Friday, March 11, 2016

Carpe Diem #935 Cicada

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

My excuses for being late with this episode, but ... well as you could have read in the CD-Extra of yesterday, I am in the nightshift and that makes my day a little bit different.

This month we are exploring the haiku writing techniques which were used by Matsuo Basho, so this month it's all about trying to write our haiku in the way of Basho. Today's episode is about "riddle" and it was one of the episodes of our last series of Carpe Diem Haiku Writing Techniques.

As a young haiku poet (maybe he was 20 something) Basho wrote haiku and one of the first poems he wrote and which have been saved was the following haiku in which he used this "riddle" technique:

has spring come
or the year gone away?
second last day

© Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold)

first sign of spring, Magnolia blossom

The riddle is one of the oldest poetical techniques as well as a device to preserve and transmit spiritual knowledge. Zen Buddhists retain this lineage with the koan. It takes some explaining of culture and time-keeping to figure out the riddle in Basho's poem, but that I will give you later in this episode.

First I love to "dive" in the matter of the koan, the impossible question that brings you enlightenment.

This is the popular western understanding that sees kōan as referring to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and not a riddle or a puzzle. Teachers do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Koans are also understood as pointers to an unmediated "Pure Consciousness", devoid of cognitive activity.
Koan after koan explores the theme of nonduality. Hakuin's well-known koan, "Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?" is clearly about two and one. The koan asks, you know what duality is, now what is nonduality? In "What is your original face before your mother and father were born?" the phrase "father and mother" alludes to duality. This is obvious to someone versed in the Chinese tradition, where so much philosophical thought is presented in the imagery of paired opposites. The phrase "your original face" alludes to the original nonduality.
Comparable statements are: "Look at the flower and the flower also looks"; "Guest and host interchange".
Analyzing the koan for its literal meaning won't lead to insight, though understanding the context from which koans emerged can make them more intelligible. For example, when a monk asked Zhaozhou (Joshu) "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?", the monk was referring to the understanding of the teachings on Buddha-nature, which were understood in the Chinese context of absolute and relative reality.
The aim of the break-through koan is to see the "nonduality of subject and object":
The monk himself in his seeking is the koan. Realization of this is the insight; the response to the koan [...] Subject and object - this is two hands clapping. When the monk realizes that the koan is not merely an object of consciousness but is also he himself as the activity of seeking an answer to the koan, then subject and object are no longer separate and distinct [...] This is one hand clapping.
Now we know a little bit more about koan and maybe that's what makes haiku a pleasant poem to create, because many of our haiku and the haiku of our classical predecessors like Basho, we can see as such a koan.

Zen-Koan Meditation

Okay back to our haiku for today to explore the haiku writing technique used by Basho further.

from a treetop
emptiness dropped down
in a cicada shell

© Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold)

I think you can remember this haiku very well, because we have had this one not so long ago here at Carpe Diem (May 8th, 2015). You can find that post HERE.

The trick in using this technique is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. What can one say so that the reader cannot easily figure out the answer? The more intriguing the setup, and the closer the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work. The old masters' favorite tricks with riddles ran along these lines: "Is that a flower falling or a butterfly?" or "Is that snow on the plum branch or the blossoms?" and the all-time favorite: "Am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man or a man dreaming I am a butterfly?"
Sometimes the riddle is not actually set up as a question but makes a statement of improbability. At times the author supplies the answer of how this other reality can be; at other times the reader is left to find the solution.

If you are going to try this haiku writing technique, you can ask yourself the question: if I saw snow on a branch, what else could it be? Or seeing a butterfly going by you ask yourself what else besides a butterfly could that be?
It's a wonderful haiku writing technique I think, but I also think that it isn't easy to work with this technique. So ... good luck!
Here is my attempt to write a haiku in which this haiku writing technique "riddle" is used:
I have given it several tries, but I couldn't really come up with a haiku in which this technique is used, maybe it's because of the time of day (I am in the nightshift), maybe I am not that good in writing haiku with this technique. So I have ran through my archive and found the following haiku, which I used in our 2nd series of CD-HWT: 
blossoms fall
entering the realm of the clouds
muddy puddles
© Chèvrefeuille

This episode is NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until March 14th at noon (CET). I will try to publish our next episode, forest, later on. For now ... have fun!


  1. Really enjoyed this one Kristjaan, the explanation of Zen Koan techniques in connection with this technique was excellent.

  2. Yes, spent a long time reading this and getting to grips with it. Tried to produce stuff that fits.

  3. Well, having lived with a person that worked days on the weekends and nightshift the remainder of the week, I am amazed you even can write at all. Really messes with one's energy and mind function at times. A challenging technique for us today!

  4. I have written this koan riddle , but you make it clearer , Kristjaan !