The Wisdom of the Zen Haiku Masters


Haiku is a particular type of poem. A traditional Haiku is 3 phrases with 17 syllables; Haiku became popular in Japan, during the seventeenth century, and has recently caught the imagination of the Western World. Haiku gives the poet a unique challenge to express themselves with the minimum of language. There are different aspects of the Haiku which can be particularly instructive.


The Haiku masters delight in the paradox, mixing the mundane with the ethereal; the beautiful with the ugly. In part this reflects the quirky sense of humour the poet’s enjoyed.

“This Rooster
Struts along  as though
he had something to do.”

– Anonymous

But, there is also the deliberate effect of mixing sublime truths in the most ordinary of everyday objects. If a Zen master was to gain enlightenment, it was just as likely to be sweeping the floor as it was meditating in a Himalayan cave. The paradox is a reminder to see the extraordinary in the ordinary – the infinite in a grain of sand.

“Where there are people
there are flies, and also
there are Buddhas”

– Issa

Read Between The Lines.

A Haiku is not a university lecture or list of 10 commandments; it is a riddle to be deciphered by the reader. The poet invites the reader to take the 17 words and create his own imagery and own understanding. The process of seeking beyond the literal words is in itself a spiritual exercise. There is a similarity to the zen koan ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’ A Haiku has the similar effect; we need to work on understanding the meaning and inspiration of the poem. It is a different experience.

A flash of lightning
where there were faces
plumes of pampas grass.

– Basho


A characteristic of the Haiku Master is that they never take themselves too seriously. Life is something to be observed and enjoyed; but, there is nothing we need to take too seriously, even this business of enlightenment.

“From the nostril
of the Great Buddha
comes a swallow”

– Issa

“A thin layer of snow
coats the wings of mandarin ducks –
such stillness!”

– Shiki

The Divine in All.

Zen Haiku masters rarely refer directly to God. In fact the Siddharta the Buddha preferred not to mention the concept of God, because he felt it was impossible to describe the nature of God. But, Zen masters are able to see the divine in all, especially living creatures and the environment. To a Zen Master, sacredness is not something to be confined to the temple; the divine can be seen in all.

“Could they be hymns?
Frogs chanting
in the temple well.”

– Kansetsu


The Haiku poets make us aware of both the Divinity all around and the impermanence of the material world.

“Mosquito larvae,
dancing a Buddhist chant
in the water by the grave.”

– Issa

The above poem captures many of the essential elements of a Haiku poem – paradox, impermance and juxtoposing unexpected associations. We  associate Mosquito larvae with bad things, our instinctive reaction is to want to destroy them. But, look what happens in the second poem, the poet unexpectedly brings in the joyful idea of a ‘dancing a Buddhist chant’. Even the mosquito’s are part of creation; they too have a role to play in life. Here the poet, tries to lift us from the realm of ‘good and bad’ and make us aware of the underlying unity of all living things. The final line continues the theme of paradox. Water signifies life; grave signifies death. In these 12 words we have everything – life and death. But, in the middle we have the beautiful image of  ‘dancing a Buddhist chant’. The poet is saying that in the middle of life and death there is the bliss of creation; we just have to go beyond our concepts of death, good and bad.


Sometimes the poets explicitly share wisdom; wisdom through the use of analogy. Here the concept of non attachment is beautifully explained with the simplest of examples.

“By the power
of complete non attachment
the frog floats”

– Jaso

We could write pages and pages of prose on the issue of non-attachment, but here the poet is able to conjure up an image revealing the simplistic power of non attachment.

Photo by Kedar Misani, Sri Chinmoy Centre Galleries

3 thoughts on “The Wisdom of the Zen Haiku Masters”

  1. Thank you. These ideas are meaningful in many ways. I am writing an extended critical essay about how the short-short essays of a particular Op-Ed author follow several principles of haiku writing. Perhaps by the time I’m finished with the research I’ll be wiser, kinder, happier.

    Eddie Lueken

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