aspects of external reality might best serve to awaken one to this sudden, fleeting, and inspirational moment?

Included in a page just after the front matter, together with a definition of haiku’s light-hearted sister, senryu, is the author’s succinct definition of haiku: ‘Haiku: One-breath poetry, traditionally seventeen syllables (5-7-5), now increasingly practised outside Japan as a free-style form, usually in three lines. It owes its impact and inspiration to a meditative flash in which he/she who experiences the haiku moment merges suddenly with perceived phenomena.’

References to the next question on our list, touching on the core theme of enlightenment, occur throughout the book and, generally speaking, represent the notion that enlightenment is a state of mind that spontaneously occurs when an object or situation seizes the attention of the observer, temporarily shattering the ego, thus enabling him or her to focus  all the  senses on that particular object or situation and, in a sense, to merge  with it.  This process of symbiosis is described by the writer as follows: ‘In haiku, self merges with object. In this very merging is the sacrament, the dynamics of enlightenment. ‘(57) And again, ‘Let us demystify enlightenment. What is satori (in Zen), samadhi (in Hinduism) but the dissolving of the ego. Similarly, the Tantric concept of maithuna relates to the falling away of the ego in sacramental, sexual union. The haiku moment is a powerfully charged, focussed glimpse of unity and non-differentiation, its sheer pleasure reminding us of our birthright, its passing an eloquent portent of impermanence and mutability.’ (60)

Quotations from secondary sources ‒ ancient, medieval and modern, poets, mystics, intellectuals and naturalists ‒ as well as appropriate haiku examples are regularly introduced throughout the book and serve both to enhance the author’s perspective and greatly enrich the reading experience. Examples on the theme of enlightenment include the following: 

“When the self withdraws, the ten thousand things advance!” (Dogen, 7)

“Achieve enlightenment, then return to the world of ordinary humanity…” (Bashō, 14)

 “Learning the way of enlightenment is learning selfhood. /Learning selfhood is forgetting oneself. /Forgetting oneself is becoming enlightened by all things….” (Dogen, 37)

The author’s sequel to this book on haiku, entitled Haiku, The Gentle Art of Disappearing, includes an interesting and relevant quotation on this theme from the American spiritual writer and educationalist Thaddeus Golas: “Enlightenment is any experience /of expanding our consciousness /beyond its present limits. /We could also say that perfect enlightenment /is realizing that we have no limits at all, and that the entire universe is /alive…”

As an example of a haiku that captures the essential element of the haiku moment, namely, Advaita, non-duality, the author suggests this one by Issa: “falling from my heart/ the snows/ of Shinano”, commenting that: ‘…The border between the inner and outer world is down. All is realized in the heart, in the shining Self. The interior and the exterior world are momentarily one.’ (83)

As a metaphor for haiku enlightenment, the author quotes the following haiku by Tomislav Maretić: “a cormorant/glides close to the surface/becoming grey sea”, explaining that ‘the sea is not just the sea. It is the cosmic ocean. The cormorant/individual has sacrificed his notion of self by merging with the boundless ocean,’ adding that ‘this is where Buddha comes in: “Enlightenment is straightly attained by freedom from separate selfhood”. The Buddha’s words are echoed in other traditions, “I and the father are One….”.’ (98)

Finally, on the subject of the unity between self and object experienced in the haiku moment, the following quotation from Bashō, arguably the haiku master, and referred to several times by the writer throughout the book, seems particularly appropriate: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there...” The author, himself, conveys a similar notion in this ornate passage: ‘The haiku moment is as exactly as it should be, right here and now, its contours awaiting you in the emptiness of a timeless glimpse. The task is not to extract its ingredients, somehow, but to become part of its molecular structure, its essence, colour, sound, sharing its invisible nature, melding into that moment which is the summation of all existence now, the core of creation.’ (32)


Might one generate a haiku moment at will and experience the corresponding sense of enlightenment through the merging of self and object, observer and observed? The author leaves us in little doubt as to the folly of such a venture, stressing that it is not the intention that counts, but that ‘our ability to be struck by some “epiphany” (as James Joyce used the word) becomes the real stuff of enlightenment. There are no steps to enlightenment. Steps lead to further steps and so on. There is only the laughing plunge, the sober awakening.’ (17/18) The book quotes from the renowned haikuist and editor Robert Spiess, who, in like manner, states that “as haiku poets we should keep our sense perceptions open and relaxed, not using them forcefully to grasp experience. With this almost detached way we do not block our inner awareness and intuition. Simultaneously we are then perceiving both inside and outside ourselves, so that these two conditions become a unity”. (101) Other relevant quotations from secondary sources include this advice from the modern sage Wei-Wu-Wei, who states that “there is no path to Satori. It cannot be attained…all the masters tell us that we cannot seize Reality: it is Reality that seizes us”, and this one from the Hindu intellectual and holy man Swami Siddheswarananda who assures us that “Realisation comes in search of us and we cannot go in search of Realisation…” (99)


Notwithstanding this advice against prematurely anticipating the haiku moment, the book suggests certain measures, such as practising haiku, that increase the likelihood of the genesis of such moments and may deepen their significance: ‘On the haiku path, the constant intrusion of the self becomes less and less persistent – moments arise that flood us with their “itness” before our cognitive, judgemental self is given a chance to, as it were, interfere…The chances of Reality seizing us, and sweeping away our pre-judgemental mind in the process are increased by the dutiful practice of haiku.’ In addition, and serving to develop the point raised above concerning ‘the ability to be struck by some epiphany’, the writer underlines the importance of perceiving an object as opposed to merely looking at it, stating that ‘haiku is an open-eyed engagement with the word and with the world. It is not so much what paints itself on the retina as what resonates – through one or more of the senses – with the human spirit. Haiku moments, in all their purity, surprise us when – and only when – we have achieved passive, non-striving awareness. ‘(115)

The question of perception is also raised earlier in the book where the author states that ‘the nature of the image is not important, what matters is the moment of perception. Perception is more than seeing…. In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the uses of “perceive” is given in an illustrative sentence by Norbert Muehlen… “people have become so used to the sight of ruins that they hardly perceive them any more”.’ ‘Perceived by the haikuist,’ the author concludes, ‘the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As Jim Kacian reminds us, “If haiku affords us moments of vision, it is not so much that we are visionaries, as up to that moment we have been blind”.’ (75)

There are several additional references in the book to the importance of seeing, in the sense of really perceiving an object, as opposed to merely looking at it, supported by quotations from secondary sources: ‘It was Ruskin (1819-1900) who, perhaps, first saw the blindness inflicted on us by the modern world. Addressing his students at the Working Men’s College he is reported as having said: “Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see”. ‘(26)

 ‘Someone once asked the former Zen teacher, Toni Packer, “Can a leaf swirling to the ground be my teacher?” Her answer is what every haikuist should know. “Yes! Of course! This instant of seeing is the timeless teacher, the leaves are just what they are”.’ (27)

And another relevant quotation, this one from the above-mentioned sequel publication on haiku, Haiku, The Gentle Art of Disappearing: “Unless the soul goes out to see what we see we do not see it; nothing do we see, not a beetle, not a blade of grass”. (W. H. Hudson)

Humberto Senegal, President of the Colombian Haiku Society, whom the book quotes at length,  does not actually use the word perception but would certainly seem to be arguing in a similar sense  in the following passage: “Erudition and intellectual wisdom, the paths of the egoistic poet, are not adequate for one who seriously wishes to draw near to haiku…In the West, few cultivators of the haiku go beyond form. They focus on this part of the legacy from the masters because it seems easier to count syllables or to tie themselves to the seasons than to present themselves, and their wonder, to that same astonishment which Bashō must have experienced at the trees in bloom, at the sound of the birds and at the sound of the rain…Spirit is not discovering through intelligence, manipulation of literary data….and the analysis of theory and content...Spirit is only discovered through the grace and wonder of amazement.…Every haiku, when authentic, is satori, an ecstasy of the observed and the observer in union and manifestation, thanks to the simplicity and impersonality of the poet….To understand Bashō, his poetry, his work and his literary aesthetics is to uncover the here and now, the spirit of being, within ourselves, and the world around us. And this spirit which exists in millions of forms does not belong to any culture, man, literary school, philosophy or any religion…”.’ (87/88)

Occasionally interspersed with exemplary haiku, the final chapter in the book, entitled Writing Haiku: Useful Tips, commented on below, also contains some reflections on the psychological and practical training of the aspiring haikuist:

  • Always have a notebook in your pocket – you never know when the haiku moment is going to manifest itself…Also, be prepared for weeks or months when nothing happens, when there are no haiku; Keep your eyes and ears open but not too intently… “the pond mirrors/a flying squirrel/over the wisteria”. (Kikaku, 105)
  • Have all the senses ready. On the haiku path, if your sight doesn’t actually improve, your percipience will. You will notice new things in a new way: “look at his face…/the cricket! / such determination!”. (Yamaguchi Syuson, Version: GR, 106)
  • If you do not have a formal spiritual practice such as chanting, meditation, tai chi or prayer, being alone with Nature is enough. Contemplate trees, grasses, the sky – let go, enter, intermingle with creation. Lose the head!... If you are lucky enough to have a garden ‒ with a pond ‒ find out what you should plant to attract interesting visitors throughout the year. (109)
  • Increase your nature vocabulary in as many realms as possible – birds, insects, plants, animals, rocks, the weather, and so on.… Read the haiku classics, over and over again, and read the best of the moderns such as Santōka….  Cultivate sentiment, avoid sentimentality.  Remind yourself to be passively aware, each waking hour of the day, and use as many of your senses as you can. The over-active brain may come between you and the haiku moment. From time to time, consciously avoid overstimulation… (109) 

Finally, on the theme of sensitizing the mind, the book speaks of the importance of compassion: ‘To simply espouse a philosophical, ethical or religious creed that has compassion at its heart is next to useless if the body-mind is not alert to the occasions that elicit and arouse our compassion. Rabindranath Tagore expressed it well when he said, “There is no higher religion than that of sympathy for all that lives”.’ ‘This sympathy,’ the author continues, ‘without which we dare not call ourselves human – is constantly born and regenerated along the haiku path.’ The Muslim mystic, Ahmad Ibn Ata’Allah, is quoted on the same subject: “Encompass with your mercy and compassion all animals and creatures. Do not say, ‘this is inanimate and has no awareness’. Indeed, it does; it is you yourself who have no awareness”. (45)  And, finally, this quote from Issa: “The way of haiku and the way of Confucius and Buddha are the same in that if one forgets the true meaning of underlying principles and learns, in vain, only the form, he or she is a traitor…” (99)    


What benefits might ensue from the regular reading and writing of haiku? There are many, as the writer constantly and enthusiastically affirms, sometimes enhancing his views with appropriate haiku. To wit:

  • Haiku is there to enrich our experience of being alive, to unfold the tapestry of living, to bring us down to earth, where we belong: “in my hut/mice and fireflies/getting along”. (Issa, 2)
  • Haiku can accompany all of us along the path of life, not as a diary or archive of what we have seen, experienced or felt but, rather, as a living testimony to a developed, ever-evolving, instinctual awareness of having actually lived a life impregnated by reality – whatever our circumstances. This awareness colours and strengthens the fabric of our consciousness, into and out of the sunset of our lives: “growing older - /more of this haiku/more turnip soup”. (Kyoshi, 61)
  • Practising haiku leads us, inexorably, to an awareness of our awareness: D.T. Suzuki (profiled in The New Yorker, August 31, 1957) remarked: “The intuitive recognition of the instant, and thus reality, is regarded by Zen practitioners as the highest act of wisdom.…”. (62)

On a moral level, the significance of haiku as a fail-safe expedient is extolled: ‘Haiku enlightenment – living the life of haiku – changes the way we behave, subtly refining our actions…Flawed creatures that we are, abstract notions of virtue and ideals of ahimsa (non-violence) – the usual moral precepts, or commandments – do not always transfer to daily life. Living according to the spirit of haiku is to be aware. In this awareness, our higher nature is allowed to express itself naturally, in word and deed’. “Come on then, beetle, /walking over my foot – /you go first”.’ (David Cobb, 68)

On a more practical level, the author mentions some benefits that may lighten the journey through life if one chooses to negotiate it along the haiku path: ‘Boredom, cynicism, ennui and other negative states of mind can be avoided by taking the visionary path of haiku: “a tide-cluttered beach:/ this clear chunk of jellyfish/ magnifies the sand”. ‘(R. Christopher Thorsen, 66)

The author postulates that there may even be a health benefit to regularly practising haiku: ‘Might haiku be actually good for our health? If the haiku moment is a form of meditation, then why not? People in the healing profession should try to use haiku as a therapeutic tool.’ The beneficial influence of haiku on human relations is also suggested: ‘Human relations…. relationships, too, become deepened, heightened, by experiencing and expressing them in haiku and senryu: “the scent of the forest/ on their shoes/ father and son asleep on the train”.’ (Ikuyo Yoshimura, Version: GR, 67) ‘The haikuist’s relationships,’ the author adds, again backing his views with an apt haiku, ‘extend to all the living and the dead, embracing and being embraced at the same moment: “a winter’s day, / a frozen shadow/ on my nag”.’ (Bashō, Version: GR, 67)

In the closing pages of the book the writer summarises some of the more spiritual benefits of a way of life associated with the haiku ethic: ‘Through habitual reading and writing of haiku we can experience states of non-differentiation, of union with natural phenomena….With frequent practice of haiku, our senses sharpen one another: as we watch and see more closely, the keener becomes our hearing, our sense of smell, until we are wordlessly brought into the great silence, the womb of creation where the haiku moment is born and reborn, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. We acquire that “singular state of mind”, as French-language poet and critic, Phillippe Jaccottet, describes it, which leads us to “the peak of limpidity” and “to the full and luminous life to which everybody aspires” …. This “singular state of mind” is acquired through purifying consciousness, repeatedly, in haiku engagement. ‘

“the empty rock pool - / till the mind clears, / then a thousand little things”. (Jim Norton, 114)

Not stopping with this impressive list of benefits that can accrue to the serious haikuist, the book unequivocally highlights one other great benefit, namely, the love and appreciation of nature that inevitably follows on from an active involvement with haiku. No doubt, the beauty and mystery manifest in the changing moods, colours, and life-forms of the external, natural, world inevitably attract the attention of the observer and from here it is but a short step to an increased respect for this bountiful source of enlightenment and its importance in Japanese haiku, traditional as well as modern, and also in Western haiku, is enormous. The captivating power of nature is thematised in several passages in the book: ‘Diane Wolkstein, writing in the influential journal Parabola, shares with us the wisdom of the oral tradition of the now extinct Karraru People from Australia. It could be the Haiku Gospel: “All around are your relations – the crawling, moving, feathery, and furry creatures – the water, the grass, the hills, and the wind. This is their place. Now it is your place too. Where you were born is your Dreaming. You must always take care of that piece of land…Care for the land for your grandmothers and grandfathers, as well as for your grandchildren. I travelled every step of the land and it is alive…”’   ‘Which one of us ‘, the writer asks, ‘would not like to feel the truth of all that deep within ourselves and to know it actively in our lives! With haiku we can and we do…. Thomas Berry, also writing for Parabola… insists that “The outer world is necessary for the inner world. The greatest and deepest tragedy in losing the splendour of the outer world is that we will always have an inner demand for it.… Without the natural world our integral spiritual development can never take place”.’ (39) The importance of nature for the poet, and haikuist, is succinctly captured in this quotation from the American poet and writer Wally Swist (b. 1953), who states that “the poetics of haiku…has always meant walking out into nature and having the natural world move through me…”. (25)

Finally, on the subject of the importance of the natural world for haiku, and vice versa, the gradually, globally, growing notion that progress should perhaps consist, not in change, but in retentiveness, finds a strong echo in this passage from the book: ‘In effect, what many insightful ecologists and philosophers are telling us today is that we should feel we belong to this earth, that the colonial phase of extending mankind’s influence to far-flung corners of the earth – and into outer space – must be replaced by a new concept, namely colonists becoming native. Haikuists already feel that they are “natives” of this earth and never before has our planet been in need of such caring wisdom…While classical Japanese haiku often show a subtle blend of religious influences – Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto, as well as various literary influences – Chinese mostly – Nature herself often wins out against formal codes and beliefs.‘ (89)


What formal or other considerations should typically be borne in mind when composing haiku? The author has been at pains to share his great knowledge of these technical aspects of the genre with aspiring haikuists, and has devoted the final chapter of the book to this end. Besides some points that touch on the spiritual aspects of haiku and which are commented upon below, there are many relevant guidelines relating to language, imagery and style, and, in addition some more general pointers, mentioned above in the context of suitably fertilising  the mind to ensure that the haiku harvest is as rich as possible.

Furthermore, close to the beginning of the book, the author makes an important point regarding the dynamics of composition of haiku poetry: ‘The seventeen-syllable, traditional form was adjudged to be a breath span. And just as Keats said that poetry should come as naturally as foliage to a tree, or not at all, so we say that haiku is an exhalation, a breath of freedom, of exultation, a sigh. You may polish your haiku, once it has come to you, or come through you. Honing the shape, changing the line order, improving the choice of words, or the rhythm or punctuation – these are the wrapping on the gift, but there need be nothing laborious about the first draft. “Haiku should be written as swiftly as a woodcutter fells a tree or a swordsman leaps at a dangerous enemy” so said Bashō, born into an impoverished samurai clan. This suddenness, indeed, is what allows for the possibility of enlightenment. ‘(8)

However, there is a caveat to this principle, as the writer explains in his second book on haiku, Haiku, The Gentle Art of Disappearing, referring to this quote from a review by William Deresiewicz of Allen Ginsberg’s Spontaneous Mind:  Selected Interviews, 1958-1996: “’First thought, best thought’ was his governing principle: no heed to the high-modernist idea of poem as patiently-constructed artefact, but as an equally strenuous discipline, for it was only with hours of daily meditation that he maintained his wide-open path from mind to breath…” This point corroborates the author’s views mentioned above, in the context of practising the genre and conditioning the mind. Yes, the haiku moment should be recorded in its immediacy, but in order to authentically reflect this enlightened instant, the haikuist should be correspondingly mentally prepared.


Regarding the general spiritual tenor of haiku, the book makes the following comment: ‘The word haiku in Japanese may be construed to mean merely a playful verse, but as handed down to us from Bashō’s day, it has had a vital spiritual element…the natural and the spiritual element cannot be separated and they form the harmonic whole we so often sense in the haiku moment.’ (108)

What, therefore, might be some of the spiritual qualities that should ideally be reflected in haiku poetry? All through the book the author quotes haiku by Western (including some of his own) as well as Japanese poets, sometimes immediately following, and implicitly serving as an illustration of some thematic concept under discussion. In addition to such examples, some of which have been quoted above, many haiku have been expressly included for their outstanding merit as exemplars of the haiku genre, its spirit or form , with corresponding comments on their outstanding features, and these may best serve as a means of understanding some of the ideal qualities that make up authentic haiku.

Where better to start than with the comments on probably the most famous haiku ever written, namely, this one by Bashō: “Old pond/frog plops in/ sound of water”. ‘In one breath Matsuo Bashō expresses perfect attunement. How utterly real it is. No illusion here, no doubt, no anxiety, no self-absorption, no showing off, no distraction, no longing, no loathing, no desire, no self-deception, no self. It is unalloyed awareness, active absorption, the pure breath of the here and now (and how that moment still rings out centuries later). ‘(52)

Here are some more examples of great haiku, with relevant comments by the author:

“up he comes/my favourite cormorant - /empty beak!” (Issa); “only some of the nightingales/visiting my scraggy hedge/ know how to sing” (Issa) ‘What is it about a feckless cormorant, a less than perfect nightingale that warms the heart of Issa? It is something beautifully anti-heroic that has been called hogan-biiki, a sympathy for the outcast, the defeated, the underdog. It is one of the greatest gifts of haiku poetry to mankind. ‘(55)

“broken sky/ a single pony/ keeps the field from straying” (J. W. Sexton) ‘There is magic here! Haiku that lack magic and mystery are not really haiku at all. They may conform to the structure and appearance of haiku but that is not enough. .…They must be capable of transforming writer and reader alike... ‘(21)

“a bitter morning:/ sparrows sitting together/ without any necks” ‘The author, J. W. Hackett, the first American master. Count the syllables on your fingertips. This is truly great haiku. The season and time of the day are delicately marked out for us; there is no fantasising going on, nor is there any trace of the intrusive ego. The scene is depicted, tenderly, chillingly and with compassion, which is the beginning and end of wisdom. ‘(46)

Towards the end of the book the author makes an important point regarding the essence of authentic haiku: ‘You have seen many beautiful haiku in this book, one hopes. However, it is well to ponder J. W. Hackett’s advice: “Remember that lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku”.’ The author advances as an extreme example of Hackett’s dictum this haiku by Nagata Koi “an old cat, straining, shits - /in such a pose/ my mother dies in winter”, explaining that … ‘Ultimately, haiku is about fearless engagement with life and death, a close encounter with the world and shorn of illusion. It’s about being more honest than you ever thought possible.’ (113)


Are there specific aspects of external reality that may be featured in haiku poetry? As in the foregoing section, individual haiku advanced by the writer as testimony to its suitability for specific situations will be mentioned here. Firstly, however, the suitability of natural phenomena in different forms, impersonal but alive and representing the central focus of traditional Japanese haiku, cannot be overstated as a source of engendering the haiku moment and a vehicle for its composition. Nonetheless, as the author also mentions ‘…any unexpected revelation, however ordinary, can be the stuff of enlightenment’, and again ‘…the Nirvana experience can be as perfectly ordinary as opening or closing one’s umbrella, as undramatic as stepping over a snail on a footpath.’ (17) 

Diverse situations engendering the haiku moment are mentioned throughout the book; here are some examples, with the writer’s comments:

  • “necklace of bone…/ants have finished/with the snake” (Margaret Manson) ‘For the haikuist, death is another perfectly natural phenomenon, not something divorced from life or signifying its end…Many haikuists have written until their very last breath. Death-bed haiku of haijin (masters) – such as Shiki – are justly famous. We can be in awe of anything, even our own demise…’ (5,6).
  • “snowflakes fill/ the eye of the eagle – /fallen totem pole” (Winona Baker) ‘There are all sorts of death. The death of a language, the death of a culture.’ (5,6)
  • “April snow - /the lightness of the Host/ in my hand” (Adele Kenny) ‘This particular haikuist is a member of the Secular Franciscan order and believes that writing haiku “means using words reverently to express the sacredness of God’s universe – in moments of isolation, in moments of communion – alone and yet united with the creator and with all creation”.’ (13)
  • “grandma and grandpa/ side by side on the couch - /wearing each other’s glasses” (Lee Gurga) ‘The haikuist sees beauty in the aged person – or thing – in the gnarled.’ (38)
  • “cloud shadows/ on silent cliffs/ where condors nested” (Jerry Kilbride).…’The way of haiku welcomes ambiguities, the shadows and blurs of life, the spoors of existence, be they faint or vivid.’ (42)
  • “looking for eggs inside the barn…/ but I’ve found instead/ my cousin’s breasts!” (José Rubén Romero). ‘Pornography degrades men, women and children. But when haiku touches on the erotic, the experience is usually one of innocence, surprise, awakening.’ (46)
  • “the heart of winter - /a crow perches/ on its own shadow” (Fukio, Version: GR) ‘This haiku has the quality of sabi or loneliness. It is the opposite of the flowery, the showy. Haiku does not close its eyes to drabness, bareness, raggedness.’ (62,64)
  • “in my dream my father/talks about summer projects/not knowing he’s dead” (Alain Kervern) ‘Our dreams, our myths, our songs, our legends, these too are part of a greater pattern of reality.’ (77)

Generally speaking, regarding themes, the author makes the following point: ‘Haiku can encompass the two classical approaches of the via negativa and the via positiva – the choice is yours. One can have a foot in both camps! In the via negativa we favour solitude and contemplation and the image may be doleful, a crow or a sewer rat. In the via positiva we are outgoing, comprehensive, all-embracing, merging with the whole and our images may be colourful parrots at sunset.’ (40)

Lastly, a very relevant statement that helps put the scope of the genre into perspective, simultaneously limiting its reach and implicitly expanding it into infinity, into the timelessness of the haiku moment: ‘Defining ultimate reality is not the business of haiku…The haikuist can only claim to capture a moment of reality – and a succession of such moments. These moments are intuited and caught in all their transience and uniqueness and are streamlined with the constant regeneration of the world.’ (78) A similar point is also made in the sequel to this book, referred to above, namely, Haiku, the Gentle Art of Disappearing, where it is illustrated by some practical examples: ‘We cannot see the whole world. We see it in haiku glimpses: “awaiting the solar eclipse/ a glass of red wine/ for everyone” (Ion Codrescu)   We see the world ‒ in Catalonia (where the Romanian haikuist was at the time) or, next, in Japan – in its moment-to-moment becoming: “water spiders/ big and little rings/ may be a family.” (Fujino Sunao) A becoming world of miraculous interconnectedness: “persimmons getting soft/ day by day/ more birds”.’ (Iwakoshi Seifu)

Though not very voluminous – it is of small format and contains only 120 pages – Haiku Enlightenment splendidly fulfils its primary mission of elucidating the mysterious world of haiku and explaining its mystical force. In addition, it is well worth reading if only because of its unique style, combining clarity, delicacy and sumptuous prose in the exploration of its spiritual theme. Furthermore, the astoundingly diverse and interesting tapestry of quotes from secondary sources greatly enriches the reading experience and helps authenticate the book’s different thematic strands. It harks back to the more than 2000-year-old Bhagavad Gita, and the temporally equally remote Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, through the Yoga Vasistha and the Kokinshū – the first anthology of Japanese poetry compiled upon imperial order in 905 – on to the priest, writer and philosopher, Dogen (1200 – 1253), while invoking the more modern masters of haiku such as Bashō (1644 - 1694), Buson (1716 – 1784) and Issa (1763-1828), and contemporary religious intellectuals, such as the Buddhist abbot, scholar and teacher Chögyam Trungpa (d. 1987). It also quotes from an eclectic array of Western artists, poets and intellectuals such as Albrecht Dürer, John Ruskin, Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, in addition to many more contemporary writers and poets. Original haiku from the great masters and modern haikuists, including many from the author himself, as well as the photo-haiga – fruit of an artistic cooperation between the author and the professional photographer Ron Rosenstock ‒ fulfil different functions, aesthetic and explanatory, in the book’s structure. Many are simply introduced without comment and induce the reader to pause and share the poet’s enlightened moment that may have taken place on a lake, on a mountain side, or indeed while watching a beetle crawl over one’s foot; others serve to illustrate the dynamics of haiku composition, its formal and spiritual components, while the photo-haiga with their hauntingly beautiful photos of dawns and dusks, seascapes, strands and ruins, embellished by intuitive and thought provoking haiku, evoke in the reader an unforgettable impression of coming close to some fundamental secret of creation.

While an effort has been made in this document to reflect the book’s persuasive yet gentle approach to the task of convincing the amateur and reassuring the expert of the virtue of a way of life substantially structured by the haiku ethic, the richness of the original with its huge quantity of haiku, hundreds of quotes and compelling prose can only be intuited. Nevertheless, the overall strategy in this review has been to let the book, as far as possible, speak directly for itself. After all, as mentioned above, did not the great Matsuo Bashō advise us to “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine!”


Finally, I believe that this quote from the book, which refers to students of Ayurveda in ancient India, captures particularly well its fundamental message: ‘Three of them were instructed to go out into the forest and return with something of no medicinal value whatsoever. Two returned with what they thought to be seemingly useless objects; the third was slow to return and when he did, he was empty-handed for he had searched high and low and failed to find anything that did not contain some medicinal value.

The haikuist is that blessed third student ‒ always looking, not with bleary eyed concentration, not merely looking but intuiting the molecules of liberating grace.’ (19)

Thomas Goggin is an ex UN professional active mainly in the fields of administration and finance in diverse duty stations (Vienna, NY, and outreach offices of UNECA and DPA in Tangiers and Dakar, respectively). Since retirement he has rekindled his interest in literature with formal studies in the UK, self-publications and sundry reviews, mainly of poetry. Currently lives in Vienna. 

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