Below are some amateur, non-traditional haiku, written by the author of this blog.
Overgrown and old
Still a youthful soul
Many friends have left
Call your mother more
So young, the kitten
A warped mind, twisted
Haiku is a short poem consisting of 3 lines. These lines alternate between 5 syllables, then 7, then 5. Traditional haiku typically contain some kind of seasonal reference or nature imagery. Impermanence and death are also often themes of haiku, so the form is often seen as heavily associated with Zen, although it is not exclusively a Zen literary form.
Below are some amateur, non-traditional haiku, written by the author of this blog.
The mountains have always been my home. When I feel down and lonely, when the depression begins to get the better of me, there the Rockies stand, staring at me, reminding me that they are there, and will be there all my life.
When I drive through the mountains, every view is different. I can take the same drive 100 times, and each time I will discover something new. When I find a spot to my liking, I can sit and meditate on life uninterrupted. If I'm lucky, I will have found a spot without any cell phone service, a luxury that is quickly diminishing as the world grows more interconnected. Disconnecting allows me to stop using my phone as a crutch, or rather a distraction, to thinking. I often find myself using my phone to consume podcasts, articles, Twitter hot-takes, and watch educational YouTube videos, which I then call thinking. This is not thinking. This is just entertainment, distraction, idleness of mind and body.
When I visit the mountains, I almost always visit a trail. On a trail, I an move with purpose. Every step matters, every view is new, and the entire body and mind become involved. Unlike walking on a park sidewalk, where one can use their feet while their upper body remains practically motionless, hiking requires your whole attention, awareness, and bodily involvement. Your eyes must watch where you step, your hands and arms must be ready to catch you, you have to use your body to move over a giant bolder. You also have to follow a regimen to avoid injury; drink water consistently, but not too fast, or you'll get sick; rest when needed, but not for too long, or else you won't make the whole hike; reapply sunblock as needed, lest you get burned.
As you walk on a trail, there is often a peak, a point of interest, or some beautiful site that attracts hikers to the trail. Knowing this peak or end-goal helps satisfy the goal seeking pats of the mind, knowing that at the end of what can feel like a hike of forever, you will see something magnificent. The satisfaction delivered I mount the peak (and avoided injury while doing it) is the moment at which my head is most clear. It is when I feel most that life is worth living, that the beauty of the world, not as it has been developed, but as it is, is perfect. Not perfect as in ideal, but perfect in the Leibnizian sense of the word. It is perfect because it exists. I can sit on a peak for hours, looking at the 360 degree view, finding something to catch my attention. Like staring at a painting in an art museum, I can stare at the same view, blink, and suddenly experience something entirely different and new from what I had just seen. The landscape remains the same, always the same, yet my perception and my experience are constantly changing, filling in gaps and taking note of subtle changes in rock formations. When I am at the peak, I feel small, yet important. No, I myself am not important. I am not some great being or leader or part of a cosmological design of the universe. I am important only in the sense that I am connected. I am connected to the mountain, to the trees, to the snow, to the small ponds and streams, and the roaring rivers. I am connected to the other hikers I've passed along the way, strangers who I will never see again. At this moment is when it is most salient that I am finite and I will die, but that it is okay. It is okay that I will die, just as it is okay that someday, far in the future, this mountain will no longer exist, and even further in the future, this pale blue dot will no longer exist. Everything that we were and are will pass, but I was still able to have this moment.
Yet, while basking in this sense of perfection, of nature, of meaning, of timelessness, and ultimate annihilation, a dark truth crawls behind all of it. When I descend and leave the peak behind, I will go back to a different world, a different mindset. I will go back to a world that feels too small, petty, uncaring, course. A world in which I am not connected, neither to strangers on the street nor the roads or cars or shops. Even as I try to enjoy the moment at the peak of the hike, thinking about the future begins to corrupt the preset moment. Then I remember the Zen Buddhists. Though not a Buddhist myself, they have taught me, both through stories and koan, that the preset is all there is. I will never be enlightened or become a bodhisattva, but I can live in the moment, in the present, in today. If I worry about tomorrow, about the things I cannot control, I will never be present.
As I descend, as sunlight is waning, my head comes down with me. I am withdrawn from the moment, that fleeting, wonderful thing that I felt. As I descend, I gain perspective. My body begins to take on its regular movements, fully embracing the hike, and I am back to the trail. As I become a part of the trial once more, I remember that this is a moment too. Each step is a moment. Each day is a moment. Now is a moment. It is always "the moment."
Alan Watts was a theologian and philosopher, whose work helped introduce Western audiences to popularized notions of Zen and Asian philosophy. He was a giant in the middle 20th century, but his essays and books on Zen are still relevant to the current generation. I just finished reading Alan Watts’ collection of short essays called This is It & Other Essays on Zen & Spiritual Experience. After reading this short pocketbook, I can understand how Watts became the preeminent interpreter of East Asian philosophy to the West.
If I had to parse the essence of the six essays included in the short book to a subtitle, it would say “Essays on Nondualism and the Unity of Experience. The articles are accessible to the novice, although a basic understanding of Zen (though not Buddhism) is required. The essays range widely on topic; the collection starts with a personal exploration of ‘cosmic consciousness,’ turning to the conflict between “Instinct, Intelligence, and Anxiety.” It continues with “Spirituality and Sensuality,” a discussion of the sensual and spiritual as inseparable parts of each other. It ends with a heavy emphasis on Zen. ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen’ highlights the two broad kinds of Zen as embodied in Japanese monasteries vs. the beat poets of the late 50s and 60s, while arguing that they are both equally valid forms of Zen. The book ends with a descriptive essay on Watts’ personal use of LSD to experience certain states of consciousness. He also reflects on the use of LSD in conjunction with meditation, and how non-addictive it is from a physiological sense. He admits that it could be dangerous if someone becomes psychically dependent on it, but finds that there is a value in using the substance.
As a work which focuses almost exclusively on the internal sense of life, Watts provides an unparalleled description of his own mental states, whether in studying Zen, practicing meditation, or taking LSD. It is a kind of writing that could only come from someone who has spent years in reflection, research, and study. What Alan Watts describes reminds me of Sam Harris's reflections on taking MDMA. I would say that Watts' experience goes much further than Harris's, but this is not surprising, as Watts was a theologian, who spent an entire lifetime studying various religions. Harris, while he is an accomplished intellectual and spent his own time meditating with gurus, comes from a different, more materialistic worldview.
An older version of myself would be outraged for feeling this way, but I am very interested in pursuing a similar experience, perhaps helped by LSD or MDMA. I of course would want to attempt such a thing only within a controlled environment, not under party lights and crappy dub-step music at a rave. I would prefer to have the experience in a quiet, natural settings, surrounded by trees and mountains, without human distractions. However, I certainly have not acquired the necessary wisdom to meaningfully interpret such an experience. Interpretation is not the best word, as there is nothing to which the experience would be interpreted. It is not as if I would be translating it from the language of MDMA to the language of normal life. I have tried to start meditating (I say try because it is hard to know whether one is actually meditating or just thinking in silence). Given the masterful way that Watts transmits his experience, I would feel ashamed if I couldn't write with his level of clarity and insight.
One of the more intriguing essays contrasts a straght-laced 'Square' Zen with an American 'Beat' Zen. Writing in the 60s, with the popularity of the Dharma Buns by Jack Kerouac in full swing, Watts explores some differences between a traditional and nontraditional approach to Zen. Watts describes the practices of Zen monasteries in Japan, the approach of the koan, and the relationship between student and master. Watts makes it clear that the master's role is only to show the student the inherent contradiction of trying to experience zazen (Zen). It is a task that requires effortless effort. Yet trying to be effortless is itself an effort, which leads the student in a never-ending circle of frustration. It is like looking for the floaters in one's eye. Should one try to see the floater in the eye, one will never find it. Only by relaxing and simply taking note of what one sees can one see the floater. Should you sense it, the moment you try to look directly at it is the moment you lose sight of it. Moreso, there is nothing that anyone can teach you that will make you see the floater in your eye. It must come from through the person's experience directly, and nowhere else. Similarly, there is nothing that the master can teach the student to help the student experience Zen. Eventually, the student realizes that there is no master of Zen.
From the informal Beat Zen, Watts shows an informal approach taken by many Westerners, including Kerouac and more. Watts explains that an awakening of experience can come just as clearly without a teacher and without a particular tradition. In fact, Watts would prefer that Zen is transmitted to the West in a non-formal setting, leaving behind the traditions of Japan and other cultures, so that it can be integrated in a unique way. There is no reason for traditional Buddhist institutions to permeate outside Asia.
This outlook is agreeable with my own beliefs, as an institutionalized Zen is likely to take the flavor of a Christian Church. A mindlessness toward religion and Zen is the very antithesis of how Zen would be practiced. In my own estimation, Zen appears to have a philosophy behind it which is so easily transferred across cultures that it can be entirely divorced from its history within China and Japan. This is perhaps a good thing, as it can make the study fresh to Westerners. I would be remiss to have not been able to visit several of the more famous Zen temples in Japan, such as Enryaku-ji, during my visit last summer. Seeing the natural beauty of such temples should be on everyone's bucket list.
Although this collection of essays was written nearly 50 years ago, it is timeless in its history and reflection on the inner self. If Zen interests you, even remotely, this is a must-read.
Himeji Castle, Himeji, Japan
Current Reading List
"How lucky I am. If I make a mistake, someone is sure to recognize it."
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