2009-03-26: Haiku

Haiku (1949)

by R. H. Blyth (1898-1964)

I’ve looked for this set of books since reading Smullyan’s The Tao Is Silent at least twenty years ago. Recently, I requested Volume 1 from the Marina inter-library system, but received a phone call from a librarian who said that a mistake had been made, and it wasn’t available. She then proceeded to track down three of the four volumes and sent them instead!

Blyth published these volumes in post-WWII Japan. I found the preface to the first volume interesting:

The history of makind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature.

There seems to me no necessity, however, to make a Spenglerian attempt to show from historical exmples how there has been a movement toward ideas, ideals, abstractions; and a corresponding revulsion from them. In our own individual lives, and in the larger movements of the human spirit these two contradictory tendencies are more or less visible always, everywhere. There is a quite noticeable flow towards religion in the early world, and in the early life of almost every person, – and a later ebb from it, using the word “religion” here in the sense of a means of escape from this life.

The Japanese, by an accident of geography, and because of something in their national character, took part in the developments of this “return to nature,” which in the Far East began (to give them a local habitation and a name) with Eno, the 6th Chinese Patriarch of Zen, 637-713 A.D. The Chinese, again because of their geography perhaps, have always had a strong tendency in poetry and philosophy towards the vast and vague, the general and sententious. It was left, therefore, to the Japanese to undertake this “return to things” in haiku, but it must be clearly understood that what we return to is never the same as what we once left, for we ourselves have changed in the meantime. So we go back to the old savage animis, and superstition, and common life of man and spirits and trees and stones, – and yet there is a difference. Things have taken on smething of the tenuous nature of the abstrctions they turned into. Again, spring and autumn, for example, non-existent, arbitrary distinctions, have attained a body and palpability they never before had. We also, we are the things, – and yet we are ourselves, in a perpetual limbo of heaven and hell.

It was necessary for us to prostrate ourselves before the Buddha, to spend nine years wall-gazing, to be born in the Western Paradise. But now, no more. Now we have to come back from Nirvana to this world, the only one. We have to live, not with Christ in glory, but with Jesus and his mother and father and brothers and sisters. We return to the friends of our childhood, the rain on the window-pane; the long silent roads of night; the waves of the shore that never cease to fall; the moon, so near and yet so far; all the sensations of texture, timbre, weight and shape, those precious treasures and inexhaustible riches of everyday life.

Haiku may well seem at first sight a poor substitute for the glowing visions of Heaven and Paradise seen of pale-lipped ascetics. As Arnold says:

Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn’st all simpler fare!

In the chapter Spiritual Origins (of Haiku) speaking of the relation of Haiku to Zen, Blyth says:

The Mahayana doctrine of the identity of difference, or indifference of opposites, is one that sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does. This distinction explains how deeply connected Buddhist experience and Oriental poetry are, and why Christianity has been inimical or indifferent to such poets (as poets) as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Chaucer, Blake, Shelley. Paradox is the soul of religion, as it is of poetry, but where it is not recognized, or where it is anathematized, religion and poetry dwindle into dogma and sentimentality respectively.

I can’t possibly finish these volumes of Haiku before I must return them, but I was happy to meet Blyth.


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