Kathrin Walsch

Raymond Roseliep and Eric Amann
Zen in Haiku Versus a Christian Perspective

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Kathrin Walsch

Profile on
Eric Amann

Zen in Haiku Versus a Christian Perspective
A Comparison: Raymond Roseliep and Eric Amann

Haiku poetry presents a unique view of everyday occurrences as observed by the author from his/her own perspective. Ultimately the way we perceive things or our attitudes and beliefs influence the way we portray things to others. Not only does a haiku poem invoke interesting images, feelings, and emotions but it also allows us to probe the perceptions of the haiku author him/herself through analysis of subject, style, and experimentation found within his/her haiku. The way an author presents his/her ideas and also the subjects he/she chooses to write most frequently about allow the reader to better understand his/her unique approach to haiku poetry and why he/she is interested in the art itself. The purpose of this essay is to contrast and compare two unique approaches to haiku writing; using Zen in haiku seen in the work of Eric Amann evaluated against the work of Raymond Roseliep who writes haiku from his own Christian perspective.

Oftentimes writers have linked themes of Zen to haiku writing. Eric Amann, a Canadian haiku writer, wrote and published an essay on the topic entitled The Wordless Poem. His essay examines the connection between the Zen philosophy and haiku poetry. He uses terms such as wordless, suchness, nothing special, season word, selfless, and oneness to describe the role of Zen in Haiku. To summarize his essay "haiku is not to be regarded as a ‘form’ of poetry, as is commonly assumed in the West, but as an expression of Zen in poetry, a living ‘Way’…it touches upon philosophy, religion, psychology, and many other subjects. It touches above all life itself." Amann’s obsession with the Zen philosophy has spilled into his work time and again. Previously an editor of two haiku periodicals, Cicada and Haiku, Amann only supported and selected those haiku with characteristically Zen attributes for final publication. Throughout his own work Amann portrays a very Zen selfless approach omitting himself from the haiku and presenting the reader with incredible imagery to dive into.

First becoming interested in haiku in the 1960’s Eric Amann embraced the art with passion. At the time he was a medical intern and much of his later work reflects this occupation. There are two primary periods in which Amann wrote haiku each having a slightly different style itself. In the first period, spanning from 1966 to 1969, Amann wrote primarily traditional three line haiku poems. His haiku range in topic and often contain an element of the 20th century technological environment. Amann is no doubt influenced by modern society. Most of his haiku in the first period have a more lighthearted feel whereas the haiku he wrote throughout the second period, spanning from 1976 to 1979, have an underlying tone of sadness and portray the brevity of life. During his second period of haiku writing Amann emphasizes human relations and sparks some humor into his haiku. Also, in the second period the reader will find more and more haiku dealing with medical themes and settings, which compliment his occupation in medicine. In 1980 Eric Amann published a short collection of one-line haiku, which show his newly found sense of experimentation with the art. Below are a few of Eric Amann’s award winning haiku from the collection Cicada Voices.

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

(Amann Cicada Voices )

Winter burial:
a stone angel points his hand
at the empty sky

(Amann Cicada Voices )

Although one would not expect a Christian haiku writer to have anything in common with the style of a Zen haiku writer, such is not the case. Many of the same Zen principles found in the writings and teachings of Eric Amann can also be seen in the work of his fellow contemporary haiku writer, Raymond Roseliep a diocesan priest from Iowa. Rosepliep has a Ph.D. in English and has written a number of books including works in traditional English verse form.

Like Eric Amann, Roseliep became interested in haiku in 1960 and has a rather large collection of eleven haiku publications. In his book The Still Point, dedicated to Nobuo Hirasawa, Roseliep addresses the "mu" in haiku, which means nothing or empty. Roseliep compares the Zen philosophy of his friend Hirasawa to his own "Zen-Christian pilgramage to Therewere." Therefore, although Roseliep holds Christian attitudes and beliefs he is still able to appreciate and assimilate Zen concepts into his own work. He comments that, "the most fortunate Western haiku writers, in their pentration of the thingness of thing, the nowness of now, the hereness of here, and the suchness of such, will sometimes strike the invisible vein transporting the invisible current which is the deepest reality of all: the life-giving principle of material phenomena." Even this statement reflects his appreciation of the Zen principles found in haiku and the significance of the smallest everyday moment.

Through the eyes of Eric Amann, haiku deals with the here and now an is an expression of the living ‘Way.’ However, Roseliep holds a slightly different view of what haiku portrays, personifying the living ‘Way’ as the Christian God; he quotes R.H. Blyth, "Haiku is the world as God made it." One critic, Colette Inez describes Roseliep’s haiku paying particular attention to the religious themes he writes about, "Roseliep’s poems…offer a concert of heavenly poise in a discordant world." Other fellow haikuists have made the same play on words coining Roseliep’s haiku as "angelic" or "heavenly." Before comparing the work of Roseliep to the work of Amann, below are some of Roseliep’s haiku that struck me immediately upon reading them. Both of the following haiku were taken from his book Listen to Light.

the firefly you caught
lights the church you make
with your hands

(Roseliep Listen to Light)

the dressmaker
sings and sings,
mouth full of pins

(Roseliep Listen to Light)

As one can see, despite the different approaches taken by Amann and Roseliep, both haiku poets manage to capture the essence of the haiku by providing the reader with unique images that conjure feeling and emotion in the heart of the reader. How each different perspective plays into their work will be examined in the following pages using matched pairs to evaluate strengths and weaknesses, things that stand out, or things that make the haiku uniquely Zen or uniquely Christian, if such classifications apply at all. This first pair was chosen on the basis of subject matter, taking a closer look at how each author portrays the subject in his own unique way.

the shore
the ship’s cat

(Roseliep 162 the Haiku Anthology)

with drops of morning dew:
the cat’s whiskers

(Amann 42 Cicada Voices )

Both haiku above capture the essence of what it means to be a cat. Sly movements and curious behavior are noted in both haiku. Rosiliep’s haiku gives the cat a commanding position as if the animal is the proud owner of the ship guarding it, rather than the other way around. Rosiliep’s haiku has a strong sense of presence. The reader is able to imagine the ship at the dock and the workers that busy are loading or unloading cargo paying little attention to the cat as he oversees their work. Amann’s haiku has less presence but still creates a very vivid image. Although the haiku does not place the reader in a specific spot it gives the reader the feel that this is a neighborhood cat prowling the backyard in the early morning in order to catch his breakfast. Both haiku seem to represent cats as vagabonding animals. In Rosiliep’s haiku the cat is a stowaway on a ship, along for the food and the adventure. In Amann’s haiku the cat has slept outside and now has dew dripping from its whiskers. Both cats in each haiku are stray cats making their own way in the world.

in white tulips
the rooster’s red head

(Roseliep 160 the Haiku Anthology)

Headless turkeys
hand in the butcher’s window—
Thanksgiving Day!

(Amann 19 Cicada Voices )

Although both haiku star farm animals, one has a very positive tone towards the animal and the other a rather negative tone (if you are a turkey that is). I like the first haiku because it gives the rooster a cute sense of curiosity and playfulness. The image Rosiliep creates is fun and full of color. On the other hand Amann’s haiku is very sad. Being a vegetarian the thought of butchering animals is beyond horrible. In Amann’s haiku the reader imagines the heads of the turkeys being chopped off by the raised knife in the butcher’s hand. However, his haiku causes the reader to feel sorrow for the suffering of the turkeys, which have been butchered for the eating pleasure of humans. To Amann all creatures suffer and as humans we should not ignore but identify with the suffering of all creatures because life is suffering and our goal is to be released from it.

can’t tell
the petal
from the kiss

(Roseliep 56 Rabbit in the Moon)

wild raspberry taste on the tip of your tongue

(Amann 52 Cicada Voices )

Both haiku above relate the intense feelings experienced through an intimate kiss to objects in nature. Rosiliep describes the softness and delicateness of his lover’s lips. The lips, he says, are as soft as rose petals. Amann on the other hand relates the sweetness of the kiss to the taste of wild raspberries. His one line haiku provides more room for the reader to associate. The wild raspberry taste comes from ice cream, which the two lovers are sharing. Rosiliep’s haiku becomes more of a statement describing the feel of a past event whereas Amann’s haiku presents an image including taste and touch sensations that is occurring now. It is also interesting to note the difference in form between the two haiku. Rosiliep uses the traditional three-line form whereas Amann experiments with a one-line version of haiku. Since Roseliep’s haiku is so short it seems as though his haiku would be just as appropriate if it too were written in the one-line format.

autumn stillness
the cracks
of your hand

(Roseliep 71 Listen to Light)

old men on park benches
looking older still
this autumn day

(Amann 21 Cicada Voices )

It is interesting to see the similarity in theme between these two haiku. Both haiku compare the process of aging to the natural process of the seasons, the barrenness of autumn. The haiku written by Roseliep portrays not only the aging of the seasons and of human life but also attributes pain to this process by using the "cracks of your hand" caused by the dry weather in autumn. The cracks symbolize the hard work and toil the person has done throughout life and also portrays the toll that life takes on us, how it wears on the human body and also on the soul. Roseliep’s haiku adds an extra element to the interpretation. Both haiku portray age but Amann’s haiku seems to have a more personal feel as the two old men converse about days of old, whereas the setting in Roseliep’s haiku lead the reader to believe that there is only one person in this setting. In Amann’s haiku the reader feels a strong reverence for age and hints at the wisdom these men have as a result of everything they have experienced in their lives.

Christmas Eve
butcher’s knives
stop ringing

(Roseliep 118 Listen to Light)

snow falling
on the empty parking-lot:
Christmas Eve

(Amann 10 Cicada Voices )

Each of the above haiku associates silence and peace with Christmas Eve. In Roseliep’s haiku the reader imagines the empty butcher’s shop and all the workers have gone home to be with their families, stopping the slaughter of innocent animals. Even the animals get to enjoy the peace that Christmas brings. This haiku signifies peace on earth and goodwill not only to man but also to every living creature. It seems as though Roseliep portrays the Zen principal that all life is suffering, as he portrays the peace that Christmas brings to all creatures. Roseliep’s haiku has a lot more depth to it and can be interpreted to hold greater significance to the reader. On the other hand it seems as though Amann simply makes a comment on the peace brought about after the hustle and bustle is over. His haiku seems to retain more of a childlike innocence, focusing on the shopping malls and the presents. The haiku takes place in the empty parking lot of a toy store after all the last minute shoppers have returned home to sneak presents under the tree while the children are asleep dreaming of sugarplums.

When comparing and contrasting the work of a Zen haiku master and the work of a contemporary Christian haiku writer, one must take into account that even the two philosophies have much in common and warrant an in depth comparison themselves. Years ago, after reading Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Naht Han I realized the similarities between the two. Like Zen Buddhism, Christians hold dear to the concept of "love your neighbor as yourself," and having compassion for all living things great and small. Christians too live life as a process to escape from suffering or natural sin striving to become more God like and more enlightened. Despite differences among religious views, that often cause mankind to wage war brother against brother, there are undeniable similarities that can be found in almost every two religions compared. The base theme of spirituality is that we as humans should be mindful of all that we say and do and how our actions effect the world around us, working towards complete divinity and eternal freedom from suffering, sin, or separation from the truth.

After taking into account the fact that the perspectives from which Eric Amann and Raymond Roseliep write their haiku are not as different as they may seem, one can then conclude that their haiku are also very similar. The main difference between the two is that Roseliep more often chooses to write about Christianity using Christian settings such as a church or items such as the Bible. Their writings are so similar because, as any religious or philosophical perspective, haiku too deals with the truth. It deals with everyday events that are untainted by subjectification. Haiku portrays the divine simplicity of nature, of life. The haiku itself contains its own philosophical perspective that can be attributed to Christianity or Zen Buddhism, that is, be mindful; be aware of all that you say and do living in righteousness and peace.

Both Raymond Roseliep and Eric Amann have, through their own religious perspectives, been able to capture the essence of truth that is portrayed through haiku. If you listen, each of them will tell you to stop for a moment. Life is valuable and everything you touch has meaning. Everyday you live you should live to the fullest and with every breath be aware of your environment. Haiku is to live, to appreciate, and to share life itself and these authors have both been able to spread this message in their own work.

—Kathrin Walsch


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors