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Haiku and Contemplative Haiku

By: John McQuade



Haiku is a popular, internationally wide spread and flexible poetic form and expression. As the title of Natalie Goldbergs recent haiku book says: “Three simple lines.” It is taught to grade school children, in high school literature courses, engaged as an avocation: an interesting and enriching life practice, used as a self-reflection and transformation activity such as journaling, practiced as an expressive poetic art and entered as a liberation contemplative way.


What is the difference in these various ways of writing “three simple lines”? One way into this inquiry is through the relationship of surface and depth. There are many translations of Haiku master Basho’s iconic haiku: Old Pond. Indeed there is a book – One Hundred Frogs – that presents one hundred different English translations of this haiku.


Here is one translation: Old Pond/ a frog jumps in/ a deep resonance. Haiku sets up a play of surface and depth and that play is resonance There is a situation and condition – old Pond; a happening - a frog jumps in and an occasioned result that joins them.


One can perceive, write and hear haiku in terms of the surface orientation. Another translation of Old Pond presents it as a descriptive account: Old Pond/ a frog jumps in/ plop! Much haiku is practiced in this way: noticing, enjoying and expressing occasioned happenings in our life. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed it is good, enriching and contains the seed of the contemplative.


However, one can ask how Old is that Pond? How Deep is that Pond? How extensive is that Sound? Another translation presents the third line as “the sound of water” Does water have a sound? Are they joined in that sounding? Another inflection of sound is as sounding – measuring a depth. The play of depth and surface.


An analogy that might be helpful is an iceberg. Ninety percent of an iceberg is below water. Much haiku is oriented to the visible surface features of the iceberg. Some haiku explores the hidden depth of the iceberg. However even the depth of an iceberg is a small manifestation in the depth of the ocean that surrounds and supports it. The vast and deep of the ocean. This is the realm of contemplative haiku.

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