After you have listened to the mini-lecture on haiku, choose two haiku that you like from the list of 30. Explain what it means to you, using the same process of interpreting it.You may want to connect with the 7 Principles of Japanese Aesthetics and / or the lecture on Wabi and Sabi. In doing so, it will integrate the lecture with the examples of haiku you read about.
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September 07, 2009
7 Japanese aesthetic principles to change your thinking
Exposing ourselves to traditional Japanese aesthetic ideas — notions that may seem quite
foreign to most of us — is a good exercise in lateral thinking, a term coined by Edward de Bono
in 1967. “Lateral Thinking is for changing concepts and perception,” says de Bono. Beginning to
think about design by exploring the tenets of the Zen aesthetic may not be an example of
Lateral Thinking in the strict sense, but doing so is a good exercise in stretching ourselves and
really beginning to think differently about visuals and design in our everyday professional lives.
The principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of the traditional Japanese garden, for example,
have many lessons for us, though they are unknown to most people. The principles are
interconnected and overlap; it’s not possible to simply put the ideas in separate boxes.
Thankfully, Patrick Lennox Tierney (a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun in 2007) has a few
short essays elaborating on the concepts. Below are just seven design-related principles (there
are more) that govern the aesthetics of the Japanese garden and other art forms in Japan.
Perhaps they will stimulate your creativity or get you thinking in a new way about your own
Seven principles for changing your perception
Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or elimination of clutter. Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural
manner. Reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity, a kind of clarity
that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.
Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity. The idea of controlling
balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic.
The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle,
symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical
balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry.
Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced.
This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.
Shibui/Shibumi (渋味) Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant
to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity,
articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully
minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter
Shizen (自然) Naturalness. Absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced.
Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not
accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create
a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and
Yugen (幽玄) Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example,
can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and
designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is,
showing more by showing less.
Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary.
Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principles describes the feeling of surprise and
a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor
Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, “…made with the raw materials of nature and its
success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises
await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.”
Seijaku (静寂)Tranquility or an energized calm (quite), stillness, solitude. This is related to the
feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by
seijaku would be noise and disturbance. How might we bring a feeling of “active calm” and
stillness to ephemeral designs outside the Zen arts?
Poems by Basho:
Don’t imitate me
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.
can’t quite land
on that blade of grass.
what I thought were faces
are plumes of pampas grass.
the clean lines
of the wild pine.
the moon thinned to a thread,
You could turn this way,
I’m also lonely
this autumn evening.
A field of cotton—
As if the moon
Sick on a journey,
My dreams wander
The withered fields.
Poems by Issa:
The toad! It looks like
it could belch
10. Evening moon—
they visit the graves
and cool off.
11. Not yet become a Buddha,
this ancient pine tree,
22. Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
12. She’s put the child to sleep
and now she washes clothes
under the summer moon.
23. Mosquito at my ear—
does it think
13. Even considered
in the most favorable light,
he looks cold.
24. Deer licking
from each other’s coats.
14. Napping at midday
I hear the song of rice planters
and feel ashamed of myself.
25. Moon, plum blossoms,
And the day goes.
15. The crow
walks along there
as if it were tilling the field.
26. What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.
16. The old dog—
listening for the songs
of the earthworms?
27. Under my house
measuring the joists.
17. The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.
28. In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.
18. Mother I never knew,
every time I see the ocean,
29. All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
19. What good luck!
this year’s mosquitoes too.
30. Having slept, the cat gets up,
yawns, goes out
to make love.
20. New Year’s Day—everything is in
I feel about average.
21. The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
Haiku for an ailing father
A writer’s meditation on a Japanese poet-priest springs from an unexpected,
private source of inspiration.
By Robert Anthony Siegel
July 5, 2009
Sick on a journey-in my dream staggering
over withered fields.
This is the last haiku ever written by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho Matsuo. He dictated it
from his deathbed in a rented room over a florist’s shop in the city of Osaka, in the autumn of
1694, too weak to use the writing brush himself. A few days later he was dead.
I stumbled across the poem for the first time soon after my father died, and it has fascinated me
ever since. Just 17 syllables in the original Japanese, it somehow manages to talk about the
loneliness of individuality, the sorrow of ending, the yearning to travel onward — even if that
journey can only continue in the imagination.
Does it seem as if I’m reading too much into a poem that is, after all, just a sentence long? It
helps to know a bit about Basho himself.
Basho had spent the 10 years before his death as a kind of wandering poet-priest, crisscrossing
Japan on foot at a time when travel was dangerous — the roads little more than mud tracks
through lonely countryside and wild mountains full of brigands. Dressed in the robes of a
Buddhist monk, he had walked hundreds of miles with a pack on his back to visit Buddhist
temples and Shinto shrines, ruined castles, famous battlefields and places of unusual natural
beauty, all of which became the subjects of his poetry. He did this to sharpen his sense of both
the wonder and the brevity of all things, and to remind himself that life itself is nothing but a
journey, a pilgrimage in which everything is always in flux. To experience the world in this way
was a religious act for him, and the poetry he wrote a form of religious devotion.
He barely gave himself time to recover from his longest journey ever — a 500-mile trip through
rugged northern Japan — when he set out for Osaka in 1694. He probably knew it would kill him.
Osaka was just 40 miles from his home outside of Edo, and he was only 50, but he was so
physically broken from his years of wandering that he could walk only a few miles at a stretch
and finally had to be carried. Once in Osaka, he came down with a fever, which he ignored until
it worsened and he couldn’t get up. Shivering in his quilts, he dictated the poem I translated
above: Tabi ni yande yume wa kareno o kakemeguru.
The first time I read the poem, something in me resisted. The word “dream” felt unusually
abstract, especially for Basho, the most physical and specific of poets; it seemed to make the
poem into a rather simplistic metaphor, in which life is a dream and the world a barren field.
Sure, I get it, but so what? Tell me something I don’t already know.
Then something happened, a kind of imaginative grace. I remembered that this was not simply a
poem, a made-up thing, but the actual words of a dying man. I pictured Basho lying in his quilts,
too weak to sit up, gripped by a feverish hallucination in which, from a great height, he watched
his dream-self doing what he could not do: stagger homeward.
Suddenly I had trouble holding back the sorrow he too must have felt, the sorrow he had, in fact,
hidden inside the poem, a relic to outlive him. In the days that followed, I would be in the midst
of my ordinary domestic life — making a peanut butter sandwich for my son Jonah or pushing
my daughter Maia on the swing in the backyard — when out of nowhere I would think of the
poem. Then my face would go numb, my eyes start to ache, and I would feel as if something
were reaching up through my throat, trying to be born.
Of course, I knew this had to do with my father. The onset of his Alzheimer’s had been so
gradual that nobody had noticed a problem — till one day, out of nowhere, he began having
trouble walking. Suddenly, getting to the newsstand on the corner to buy the morning paper
became a major undertaking for him: one slow, wobbly step after another, separated by long
pauses, as if he were trying to remember what came next. We were all baffled and frightened by
the change — he more than anyone — and yet he refused to let anyone go for him. He wanted so
desperately to keep to his usual routine, to keep living, to keep death away.
Lately, when I recall Basho’s poem, I tend not to think about it so much as simply live inside of
it, watching the scene from a great height, as if I were a bird. I see bare trees and empty fields,
without a trace of human presence, except for a single lone figure, staggering over the furrows.
The figure drifts to the right and then the left, falls to its knees, and then gets up again. It is the
wandering poet-priest Basho, so feverish he can barely walk and yet determined to keep going,
to get home, even if that can happen only in the imaginative space of his poem, beyond the
confines of his body and the limits of time.
And then I dip down for a closer look and see that the figure is not Basho but my father, and that
the dream, the wish for the safety of home, is my own.
Siegel is the author, most recently, of the novel “All Will Be Revealed.”
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times
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