Haiga and Haiku

The images and text are from Haiku, Volume 1, Eastern Culture by R. H. Blyth, published by Hokuseido in Japan. No year of copyright.

The text that follows is from the book. It is slightly edited and truncated.

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The cover of the book:


“Haiga are small sketches, either in indian-ink, black-and-white or in simple colours, that endeavour to express in pictures what haiku do in words. . . .

The qualities of haiga are rather vague and negative. The lines and masses are reduced to a minimum. The subjects are usually small things, or large things seen in a small way. The simplicity of the mind of the artist is perceived in the simplicity of the object. Technical skill is rather avoided, and the picture gives an impression of a certain awkwardness of treatment that reveals in hiding the inner meaning of the thing painted.”

“The aim of haiku, according to Buson, is to express in ordinary language the inner poetical philosophy of all sublunary things. That is to say, the most delicate feelings and profound meanings of things are to be portrayed as though they were everyday occurrences. Exactly the same is to be said of haiga. Moments of deep significance in our perceptions of the outer world are shown in crudeness, brevity, humour, with a certain inartistic art, an accidental purposefulness.”

“The haiga may be an illustration of the haiku, and say the same thing in line and form; or it may have a more independent existence, and yet an even deeper connection with the poem.”

“The illustrations of this book have been chosen to form, when chronologically surveyed, a pictorial parallel to the chart on page 3” (shown below):


“In other words, we may trace in them the development from the philosophico-mystical Indian and Chinese origins of Japanese culture to the simplicity and nonchalance, the apparent crudeness and matter-of-factness of haiku.”

“The picture of Dainichi (Vairocana) in a Wheel of Sovereignty . . .


“is of the Kamakura Era, but it represents the Indian Buddhism which China, and finally Japan, brought down into daily life. Dainichi dwells in the Heaven beyond from, and is the essence of wisdom and of absolute purity. Compare this with the screen of Kusumi Morikage, a contemporary of Basho” . . .


“We see a family of three cooling themselves in the evening under an arbour of evening-glories. There seems to be little connection between the picture of Dainichi aloof and glorious, and the poor family, but it has been the work of the Japanese to bring the calm of the Buddha into the evening, to transform the golden lotus into the humble convolvulus, so nearly a weed, the elaborate trappings of the Buddha into the human nakedness. This is not a degeneration or retrogression, but an incarnation, a remaking in blood and flesh of what was formed of thought and intuition. And strangely enough, the circle of Vairocana is still there in the full moon. To get the contrast in landscape, parallel with the above of persons, one should compare” (the following two pictures).



“To get clearly into our minds the difference between haiga and classical painting, we may compare the two illustrations above. The landscape by Shokei, a Japanese of the later 15th century, is typical of Chinese romantic treatment. The mountains in the distance are the impossible creations of the dreaming artist, the pine-trees tragic in their intensity, the sage and attendant, the fisherman in his boat almost negligible among the overwhelming forms of nature. The haiga, by Issho, died 1707, seems at first sight a mere smudge by comparison, a travesty of the other, but when we wait a little, the reeds in the water, the fisherman polling his boat, are seen to be something alive. There is no doubt who is the greater artist or which is the better picture, but the haiga has something which the other has not,

The something that infects the world.” (Matthew Arnold)

The picture of Eno’s enlightenment . . .


is a very strange one, in that it lacks the violence and grimness of Zenga, Zen paintings. It is not fanciful, I think, to see in the quiet sweetness of this picture, so inward in its quality, something which was to develop into haiga, something that belongs rather to Jodo and Shin than Zen. We may contrast his enlightenment with that of St. Paul. The subdued feeling of Shuai Weng’s picture is far from the thunder and lightning on the way to Damascus. Yet Eno’s listening to the words of the Diamond Sutra meant as much for the culture and religion of Japan as did St. Paul’s conversion for those of Europe. Eno gave to Chinese and Japanese Zen its direction towards practicality which resulted in their application to haiku and the Way of Haiku in daily life. The verse (composed within the haiga) is

The bundle is carried firmly on his shoulder;
Before him, this way home has no obstructions.
“Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere”,
And he knows the house where the firewood burns.

The first line is the practical life, the second has symbolic meaning.The third is the line of the Diamond Sutra that he hears as he stands outside the house to which he has brought the firewood. The last again has a symbolic meaning, but the literal and symbolic are not really different here.

The handwriting (shown in the work below) says

Form is emptiness


This remarkable sentence, summing up in three words (four Chinese characters) the whole of Mahayana Buddhism, comes, like that of “Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere”, from the Diamond Sutra. The writing is by Takuan a Japanese 17th century master of Zen. This “Form is emptiness” is the invisible seed which grew into what we call Eastern Culture. This is illustrated by Takuan’s calligraphy itself. Writing, like everything else, when it is being done perfectly, is performed with the awakened Mind, without any desire  of perfection, without any aim; it is done ‘meaninglessly’. When we look at the handwriting, when we follow, dynamically and creatively the course of the brush, so definite and yet so yielding, we realize that the form of the characters is a no-form. Statically, nothing exists at all; there is no writer, no brush, nothing written, only movement. And this movement is a no-movement, for to paraphrase Roshi;

A movement that can be moved (in speech or thought) is not an eternal movement.

Again, we have in this handwriting a perfect example of the “law” of “liberty”. The form of the characters is absolutely fixed; yet the writer is absolutely free.

The interesting thing about Sengai’s picture of Tokusan and Ryuytan . . .


is the lack of beauty in the faces of the two people, and in the picture as a whole. Even if they had actually been a handsome couple, it would have been necessary to show them thus, because the picture is insisting on their deadly earnestness, on their souls, not on their appearance.  … Just as Zen is more important than beauty, so the significance of the subject is more important than the skill or technique in haiga. The verse printed in the haiga is:

Enlighten the Mind
Of the past, the present, the future.
Blow out the paper lantern,
And Mt. Kongo turns to ashes.

The picture of A Papa on a Pine Branch . . .


ascribed to the Chinese artist Mokkei, shows the direct application of Zen to art. Dr. D. T. Suzuki writes of this picture,

Is the pa-pa bird a kind of crow? It perches on an old pine tree symbolic of unbending strength. It seems to be looking down at something. The life of the universe pulsates through him, while quietness rules the enveloping nature. Here truly asserts the ancient spirit of solitude. This is when God has not yet given his fiat to the darkness of the unborn earth. To understand the working of the spirit in this, is not it the end of the Zen discipline?

Haiku and haiga avoid the grim, the violent, the dramatic and intense. They aspire to be deep without depth. Tohaku portrays . . .


the old tree, pine-needles, bamboo leaves and monkey in the same spirit as Basho’s verse written about a hundred years later:

First winter rain;

The monkey also seems to wish

For a small straw rain-coat.

The Chinese were aware not only of the vaster aspects of nature, but saw the peculiar value of the small and apparently insignificant. Such a picture as Apples and a Small Bird, by Chosho, must have impressed the Japanese mind deeply.


The painter is celebrated for his power of delineating fruit, but here he has adopted the Eastern method of hiding what it is wished to show. The apples are hidden in space by the leaves, and in composition by the bird, and yet they are the one essential of the picture. Chosho, a painter of the 13th century, is recorded as getting up early every morning and going out into the flower garden, using the dew to paint the flowers, leaves, and insects.

The sketch by Sesshu, 1450-1506, was evidently a study for a larger, more ambitious work; this is shown by the absence of the seals.


It is too brilliant, to good for haiga, it lacks something, the warmth and human sentiment that infuse the more clumsy and less slick pictures by those who are concerned with the things represented rather than with the representation. The sketch shows, however, a simplification and grasp of essentials which are the aim of haiku.

Miyamoto Musashi, 1582-1645, who died one year after the birth of Basho, continues the unconscious development towards haiga. His Shrike Screeching on a Dead Branch (below) has the quietness of eye, and the penetration into the nature of bird and bough, but it still aims at a perfection which for haiga and haiku is limited and finite. The great problem here is how to combine art with nature, nature that is always incomplete never finished. It is the same paradox everywhere, to “reject people” yet value above all things “the human warmth”; to love and hate; to hold and to renounce; to be oneself alone and be all things; to paint form and yet be conscious only of the spirit of the thing.

Photo Aug 15, 8 54 05 AM

The Zenga, by Hakuin, 1683-1768, has strangely enough, a haiku added to it:

Spreading out
The reeds of good and evil,–
Cooling in the evening.


This picture has a concentration and intensity quite alien to haiga. It is a spiritual portrait, in the style of (William) Blake, of Daito Kokushi, 1282-1337, one of the greatest of early Zen priests in Japan.

A remarkably good haiga (though it may be called a Zenga) by Hakuin, who is perhaps the greatest of later Zen monks, is the painting of a misosazai, or wren; the tailless bird has the peculiar Zen flavour about it.


The verse runs:

Its appearance
Is that of a nightingale,–
But it’s a wren!

The verse is a kind of criticism of his own painting; it prevents the whole thing from being too lyrical, for the bough that is used for stirring the miso in the earthenware mortar seems to have a few leaves remaining on it, denoting a person of artistic sensibilities. The mortar is painted with great skill. Its irregular shape, the six dots that represent the grating inner surface, the white patches on the outside that represent the reflection of light on the glazed surface, the open beak of the tailless bird, all these things are well done. But it is a fact, the bird is too slender for a wren, and Hakuin rectifies this in this verse. The whole thing is an aiming at something of more value than perfection, through imperfection willingly chosen.

Basho’s sketch of the morning-glories (below) is real haiga.


We feel the morning freshness; the dew is still on the leaves, and glistening down the slender reed that supports them. The verse is:

I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at the morning-glories

A picture of Basho saying good-bye to his disciple Sora, is by Buson. . . .


It is quite imaginary, in that Buson never met Basho, but better so, since Buson is free to show us how he wished to see him. It is no romantic figure. Basho is plain of countenance, simple in dress, an amiable, frail-looking creature, nothing about him to show him to be what he was, the greatest man Japan has produced. The picture illustrates Buson’s transcription of Oku no Hosomichi [The Narrow Road to the Deep North], a short diary of travel, which breathes through it and in this illustration, Basho’s warm, unaffected simplicity.

The picture by Senna, 1650-1723:


The Slope of Osaka, east of Kyoto, has grasped the spirit of the place, its mountains and cherry blossoms and pine trees. It has also something peculiarly Japanese, something that is almost unique in haiga, a quality that we see, but can never reproduce, in children’s pictures. The verse is:

At the time when
The Slope of Osaka hardens,
The first cherry blossoms.

In Korin, 1661-1716, contemporary of Basho, we see the opposite tendency, a delight in painting for its own sake; he corresponds to Swinburne in English literature. So the picture of azaleas (below) has a superficial resemblance to haiga, but is utterly different in spirit and technique. The azaleas are only the excuse for a brilliant exhibition of significant form, but, form of what?


The haiku and picture by Ryota, 1707-87, is an example in which the connection between the two is rather distant.

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The verse is:

Looking at the light,
There is a wind,
This night of snow.

The wind is seen, not felt, and the mind trembles with the flame in the darkness surrounding it. The snow is falling, silent and invisible. This is the verse, but the picture is of the basket of charcoal, that is half out of the picture. It is black, but shines in the light of the lamp that is to be seen in the verse only.

Another haiga, which has something rather Korean about it, portrays a boat by the shore at night.

Photo Aug 15, 8 48 21 AM

The verse is by Seira, died 1791:

Even the sound
Of the wings, is heard, —
A cold, moon-lit night.

The wild geese are seen, but not the moon, that shines down on the roof of the boat and on the reeds of the bank. The verse is one of sound, the picture of sight; it is the sound of birds, the sight of the reedy shore and moored sampan. It would have been better still, perhaps, to have omitted the wild geese from the picture.

Issa’s picture of the morning-glory . . .


has this verse:

My hermitage
Is thatched
With morning-glories

When he went out in the early morning he found that the whole roof was covered with the flowers of the convolvulus; his house was “roofed” with them. The verse is rather simple, but the sketch, by being even more so, is in perfect harmony with it. There is only one flower, which is used instead of the word asagao, and a short piece of vine, but everything is there. All the flowers sway in the morning breeze, and Issa also is there, though his back is turned to us, gazing at them.

In Issa’s verse and illustration . . .


we see another side of his character, an invariable one perhaps, in persons of strongly critical, cynical nature. The verse is:

Opening its mouth
Uselessly still,
The step-child of the bird.

Under the bird, it says: Both the Swallow and Issa.

We see here the self-pity into which tender-minded people easily fall. (Herein lies the necessity for such haiku poets as Kikaku, and for senryu.). Issa was a step-son, and suffered deeply because of his sensitive and love-desiring nature. He compares himself to a baby swallow. The sketch of the swallow is rather poor, but its angularity suggests, perhaps, the unkindness of the foster-mother.

The verse by Tanehiko, 1782-1842 . . .


is rather obscure, being based on an anecdote:

The cherry blossoms,
Returning at dawn from the Yoshiwara;
Was it the goddess of Mt. Katsuragi?

In the picture we feel the early spring morning; the willow tree gives the feeling of wantonness and enervation; the towel round the head of the man going home suggests the slight chill in the air; and the lantern the vagueness of the period between night and day. There is a balance between the four objects; the poem is one of them, and floats like an exhalation in the morning air.

For the treatment of pine-trees in haiga we may take the following two illustrations:


In Ryoto’s picture, the tree is simplified to its farthest limits; it is to be noted how the ten [the separate cross-like figure] of the poem joins the picture and the verse, which is:

The pine-tree,
Ten fingers in a row:
How green it is!

Gijoen’s pine-tree is also original in vision and expression. The verse runs:

Can’t it get away
From the pine-tree resin?
The voice of the cicada!

This means that there is something frantic in the sound of the crying of the cicada, as though it were stuck on the gum of the pine-tree, and could not extricate itself.

This haiga is by Chora, 1729-1781.


The verse, also by him, is:

Today, the Aoi Festival:
We greet again the many-jointed bamboos,
Generation after generation.

There is here a very complicated play on words, yoyo meaning “successive generations”, and the part of the bamboo between the joints. Aoi means “meeting day” and “Hollyhock”, the name of the festival held at the Kamo Shrine in Kyoto on the 15th of May. The picture, however, is very simple and child-like, characteristic of many of Chora’s other [pictures].

What kind of pictures did Basho see in his first forty years such as would have affected his creation of a new world of poetic life? … He must have seen done in art what he wanted to do in verse. He may have seen many great Chinese paintings of the Tang and Sung Dynasties. …

What Basho wanted to do, however, was to condense without heaviness, to refine without dilettantism, to philosophize without intellection. This he could find done in pictures already. The trenchancy and unselfconsciousness of Zenga, their paradox and humour, must also have impressed him, but the priests were concerned with the expression of their own spiritual life, whereas Basho wished rather to make manifest in a short compass the inner life of the things of the world. No doubt the life of the poet and the life of birds and trees and clouds are one, but there is a difference of emphasis, a certain gentleness, pathos, passivity in haiku which appears also in haiga as distinct from Zenga. To put it another way, Zen, that is, Zen as a body of religious experience, tends to underestimate the importance of love, of what Byron calls “the quiet of a loving eye.”

Summing up, we may sat that haiga justifies its existence in two ways, by its humour and by its roughness. The insistence on the fact that humour is to be seen everywhere, under all circumstances, which is the special virtue of haiku, is also the distinguishing quality of haiga, and one which keeps it most closely connected with this world and this life. Art comes down to earth; we are not transported into some fairy, unreal world of pure aesthetic pleasure. The roughness gives it that peculiar quality of sabi without age; unfinished pictures, half-built houses, broken statuary tell the same story. It corresponds in poetry to the fact that what we wish to say is just that which escapes the words. Haiku and haiga therefore do not try to express it, and succeed in doing what they have not attempted.

2015-11-29 gulltracks
Photo by Jerry Katz

This concludes the excerpts from Haiku, Volume 1, Eastern Culture by R. H. Blyth.