Zen Haiku Poems


From the earliest times, the Japanese had shown a partiality for short, gnomic poems. By the seventeenth century the Japanese Zen Masters had brought this ‘wordless’ poetry to perfection in the haiku, the poem of seventeen syllables which drops the subject almost as it takes it up.

To non-Japanese people haiku are apt to seem no more than beginnings or even titles for poems, and in translation it is impossible to convey the effect of their sound and rhythm. However, translation can usually convey the image—and this is the important point. Of course there are many haiku which seem as stilted as the Japanese paintings on cheap lacquer trays for export.

But the non-Japanese listener must remember that a good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listeners mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory. It invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.

Below we have collected some of our favorite Zen haiku poems:

How admirable,
He who thinks not, “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning!


The long night;
The sound of the water
Says what I think.


The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
Ruffles the water.


In the dark forest
A berry drops:
The sound of the water.


Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite


Winter desolation;
In the rain-water tub,
Sparrows are walking,


The evening haze;
Thinking of past things,
How far-off they are!


Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.


The wind brings
Fallen leaves enough
To make a fire.


A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
In the bed of the stream


A fallen flower
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.


The thief
Left it behind—
The moon at the window.


This dewdrop world—
It may be a dewdrop,
And yet—and yet—


Source: Adapted from “Zen in the Arts,” as found in The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts
Photo credit: Paula Suter

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