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Nonduality Salon (/ \)

Nonduality for the People


by David Hodges

"The inner cannot be held in words."

  On a bare branch
A crow settles
      Autumn dusk

- Basho

* * *

Classical Haiku consist of 17 syllables, typically arranged in three lines, usually of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.

These lines usually consist of, a sentence fragment and a sentence phrase (or two), linked by a caesura, a
moment for the reader to pause for a beat before going on. The caesura is usually, though not always, indicated by a line break. The fragment is usually either the first or third line, so the caesura is usually after the first line or second.

Here is a modern Haiku of 17 syllables:

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
      Nor wind to blow

Some of you might recognize this haiku. It is the refrain of the Grateful Dead song, "Ripple", by Robert Hunter. The syllables per line count is 6/7/4.

In Hunter's haiku, the fragment is the first line, the pause is at the end of the first line, and the phrase is lines two and three.

This poem achieves its effect by presenting an image that is fairly commonplace and easy to imagine: "Ripple in still water". We, the readers, easily create in our minds a visual analogue, a hazy image of a pond or lake with a ripple, either circular or longitudinal.

But then the poet opens a gap for the reader: "When there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow". This sets up the question, "then where did the ripple come from?

As our minds seek to close that gap, on the felt level there might then come that mysterious, unspeakable feeling that is beyond words.

* * *

Many modern Western practioners of haiku have abandoned the three line, 17 syllable form in favor of one of 17 or fewer syllables, sometimes all on one line. The caesura is usually indicated typographically, as in these haiku by American poets:

the sun lights up a distant ridge       another

John Wills

after the garden party       the garden

Ruth Yarrow

The effect of any good Haiku is to create what is called the "Haiku moment". This moment happens due to the juxtapostion of the sentence fragment and phrase, with the brief pause.

It is as if the reader takes in the first image, pauses to take a mental breath, and then releases the mental breath while taking in the second image. But the pause continues until the reader puts together the two parts of the Haiku, reconciles them, as it were, with a very satisfying click of apprehension and understanding.

This is what creates the Haiku moment, this process of reading, pausing, breathing, reading, understanding.

* * *

A soft-footed one
Wades through the spring water,
      Clouding it.


* * *

The moment doesn't come out of what the poet said, it comes out of what the poet didn't say.

* * *

A banked fire;
At last things in the saucepan
      Begin to boil.


* * *

The Presence of the Poet: Although Haiku are often written impersonally, the presence of the poet is implied in every haiku. It is the poet's consciousness that is registering the scene and creating the question, riddle, contradiction, or whatever it is that is the heart of the haiku.

For example, in the haiku above, "after the garden party the garden", do we not, as readers, mentally create someone, a character, standing in for the observing consciousness, some person whose garden it is, and who is looking at the garden after the garden party, perhaps with dismay at trampled flower beds, perhaps with longing, remembering a romantic encounter, perhaps with loneliness, missing everyone who was there.

* * *

Some haikus don't seem as effective until we remember the observing consciousness:

An autumn eve;
Along this road
      Goes no one.


If we, as readers, put ourselves inside the observing consciousness that created this poem, we immediately realize that what is said is not exactly true, that there is indeed one person on this road, Basho the Master Poet. And that the poem conveys his loneliness that no one else goes along the road. A great effect of loneliness is conveyed by remembering the poet.

* * *

Here's another poem that is effective on its own:

Outliving them,
Outliving them all,-
      Ah, the cold!


...but when you learn that Issa's wife had just died, preceded by all four of his children, the poem gains tremendous pathos.

* * *

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said:"...the inner cannot be held in words.(see Note 1) And Wittgenstein: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical".(Note 2)

Haiku is an art form which, by means of words describing the outer, gives expression to the inner.

Remembering that "the inner cannot be held in words", we approach the paradox that a verbal art form can, nevertheless, express the inner.

* * *

Haiku are little working models of the unseen. They are nano-poems whose subject is the unsayble. They generate empty space.

* * *

I believe that Haiku is an artform that very plainly aims to express that which cannot be put into words. It is a way of using words to make manifest that which cannot be put into words.

* * *

R. H. Blyth, the great Western translator and commentator on Haiku, gives the following list, which are 'characteristics of the state of mind which the creation and appreciation of haiku demand':

      1. Selflessness.
      2. Loneliness.
      3. Grateful acceptance.
      4. Wordlessness.
      5. Non-intellectuality.
      6. Contradictoriness.
      7. Humour.
      8. Freedom.
      9. Non-morality.
      10. Simplicity.
      11. Materiality.
      12. Love.
      13. Courage.

(from A History of Haiku, vol. I, section 2. )

* * *

Still lonelier
than last year;
      autumn evening.


* * *

Haiku poems are often beautiful, but any poet who sets out to write a beautiful poem is doomed to failure. Beauty is only a by-product of writing poetry.

If a poem is beautiful, it is because of what it doesn't
say as much as what it does say.

We have all read unsatisfying poems by amateur poets in which the poet "put the beauty in", with rapturous descriptions and beautiful subjects. And yet, being told that something is beautiful doesn't work nearly as well for the reader as experiencing it for one's self.

* * *

The same is true of "religious" or "spiritual" poetry. A poet who sets out to write a "spiritual" poem will undoubtedly try to throw in some spiritual experiences, feelings, or images. These almost never work on a poetic level. It is very difficult to write a truly spritual poem, and most of us should not even try (unless we are Rumi or Kabir)! For an example, here is a haiku that attempts to convey a spiritual experience:

A sudden summer shower on the way washed my
and nine gallons of earthly passions
      Fell away from me.


It is difficult to tell if the wordiness is a result of translation from Japanese to English, but the poem is not credible. We simply don't believe the poet. He is in his mind, he is conveying an idea about something that happened inwardly that he would like us to believe.

* * *

Earlier I discussed the caesura, which is a key part of the technique of a haiku. This pause creates a gap through which the reader can participate in the imagined space of the poem.

* * *

The beautiful girl
      The rice dumpling

* * *

Gaps as a basis for aesthetic enjoyment leads to a discussion of emptiness and space.

Western poetry has known about this at least since Keats discussed "negative capability", something which Haiku poets had been masters of for centuries.

* * *

Keats defines "negative capability" as "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

In other words, negative capability is the ability to stand in that gap without needing immeditate resolution.

* * *

When a writer or a speaker makes a point, they are not standing in the gap. They are creating a place to stand where they won't fall in. A "point" (like that made by the tip of a pencil on a piece of paper) is simultaneously a "1" and a "0", since the shape of the point is a zero, but by its presence on the paper it indicates a 1. Making points is a way to avoid empty space.

It is only by exerting negative capability that an artist can avoid making points, i.e., speaking about that which is is speakable and known, and can instead create a place where that which is unspeakable makes itself manifest. (see Note 3)

* * *

The most famous haiku in the world is said to contain that emptiness. It is by Basho. I think the translation is R.H.Blyth's though I am writing it here from memory:

The old pond, ah!
The frog jumps -
      Sound of the water.

This haiku has three images, in two phrases and a fragment. The pause is after the second line. The progression of images is:
static visual image
active visual image [pause]
auditory image

One of the reasons why this haiku is so effective is the switch, after the caesura, from visual to auditory images. (it is a cliche, but a true one, of all poetry instruction that good poetry appeals to all the senses).

Another reason why this haiku is so great is that it conveys that sense of the unspeakable, the inner, the untraceable source that cannot be held in words, yet we cannot point to individual items in the poem and say, "There it is!" I have read "explanations" of this haiku that say the old pond is "eternity", and so on. This ascribes to the poem a symbolism it doesn't need.

Consider again Robert Hunter's "Ripple", which I discussed above. It seems to extend and comment on Basho's haiku:

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
      Nor wind to blow

* * *

Closely allied to the idea of emptiness, and of the poet's consciousness, is that of space. In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, consciousness is space on the inner level, and space is consciousness on the outer level.

"The external sky of the space element and internal sky of the mind are linked through openness." (Thinley Norbu, Magic Dance).

We can say, space is filled with consciousness, or we can say, consciousness contains all of space, or even, space is conscious. And anything that makes us more conscious, generates for us more space.

* * *

Look how this haiku generates a galaxy's-worth of space:

  A straw mat;
The Milky Way aslant
      In my saucepan

* * *

Issa wrote another haiku that is curiously similar:

The distant mountains
Are reflected in the pupils
      of the dragonfly.


* * *

These two haiku generate space by means of spacial images. Here is a haiku that generates space through simple Being:

Just being here,
I am here,
      And the snow falls.


(Notice the "I am". Who is it that says, "I am"?)

* * *

Space can also be generated by invoking the emotions. This haiku takes some time to sink in:

Cry not insects!
Lovers, even the Stars,
      Must part.


This haiku evokes loneliness and heartbreak but in a particularly free and limitless way. The poet addresses
the insects whose incessant chirping has caught his attention, and their sounds are like the sounds of his own grief at what might have been his own recent parting from a Lover. But then to throw in the Stars as well...from the parting of Lovers to the parting of Stars, against the crying of insects, opens up a huge gap for the reader to experience.

* * *

Issa wrote this one near the end of his life:

Getting nearer
and nearer Paradise,
      And oh the Cold!.


R.H. Blyth's comment on this Haiku was "Issa knew better than anyone else that blessedness and happiness are seldom found together."

The best of these Haiku don't comfort us with piety, nor do they promise the happiness of domestic life. Instead they speak of the blessedness of wandering, of emptiness, of space opening all around.

* * *

Eating a meal
in loneliness,
      The autumn wind blowing.


Haiku resources

There are many web sites devoted to Haiku. You can find a list of them on Google's directory of
Haiku and related forms.

One of my favorite sites for articles about haiku and many many high quality examples is maintained by
Jane Reichhold

A fine anthology of modern Haiku is The Haiku Anthology, edited by cor van den Heuvel.

A good anthology of classical Haiku, whose presentation is unfortunately a little on the "pretty" side, is Robert Hass's The Essential Haiku.

R. H. Blyth is the great modern translator, explicator, and popularizer of classic Japanese Haiku. Unfortunately there are hardly any of his books available at has some available thru their booksearch.

Another site with Blyth quotes is

The book of Blyth's that I would recommend most highly is this:
Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. This book seems to be out of print, which is too bad, because it deserves to stay perennial available. It combines Zen, Haiku, English poetry from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and so on, with discussions of subjects like "Idiots and Old Men," "Poverty", "Non-attachment", and so on. I first read this book in high school, and it was my first introduction to Zen and to Asian philosophies in general. You might be able to find it in a used bookstore, or through an online booksearch service, such as at


(1)Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great modern teacher of NonDuality, was speaking to a visitor about Yoga. He said, "remember that Yoga is the work of the inner self on the outer self. What the outer does is merely in repsponse to the inner."

His questioner asked how to distinguish between the inner and the outer, and Sri Nisargadatta replied, "The inner is the source of inspiration, the outer is moved by memory. The source is untraceable, while all memory begins somewhere. Thus the outer is always determined, while the inner cannot be held in words. The mistake of students consists in their imagining that the inner is something to get hold of..." (I am That, p. 75)

(2) Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

(3)Afterword: These notes are the off-shoot of an ongoing investigation in the aesthetics of NonDuality. NonDualists hold that all Dualities are enclosed in a NonDual totality that can be called That, that God is not "out there" but is what we are, that Conscious Awareness is All that Is, that the separate self is an illusion. What then is NonDual art? I think it is Art that models the inner Reality in a way that holds in one embrace both the Inner and the Outer as one. This doesn't have to be complicated, as these haiku show. NonDual art gives the reader or viewer a virtual experience of limitless, open Awareness without piety, religiousity, or prettiness. No points need to be made, no ideas need to be defended. It is what it is.

Note on translations:
All translations of Japanese Haiku are by R.H. Blyth's from his wonderful two volume History of Haiku.

David Hodges frequently contributes his nondual knowings and humor to Nonduality Salon and HarshaSatsangh. His Living Journal is a book in progress. David's webpage on this site is called Heart Relationships Everywhere.