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A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku & Zen

by Robert. Aitken

Buy the book: Robert. Aitken. A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku & Zen

Release Date: April, 1979

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Robert. Aitken. A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku & Zen

Zen, poetry, and (worthwhile) literary criticism

Aitken Roshi is considered by many the dean of American Zen masters. In this book he combines his Zen insight with his university training in liturature to explain Basho's poetry. The book should be read by anyone interested in Zen, and perhaps even more by anyone interested in poetry or literary criticism, since it shows what a wise person can do improve our reading of poetry. If you love Basho or haiku in general, then this book is a must have.

It is terrible that this book is out of print.

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Self-effacement as the path to authenticity.

A ZEN WAVE : Basho's Haiku and Zen. Translated by Robert Aitken. 192 pp. New York and Tokyo : Weatherhill, 1978 and Reissued.

All of us, perhaps, need a bit of help when starting to read haiku. As the shortest of all verse forms, with its mere seventeen syllables, it doesn't look like much of a poem at all to the uninitiated, and they may wonder what the fuss is all about.

In 'A Zen Wave,' Robert Aitken, who is a noted American Zenist and competent in Japanese, has had the extremely useful idea of compiling a small anthology of haiku by Basho (1644-1694), and providing each haiku with its own full commentary. After finishing the book, readers will have acquired a background in both haiku and Zen, and will be able to further explore haiku by themselves in an informed way.

In his brief 5-page Introduction Aitken writes:

"... the heart of Basho's haiku is the very foundation of human perception of things - mind itself. Operating superficially, the mind is random in its activity and stale in its insights and images. With practice and experience, however, it is recognized as the empty infinity of the universe and of the self" (pages 18-19).

This statement may gain in meaning if we set it alongside an observation made the great Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), who wrote:

"Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment" (Tr., F. H. Cook, 'Sounds of Valley Streams,' page 66).

The haiku poet is a person who has 'emptied' himself or herself, who has created a space, an "empty infinity" or 'openness,' in which the myriad things can come forward and declare themselves. Haiku capture those moments, and the greatest haiku present us with "the vital experience of the thing itself" (Aitken, page 21). Haiku, therefore, are not so much words about things; they aim rather to present us with a true perception of the thing itself.

'A Zen Wave' presents us with a total of twenty-six of Basho's haiku. For each of them we are given Aitken's translation, the romanized Japanese of the original, and its literal word-by-word translation. Then follow a few words on THE FORM, which in turn are followed by Aitken's very full COMMENTARY. These commentaries are enriched by the inclusion of many other poems, both Japanese and Chinese. The book, which is illustrated with eight photographs, is rounded out with a Glossary of Selected Terms, a table of Japanese Equivalents of Chinese Names, and a short section of Notes giving details of sources.

Here, with my slash marks to indicate line breaks, is how Aitken has handled the first haiku, one of Basho's most famous:

"The old pond; / A frog jumps in - / The sound of the water.

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

Old pond! / frog jumps in / water of sound" (page 25).

Simple though it may seem, we should note that Basho had to work very hard to attain the state of 'openness' that we find in this poem. It was written when he was forty-two years old after many years of effort, and it marks his coming of age as a mature poet. Aitken comments: "Basho presents his own mind as this timeless, endless pond, serene and potent" (page 26).

Ideally haiku should be like a gentle explosion in the mind. Better still, they are the frog which plops into the pond of our mind, and sets up an ever-widening series of ripples, concentric circles which as they spread outwards to embrace more and more, end up by bringing the whole cosmos into view.

What is the "old pond"? Basho's mind and your mind certainly. But what else? Could it be the Unborn Buddha Mind which we all share? And what about the frog? Is it 'just a frog'? Or is it something infinitely precious? As for the "sound" - this too should be allowed to work on one's sensibility, for it will suggest different things to different readers.

There is much excellent commentary in this book, and many other fine haiku. A particular favorite of mine deals with a tiny plant, the nazuna or Sheperd's Purse, which reads:

"When I look carefully - / Nazuna is blooming / Beneath the hedge (page 74).

Five pages of Aitken's interesting comment follow the poem, which include a quotation from the famous Zen scholar, D. T. Suzuki, who wrote of the nazuna, a plant which many would dismiss as 'just a weed' :

"We are blatantly given up to the demonstration of self-conceit, self-delusion, and unashamed arrogance. We do not seem now to cherish any such feelings as inspired Basho to notice the flowering nazuna plant. . . . (page 75).

Aitken feels that "Basho is teaching us religion with his nazuna haiku," and how the denial of the nazuna is, as Suzuki points out, "self-delusion" (page 75), and I quite agree. One of the more important things we have to learn from haiku is the importance of the ordinary - because, in fact, nothing is ordinary, and we should learn to distrust the word 'just.'

For readers of Aitken's book whose appetite has been whetted, there are many other books of haiku. One particular work I can strongly recommend (if you can find it), and which Aitken himself regarded highly, is the 4-volume 'Haiku' by R. H. Blyth, volumes which like Aitken's are also bilingual, rich in commentary, and illustrated. I can't resist ending with one of my favorites by another famous haiku poet, Buson (1715-1783), from Blyth Volume 4 'Autumn - Winter' (page 224):

"The drizzling winter rain / Quietly soaks / The roots of the camphor tree."

Allow these words to quietly penetrate your sensibility, just as the rain quietly soaks the roots of the camphor tree.

Are we wise to dismiss such events as being beneath our notice because merely 'ordinary'? Or should we rather, like the haiku poets, get self out of the way and allow the myriad things to come forward and disclose themselves, and in authenticating themselves authenticate us?

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