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An Introduction to Haikus Sophisticated Imperfection


Alan Watts was an honest advocate for the (anti) philosophy of Zen Buddhism, and haiku.

Alan Watts was one of the great disseminators of Eastern art and thought of the middle of the last century, at least in English. The variety and vigor of his subjects made him a reference for both philosophers and for historians of religion, all while never forgetting the mere curious reader.

A perfect example of this is radio program recorded in Berkeley in 1958 on the theme of haiku, the minimal poems of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Eastern poetry forms were in vogue at the time: Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth became a great compiler of Chinese poetry. And the influence of Buddhism on Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac has long been studied. But the Watts broadcast sought not only the interest of writers but especially that of readers, who learned of the link between haiku and spirituality with the publication of Watts’ essay on the subject in 1960.


The essay exemplifies, rather than comments upon, some haiku from the Zen tradition, as well as their differences with Western poetry. One of the first differences Watts finds is that haiku: “looks almost as if it were a work not of art but of nature.” Some examples cited by Watts exemplify the way the formal restrictions of haiku, the number of syllables and the most frequent themes and animals, are not a restriction but an invitation to merge with the experience portrayed by the poet. It’s not so much a question of small philosophical explanations in which one would looks for hidden symbolism, (Watts actively warns against this), but for small pieces that “which arise from the tension between the rigidity of the form and the depth of the poetic feeling.”
A few examples:

A fallen leaf
Returning to the branch?

Or one by Issa:

A brushwood gate
And for a lock
This snail.


The relationship Watts elaborated between these poems, and Zen Buddhism is difficult to explain. Watts himself states:

Life reveals itself most plainly when you do not clutch at it either with your feelings or with your questing intellect. Touch and go! That is the whole art. That’s why our eyes see best when they brush across things and do not stare in a fixed gaze.

Haiku, like Zen, can be thought of for a moment as an art of disruption. The rational mind places adjectives and judgments. The poet’s hand and the monk’s mind are like an open sky across which clouds pass without leaving a trail. For Watts:

This state of mind is technically called mushin, literally the state of no-mind. This is when we are simply aware of what is without distorting it by the complexities of self-consciousness as when, in efforts to get the very most out of life, we not only feel that we feel but feel that we feel that we feel. The state of mushin is thus an extremely clear kind of unselfconsciousness where the poet is not divided from his subject, the knower from the known.


“Haiku” by Alan Watts is one of those texts (the complete essay can be read here) that can be read both as an informed and specialized introduction. For its simple aesthetic value, and for what it produces in the reader, the experience broadens the very horizons of reading.


*Images: TANAKA Juuyoh

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