Haiku and Haiga

This page is still being amended as of September 2018.

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. Any bold passages are intended for emphasis and are not part of the original text.

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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 (see below)


“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” (see below).


“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 (seen below)


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 (below)


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, below,


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 (below)


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 (below), 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 (below) 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 (below), 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 (below); 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

(This work is in progress and more material will be added. It is currently September 2018.)