[Zen] is concerned only with life, not with words about life. It is for this reason that the Zen masters, when they were confronted with such questions as 'What is Zen?", invariably turned either to some nonverbal answers (such as hitting the questioner over the head), or gave such puzzling replies as:
"Three pounds of flax"
"The cypress tree in the courtyard"
"Three meals a day and a good night's sleep"
These apparently meaningless sayings have nevertheless two things in common: 1. Refusal to answer the question in the terms in which it was posed (i.e. in intellectual terms); 2. Pointing instead to something perfectly plain and ordinary, some everyday thing or event in nature, thereby forcing the questioner's mind from the abstract to the concrete and from the intellectual to the actual.
And this is exactly how the masters of haiku handled questions about haiku. When asked what kind of training was necessary to become a poet, one master said: "The crescent moon over the moor. " And when Onitsura was asked about the essence of haiku, he replied: "A camellia tree is in bloom in the garden. "
From all this we may draw our first conclusion about haiku: unlike most other types of poetry, haiku is not concerned with expressing Truth or Beauty or any other type of idea, concept or symbol; it has no deep or esoteric meaning; it deals entirely with the here and now, with nature, with intuition arising from immediate sense experience, with the ordinary sights and sounds of this world. D.T. Suzuki has expressed this as follows: "A haiku does not express ideas, but puts forward images reflecting intuitions.”
The problem for the Western reader, therefore, is not to find the hidden meaning, the "symbolic significance' of a haiku, for there is none, but to reconvert the images of a haiku into his own intuitions. And the answer to that lies in the art of reading haiku. A haiku is not meant to be read like a longer poem. It is more of an object for contemplation. First we must empty our minds of all preconceived ideas and re-experience what the poet saw or heard or felt; we must allow the images to touch us, we must enter, for example, the stillness of the old pond, see/hear/feel the sudden leap of the frog, and allow the ripples to fade out slowly in our mind. Only if we thus put ourselves in the poet's place, only if we experience the images directly and without intellectualization, only then—if the haiku is a good one—will it achieve its effect, evoking moods and memories, echoes and ripples of associations, playing on the mind as though it were an instrument where all the sympathetic strings resonate when a single note is struck. And the totality of that experience is the 'meaning' of a haiku.
In summary, a haiku is more than a ‘form’ of poetry. The same spirit pervades the paintings of Sesshu, the tea ceremony of Rikyu and the haiku of Bashô. A haiku is thus a manifestation of Zen and hence the expression of a particular state of consciousness: "Each true haiku is a swift record in words of one moment of 'satori', of the sudden flash of Enlightenment" (Harold Stewart). Each haiku is like the reply of a Zen master to a beginner's question about the meaning of life. And the answers will be seen to lie not in the ninth circle of heaven, nor on the lips of preachers and prophets, but scattered all around us, in myriads of forms, in the falling of a leaf no less than in the sting of a gnat, in the sound of a frog no less than in the song of a nightingale and whether we chart a rocket to the moon or sit quietly in our garden with Bashô, the answers are the same... the answers are everywhere... listen:
- Eric W. Amann, from his pamphlet The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku (Haiku Publications, 1969). The full pamphlet has been scanned and uploaded by The Haiku Foundation, and can be downloaded here.
I originally came upon this quote in Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir by Terry Ann Carter (Ekstasis Editions, 2020).