Kathrin Walsch

Exploring the Zen Tradition of Haiku
Through the Work of Eric Amann

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Kathrin Walsch


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Eric Amann

Exploring the Zen Tradition of Haiku
Through the Work of Eric Amann

"The haiku is a point of intersection between man and nature," comments Eric Amann in his essay entitled The Wordless Poem. The Wordless Poem is an extensive essay outlining the role of Zen practices in haiku poetry. Amann’s obsession with the Zen philosophy has spilled into his haiku work time and again. Previously an editor of two haiku periodicals, Haiku and Cicada, Amann only supported and selected those haiku with characteristically Zen attributes for final publication. The intent of this essay is to explore the work of Eric Amann in depth seeking to further understand the important role of Zen principles in haiku poetry. In order to examine the work of Eric Amann it is first important to understand the principles behind the Zen/haiku connection. Second, it is important to understand the author’s interest and development of haiku writing. Finally, the exploration of Amann’s haiku will provide a first hand look at Zen in haiku.

The Zen and Now of Haiku

Haiku "deals entirely with the here-and-now, with nature, with intuition arising from immediate sense-experience, with the ordinary sights and sounds of this world." Within The Wordless Poem Eric Amann examines the interwoven relationship of Zen and haiku. With terms such as wordless, suchness, nothing special, season word, selfless, and oneness Amann describes the characteristics of haiku as they apply to basic Zen principles. Throughout his examination he relates differences between the ego-less poetry of the Far East compared with the egocentric poetry seen in the western tradition.

Wordless—Haiku poetry, like Zen, transcends words. Haiku focuses not on what the words mean in an abstract sense but rather the image the words are able to create. Haiku is a poetry consisting of nouns rather than being filled with fluffy adjectives that cloud the purity of the image itself. Zen practices hold that words are limiting and can be a distraction from which one should detach oneself.

Suchness—Haiku poetry strives to create an image for what it really is leaving the interpretation and further association to the reader. However, in the western tradition poets insist on composing egocentric works. Rather than seeing a flower for its own beauty western poets generally use objects as a mode to express their own intellectual sentiments using a variety of poetic devices such as similies, metaphors, personification, and symbolism. This is in opposition to the Zen principal that objects should be objects and not distorted for our own exploitation as also seen in haiku poetry.

Nothing special—A haiku can be about "wu-shi." From a beautiful rose bush to the clumps of mud on a tennis shoe, all of these things affect our daily lives and all things are worth writing about. This goes along with the Zen principal of mindfulness. One should be mindful of everything around him/her. Good and evil are inseparable and both should be taken into account. Everything in life is worth taking a look at and one should be aware of everything happening around him/her. As a haiku poet/poetess one tries to capture just such ordinary and everyday moments.

Season word—Many haiku rely on season words to create the setting in their haiku. Haiku is very connected with nature and the natural order of things such as the seasons. Zen too is highly nature oriented in contrast with the technological man of the west. In the high speed global society of today technology has misplaced the true nature of life. Eric Amann notices that, "For the technological man the occurrence of an April shower, a November snow flurry or autumn haze, far from being poetic or bearing any relationship to his inner life, are merely hindrances to the smooth performance of his daily routine."

Selfless—Unlike western poets, haiku poets generally omit themselves from their writings. Instead they remain a bystander who observes from afar the beauty of a blossoming pear tree or the ripples in a moonlit pond. Haiku poetry is selfless in that it is not egocentric and becomes, as mentioned previously "a point of intersection between man and nature." As Basho said, "learn from the pine about the pine, from the bamboo the bamboo. But always leave your old Self behind…" Zen principles teach man to be selfless and to not disrupt the natural order of things with his/her own self-interests as does true haiku poetry.

Oneness—The core element of a haiku is the identification of man and nature, which play an interwoven role in the cosmos and the order of everyday life. Man and nature are one just as all things in life can be related to a higher order of being. Haiku often creates a sense of oneness or unity between objects that seem on the surface unrelated or in a state of "unresolved tension." Eric Amann relates this state of unresolved tension to the "koan" used by Zen masters when mentoring young students. The students are given a statement to meditate on that may not have a logical explanation or answer. In haiku the reader must meditate on the haiku to discover why the seemingly unrelated objects have been juxtaposed.

In conclusion Eric Amann states that, "haiku is not to be regarded primarily as a from of poetry, as is commonly assumed in the West, but as an expression of Zen in poetry, a living Way…It touches above all upon life itself."

Zen in the Work of Eric Amann

Eric Amann first became intrigued with haiku in the 1960’s. At that time he was a medical intern and much of his haiku reflects his medical work. There are two primary periods in which he wrote haiku. The first period spanned from 1966 to 1969 and the second period from 1976 to 1979 in which he also wrote The Wordless Poem. Cicada Voices, edited by fellow Canadian haiku writer George Swede, is a collection of Amann’s work throughout both haiku writing periods.

Throughout both periods, Eric Amann’s haiku has proved to contain a resonating theme of sadness and portrays the "fleeting nature of life," comments George Swede. Amann continues to capture traditional themes in rather unordinary ways. Most of his haiku deal with objects that are very much a part of the twentieth century technological environment. A few significant changes occur between Amann’s first and second period of haiku. During the second period he emphasizes human relations and humor. Also, in the second period there is an increased use of medical themes and settings, which compliment his occupation as a medical intern.

Although most of his haiku consist of three lines, No More Questions, No More Answers, published in 1980, is a small collection of single line haiku by Eric Amann. Below are a few one-liners by Amann from the chapbook Cicada Voices. All of his one-liners below have a strong intimate feel to them, capturing the sweet emotions felt between two lovers.

deep inside your mouth      no more questions no more answers


deep penetration       the bedside candle quivers lightly in the moonlit room


wild raspberry taste       on the tip of your tongue

p. 52

Amann has also dabbled with some visual haiku art. However, most of his visuals have been a failed attempt to portray anything close to his mastery of the textual haiku. Also, Eric Amann has done experimentation with form using various indentations and punctuations. Below is an example of a visual haiku by Eric Amann.

The starlit sea

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cicada Voices p. 37

Although the visual context is easy to see, this visual haiku leaves almost nothing to the imagination of the haiku reader. Most visual haiku are difficult because in essence you are setting the image for the reader instead of letting them imagine for themselves.
Below are a series of haiku written by Eric Amann throughout both the first and second periods. These haiku are taken from the book Cicada Voices. Through the following short collection one can see first hand the elements at work in the haiku of Eric Amann and also examine the Zen element within his poetry. All of the haiku presented below contain a very selfless approach to haiku. Amann is successfully able to omit himself from his haiku images creating incredible imagery that allows every reader to associate freely with it.

Haiku from the first period (1966-1969)

snow falling
on the empty parking-lot:
Christmas Eve…

Cicada Voices p. 10

The light peaceful sound of snow falling is breathtaking in this haiku. Amann’s use of punctuation and space gives added emphasis to the natural breaks and flow of his haiku. The parking lot of the toy store is empty after many hours of hustle and bustle of last minute Christmas shoppers. All the shoppers have returned home to wrap presents and sneak them under the tree while the children are fast asleep in their warm beds. The ellipse at the end of the haiku leads the reader to envision all the wonderful things that happen on Christmas day after the Christmas Eve anticipation is over. This haiku fully displays the peace of Christmas time and the joy of the season. Amann has managed to omit himself from the haiku presenting a vivid image to his readers through the selfless approach of Zen haiku. The haiku is wordless, containing an image free from limiting adjectives.

In the quiet pond
even the touch of a moth
shatters the full moon

Cicada Voices p. 15

It is interesting how Amann uses a capital letter to start this haiku giving emphasis to its setting. The moth flutters peacefully, barely skimming the top of the pond creating ripples, which distort the moon. The moon’s reflection on the pond creates a beautiful blue glow within the scene. Within this haiku the moth plays an important role. Amann appreciates every form of life by realizing its significance in the scene presented here. The scene is quite and meditative again omitting the author himself.

old men on park benches
looking older still
this autumn day

Cicada Voices p. 21

By relating the autumn day to the old men the reader gets an intense feeling of age and the passing of time. Autumn represents the coming of winter, which is the end of the year and used here to represent the age of the old men. Perhaps they are both retired and enjoying a lazy fall afternoon in the park beside the pond watching the children feed the ducks or talking about times of the past. The past resonates through this haiku and has a strong sense of nostalgia about it. One can only begin to imagine what has brought these old men to the park bench and what they have experienced throughout their lives; what wisdom they have to share. Amann presents this theme of age in an interesting manner. By relating age to the autumn he ties the season word to the cyclical nature of time as seen in the Zen philosophy.

Haiku from the second period (1976-1979)

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

Cicada Voices p. 38

Red leaves look almost like a layer blood covering the cold granite gravestones. The cemetery is empty on this autumn day. The leaves have fallen to their own autumn death atop the graves of those who died long ago. The image painted here is very haunting, vivid, and full of color. Green grass pokes through the leaves. The cemetery has been left unattended and no one has come to grieve for the lost ones beneath the red blanket of leaves. Even in death they are buried once again and forgotten. It is obvious why this haiku won the Yukuharu Grand Prize in the Haiku Journal of 1978. Amann has managed to create such a stunning image with profound meaning. This haiku presents the season word in conjunction with death to represent the cyclical nature of time and the process of death and rebirth.

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

Cicada Voices p. 39

In 1978 Amann’s above haiku won the Eminent Mention Award in the periodical Modern Haiku. This haiku represents the view that death is not eternal. There is life after death and the angel depicted here was placed in the cemetery to guide the souls of the weary back home. The day is cold covered with winter clouds and the reader can imagine men and women dressed in black mourning the loss of their loved ones. The colors in the haiku are very cold containing only shades of black and white. Although this haiku it somewhat haunting it also contains a sense of peace and calmness; a passing from the finite to the infinite.

A night train passes:
pictures of the dead are trembling
on the mantelpiece

Cicada Voices p. 45

This haiku is the gives the reader a very unsettling feeling. Amann captures such an eerie feeling with his haiku. The rumble of the train and rattle of the pictures stir the inhabitants of the house from their peaceful dreams. The sound of the pictures rattling on the mantelpiece eliminates the chance for further peaceful sleeping. This haiku is incredibly haunting and could be coined the "horror flick" of haiku. It is amazing the associations that can be derived from this haiku and the trip the reader’s imagination is able to take with one such image. Amann’s use of punctuation separates the haiku nicely hearing the rumble of the train and then following hearing the rattle of the pictures. Remaining selfless, Amann allows the reader to jump head first into his haiku image.

Withered winter tree;
Its barren boughs reflected
In the sick man’s eye

Cicada Voices p.48

Amann also won an Eminent Mention Award for this haiku published in Modern Haiku magazine in 1979. Amann’s choice of words such as withered, winter, and barren add emphasis to the severity of sickness the man is facing. He sees his own ominous death reflected in the barrenness of winter. This haiku presents a very dramatic image. The sick man’s eyes contain sadness and emptiness signifying defeat to the illness that has overcome him as the trees are made barren and lifeless by the harsh cold of winter. In this haiku Amann connects the suffering of man to the apparent suffering of nature. As in Zen Buddhism all life is filled with suffering and all things must share in the suffering of life. Amann personifies the barren tree as sharing in the dying man’s sorrow and vice versa.

The Zen

The above work of Eric Amann is laced with themes of death and suffering. "Yet like all good haiku, they contain that mysterious element that send the spirit in all directions," states George Swede.

Through the work of Eric Amann haiku readers are able to appreciate and understand the Zen approach to haiku writing. This approach requires the author to attain wordlessness, suchness, selflessness, and oneness keeping in mind that a haiku can be about nothing special and often contains season words. Amann’s work is a genuine representation of these principles and a brilliant contribution to the haiku society of the world.

Finally, here is one last haiku by Eric Amann and a personal favorite of my own for meditation from Cicada Voices. This last haiku provides a beautiful meditative calm to the reader and is open to much interpretation. Enjoy!

Short spring night:
the mountain river
runs through my dream

Cicada Voices p. 61



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