Zen Art: The Art of Haiku

The Japanese Zen art is famous all around the world and incorporates various art forms like calligraphy, painting, flower arranging, martial arts, etc. The tea ceremony also qualifies to be a part of this particular art.

The Zen art involves haiku, which is a minimalist poem of about three lines and has been popular in the Western region for many centuries. The majority of the traditional principles of this particular poem are still not understood by the people of the West.

History of Haiku and Zen Art

Haiku has evolved from a very famous poetic form which is famous by the name of Renga. The Renga is considered to be a kind of collaborative poem which originated in some part of China, somewhere around the first millennium.

History of Haiku and Zen Art
History of Haiku and Zen Art

The oldest example of this particular poem dates back to the 8th century in the country of Japan. By the coming of the 13th century, this poem developed into a particularly unique style of writing in Japanese culture.

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Renga was written by a group of poets who were very famous and used to write under the direction of a Renga master. Each of the poets individually contributed a verse.

Each verse begins with the three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. They were then followed by two lines of seven syllables each. The first verse was famous by the name of Hukku.

Matsuo Basho, who was born in the year 1644 and died in the year 1694 is believed to be the one who made the first three lines of Renka and converted it into standalone poems that are now known as Haiku.

In some of the earlier versions of his life, this particular writer has been described as the Zen Monk but he was more likely to be considered as a person who used to practice Zen art. His best known Haiku has been translated into two different languages by a lot of people.

Old pond

A frog jumps in—


Haiku in the West

Haiku has a lot of significance in the Western region. This particular term has originated from the west somewhere around the 19th century. Few people noticed the anthologies which were published in the English and French language.

Haiku in the West
Haiku in the West

A few people who were well-known poets like Ezra Pound have tried their luck at Haiku but have got undistinguished results. The English language Haiku became very popular in the Western region during the period of heat season, somewhere around the earlier 1950s.

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Many people wanted to become Haiku poets and also the English language teachers but they seized upon the structural form which was very common and was considered to be the defining trait of haiku which was three lines with five, seven, and five syllables introspective lines.

As a result of the same, a lot of bad Haiku poems were written in the English language.

Haiku in the English Language

The Haiku poems are famous all around the world because they are mostly written in the common language English which is used in majority parts of the world. The Japanese Zen art has a very strong aesthetic about doing a task at just the right moment and amount.

Haiku in English Language
Haiku in English Language

They like to keep track of how many flowers should be present in an arrangement and also how much food can a person eat along with how many words are used in the different poems of Haiku written by others.

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A person might notice a lot of examples of haiku which do not follow the rule of 5-7 and 5 syllable rule. This particular pattern of the syllables is believed to work better in the Japanese tradition.

In the English language, it is believed that it is better to use no more words than are needed for expressing something. If a person can find himself or herself adding an adjective at a place where it is not required, then they should make the syllable count work which is very important for writing a good haiku.

At the same time, the person should also keep in his or her mind that if they are struggling to stay within the writing limits and also are maintaining the five seven five syllables rule, then they can try to pack too many words into one particular haiku. All people should try to focus on a particular task.

What Makes Haiku a Zen Art?

Haiku is believed to be an expression of direct experience which a person has had in his or her life. It is not considered to be an expression or an idea about that particular experience.

What Makes Haiku a Zen Art
What Makes Haiku a Zen Art?

The most common mistake which was made by the Western Haiku writers was that they used the form for expressing different ideas about the experience and not the experience itself.

The most common example to understand the above lines is given below:

A rose represents

A mother’s kiss, a spring day

A lover’s longing.

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The above-mentioned example is a bad Haiku because all that is conceptual. It does not give us the experience. In contrast to the above lines the below lines are given:

Wilted rose bouquet

Left in new grass

By the gravestone.

The second Haiku is not very great but it brings you into the exact moment at which the experience was gained. The poet has also been with the exact subject. The great writer Basho has said that:

“When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”

Haiku is more about nature and the poem. The poem which is being described should at least provide a hint about which season is going in the year and is often described by using just one word which is called a Kigo. Another Haiku explaining the same is given below:

A cormorant dip

Into the pond; the floating

Yellow leaves bobble.

The word yellow leaves in the above line reveals that the poem is describing the fall haiku.

An important invention regarding the Haiku is the concept of cutting word. In the Japanese tradition, the cutting word plays the role of dividing the poem into exactly two parts. It also sets up juxtaposition.

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Understanding it in another way the cutting word distributes the thoughts which are present in the Haiku poem which is believed to be a technique for giving the poem the required crisp.

Another example which is given by the famous writer Kobayashi Issa is given below, who correctly wrote a wonderful Haiku:

From the nostril

of the Great Buddha

comes a swallow

Reflection of Zen Art on Buddhism

The reflection on Buddhism contains 12 verses which brilliantly describe the Zen Art and its effects in the Japanese traditions. These are mentioned below:

Reflection on Buddhism
Reflection of Zen Art on Buddhism

1. The Crow has Flown Away

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), a Japanese novelist and haiku poet, best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, and I Am a Cat.

“The crow has flown away:

Swaying in the evening sun,

A leafless tree”

This simple and elegant haiku by one of Japan’s most famous authors reflects the changing of the seasons, a common theme among Buddhist teachings.

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2. I bite a persimmon

Shiki (1867-1902), a Japanese poet and author in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) is regarded as a major figure in the development of modern haiku poetry.

“I bite a persimmon

The bells toll

Horyu-Ji Temple”

This haiku was written on his way to Tokyo after stopping by Nara. It is his best-known haiku and gives the impression of a calm and peaceful scene in late autumn where Shiki is having a rest in the garden at Horyu-Ji Temple.

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3. In Nooks and Corners

Buson (1716-1784), a Japanese poet and painter are considered among the greatest poets of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

“In every nook and corner

The cold remains Plum blossoms”

This haiku reflects a period of change, the cold of winter is waning, when the plum blossoms begin to bloom. Even though spring is soon upon us, the cold of winter still lingers in all the little shady spots and corners and hollows.

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4. Even though I’m in Kyoto

Another famous haiku from Issa,

“Even in Kyoto,

Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,

I long for Kyoto”

This haiku has a contemporary feel to it, yet describes a very essential truism about the nature of life. It is about memory and the nostalgia of a familiar place that we feel an attachment to. The feeling of attachment can cause suffering and pain when we are away from the place we love or if that place has changed too much.

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5. A World of Dew

Issa (1763-1828), a Japanese poet and Buddhist priest are regarded as one of “The Great Four” haiku masters in Japan.

“A world of dew,

And within every dewdrop

A world of struggle”

This haiku reflects Issa’s struggle with pain, he wrote it after the loss of his first-born child soon after birth, as well as the death of his daughter less than two and a half years later.

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6. Along This Road

Another famous haiku from Basho,

“Along this road

Goes no one,

This autumn eve”

This haiku reflects many key Buddhist elements with one of the most prominent being the feeling of loneliness. We are all alone on this path through life which eventually leads to death (autumn eve).

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7. What is it but a dream?

This famous haiku by Hakuen reflects the cherry blossoms in spring and his life.

“What is it but a dream?

The blooming as well

Lasts only seven cycles”

This haiku refers to the seven-day life of the cherry blossom (seven cycles), which also reflects the seven decades of his life, as he died in 1806 at the age of sixty-six.

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8. The snow of yesterday

A tradition among Zen art monks was to write a last haiku when they were about to pass out of this life to the next. This haiku by Gozan was written by him at the age of 71 in 1789.

“The snow of yesterday

That fell like cherry blossoms

Is water once again”

It shows the circle of life a popular belief in Zen Buddhism. It also has the metaphorical meaning of transience as well with the cherry blossoms lasting a week, and snow melting almost immediately upon touching the ground.

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9. I Write, Erase, Rewrite

Hokushi was another famous Edo Period (1603-1868) Japanese haiku poet.

“I write, erase, rewrite,

Erase again, and then

A poppy blooms”

This haiku shows that we are all human and make mistakes. We must accept our common humanity – one of the steps on the road to transcendence. It also reflects spring and the fragility of the world that we live in.

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10. On a Leafless Branch

Another famous Basho haiku,

“On a leafless branch

A crow comes to rest –

Autumn nightfall”

Traditional haiku were written about nature. This one expresses the thought that if we are busy worrying about problems or thinking about tomorrow, we might not take the time to even notice the things that are happening now.

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11. The first cold shower

Another famous Zen art haiku from Basho,

“The first cold shower

Even the monkey seems to want

A little coat of straw”

This haiku is one of personal experience reflecting the seasons. The first cold shower of winter is always the hardest even for the animals that we share the world with.

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12. Old pond

The best-known haiku in Japan is Basho’s “old pond”,

“Old pond

A frog jumps in –

The sound of water”

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a Japanese poet from the Edo Period perfectly reflects the spirituality of Zen Buddhism with his haiku. The stillness of the pond represents a state of silence and oneness with nature, the breaking of the silence with the frog jumping in and the sound of water represents a happening, a moment of enlightenment.

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Reasons to Incorporate Zen Art in Your Life

There are 9 reasons why one should learn Zen art and apply the concepts of the same in his or her actual life. After doing so, they will experience a drastic change and will feel filled with positivity and optimism.

Reasons to Incorporate Zen Art in Your Life
Reasons to Incorporate Zen Art in Your Life

The 9 reasons to Imbibe Zen Art are given below in a tabular form:

S No.Reasons to Imbibe Zen Art
1 Universal Applicability
2 Using Nature’s Depth
3 Embracing Chaos
4 Spontaneity
5 Creative Variety
6 Innovation
7 Simplicity
8 Beauty≠Time Consuming Art
9 Inter subjectivity, a.k.a. Samsara
9 Reasons to Imbibe Zen Art


The Haiku Zen art is a traditional art form of the Japanese culture which has been used by the local people since the 19th century. This art culture has been the one which uses various type of combination of calligraphy, Mandala art, flowers and petals, and other human sketches.

The concepts and learning of Zen art are applied and imbibed by the people in their actual lives. This is the perfect way of writing a good Haiku. Now that you have mastered it, you can think of giving it a try.

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Why is Haiku famous in the Japanese tradition?

The Haiku is famous in the Japanese tradition for its picturesque Zen art techniques like the Mandala art, calligraphy, and the flower petals paintings.

What is the Zen Art short form for?

The Zen art is believed to be the short form of the various Buddhist concepts and traditions and is believed to have been originated from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautam.