Analysing the aspect of changing nature in traditional and modern Haiku

Have you ever asked yourself why lilac blossoms can only be seen for a short time of the year, namely only during one month in spring? Or why cockchafers only occur during a few weeks in May, but for the rest of the year they seem to be vanished completely? Well, everything is changing in this world; nature keeps spinning the never-ending wheel of blossom and fruit, of summer and winter, of life and death. As long as we are alive, we have to recognise how transient everything around us is and, more importantly, how transient we are ourselves.

Maybe it is this transience of nature and all things surrounding us, which let us enjoy awakening blossoms in spring, warm wind in summer, colourful leaves in autumn and icicles in winter each time again. And maybe it is this transience of nature which the early haiku poets had recognised and which let them want to capture a moment of greatest pleasure or, on the contrary, a moment of melancholy in a short pure poem that expresses feelings more precisely than pages of written words.

Haiku is comparable to a photograph, accordingly it shows us the wonder of a moment. It makes a snapshot of a scenery with a natural theme, expressing the poet’s point of attraction in an instant situation. Here is an example by Basho, a master of haiku tradition, for the fleeting of seasons:

From all these trees

In the salads, the soup, everywhere,

Cherry blossoms fall

Just like an instant camera the poet takes up an image of falling cherry blossoms and creates a moment of transience. Although haiku in general is only a three-line poem and its words can be easily understood, it often contains a stronger, deep spiritual meaning that has to be searched for. Spite the spareness of articulated words the sensitive reader is yet aware of something hiding behind them. He notices the included suggestions and implications. In this case, the falling petals signalise the change of seasons and hence remind us of the unsteadiness of the moment. The transience of things is represented by the image of swirling petals, which is a classical Buddhist reflection on life and nature.

In contrast to the traditional haiku which has its roots in the spiritual world of Zen Buddhism, the contemporary haiku is not exclusively written by professionals or Buddhists. Anyone can easily learn to use this form for sharing subtle feelings or deep emotions. Consequently, the modern haiku does not necessarily combine with religious thoughts and enlightenment. Even the theme of nature is not taken up by every modern haiku. Yet there is a tendency to walk on the traditional paths of haiku-poetry, as this example shows:

A lustful orchid

Hungry bee, slowly circling-

Combined in nature

Again a natural scene, which attracts the writer, is described. The reader is taken into the momentary action due to the simple and clear image. Even though the author is presumably not familiar with Zen Buddhism, the thought of changing nature can be found here likewise, still it is hidden between the lines. An orchid does not bloom ceaselessly, thus the ability of attracting a bee is limited to a certain time of year and, of course, a certain time of day. The wonder of a moment shines through these seventeen syllables, and even if it seems to last forever, it can be gone in a wink of an eye.

To sum it up, the aspect of changing nature can be found in both, traditional and modern haiku, despite the fact that modern haiku writers do not necessarily know everything about Zen Buddhism. A spiritual thought as the transience of nature can be expressed also by Europeans or Americans or any other person in this world in form of a haiku. Nevertheless, anyone engaged in writing haikai should as a rule learn about Japanese culture, too. Only if we know about the background and the basic ideas of haiku, we will be able to understand what this traditional Japanese poetic form is about: a reflection on life and nature.

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