Unsung Heroes and the Question of Zen in Haiku Poetry
by Mankh (Walter E. Harris III - New York)
Another unsung haiku hero is Zen Master Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984). He employed spontaneous and unorthodox teaching methods—for example, having a “tea ceremony” using styrofoam cups and instant coffee! (Are we not sometimes too attached to form and thus miss the spirit of the moment?!)
Discovering a Soen haiku on a Zen-quotes calendar led me to websearch, then to his marvelous book Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa (Shambala, 1996). Soen’s haiku have a depth and spiritual connection I often find missing in modern, even classical, haiku. While his poems may occasionally lack surprise and descriptiveness, they make up for it with simplicity and insight.
Then again, he can surprise, as Zen Masters are wont to do. One of Soen’s own favorites:
Aiming my penis
out over the steppes
awoken from a nap
To this he adds, “The word penis had never been used before in a haiku, and I was criticized for exposing such a thing! But a penis is just a penis. Nowadays there is confusion regarding sex. But in truth, sexual energy, like digestive energy, is God’s fine energy, Buddha’s energy, cosmic energy.” While I presume Soen’s statement is accurate, some have at least hinted. For example, in The Classic Tradition of Classic Haiku, Faubion Bowers footnotes a haiku by Nishiyama Sôin (1605-1682) stating: “Tsuki idete can also be interpreted as a pun for an erection.”
From the Preface to Endless Vow: “Zen Master Soen Nakagawa was a key figure in the transmission of Zen Buddhism from Japan to the Western world. As abbot of the historic Ryutaku monastery, he trained monks and lay practitioners. Among them were Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau . . . . Soen Roshi [Roshi is Japanese for Zen Master] had a major impact upon Paul Reps, Maurine Stuart, Peter Mathiessen, Louis Nordstrom, Charlotte Joko Beck . . .” and others.
Endless Vow is a combination haiku and haibun autobiography, plus biography (46-page introductory “A Portrait of Soen” by Eido Tai Shimano), and includes photos, plus Soen’s marvelous brush calligraphy with titles such as “Samadhi,” “Spiritual Interrelationship Mandala,” “True Man without Rank,” and “Let True Dharma Continue.” Each haiku has the Japanese, plus phonetic pronunciation in English. One of my favorites is:
Endless is my vow
under the azure sky
Portraying detail is a specialty of haiku poets, yet how often can we condense the immeasurable in a graspable fashion?
After the Preface and Portrait, the Contents are, Part One: Ascetic Practice, 1931-1949; Part Two: Early Years as Abbot, 1951-1959; Part Three: Teaching in the West, 1959-1972; Part Four: Increasing Seclusion,1973-1984; Postscript: “Where Is The Master?” by Roko Sherry Chayat; Chronology; and Glossary. Of Soen as a teacher and Zen Master, Eido Tai Shimano writes in the introductory Portrait—“he opened his students’ eyes to the astonishing power of each moment.” A very haiku-like approach, indeed.
In the new zendo
This reads like a mirror reflection of Bashō’s old frogpond and new splash.
If your interest in haiku and related arts also reaches out (or in) to Zen, Tao, and a more philosophical and spiritual approach, Soen’s work and Endless Vow provide a wonderful opportunity to learn of how a spiritual path and artistic bent can intertwine.
In the Spring/Summer issue, 32:2, the last of this three-part series will examine the religious and spiritual practices of the classical haiku Masters.