Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
September-October 2004, vol. 2, no. 5

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FEATURE: Zeljko Funda, HAIKU AND NOTHING (1) (Introduction to a Zenocentristic Theory of Haiku).


Reading any (good) haiku poem always brings about the same question: How can a mere statement be a poem? For example:

Tracks of footprints
encircled the tree
with the yellow snow. (2) (Matas)

The dolls and the teddy bear
on the sidewalk waiting
for the garbage truck. (VukeliÁ RoœiÁ)

A butterfly in its flight
all of a sudden
becomes the sky. (Vrga)

In the late autumn
between the naked branches
there is more sky. (3) (Kurnik)

As if the poet, the father of the lyric subject, the demiurge of Western poetry, has disappeared. As if he became 'extinct'. (4) Then, what are we left with? A little, almost nothing. That's the way it should be, we could joke. It immediately catches our attention that a haiku, especially a good haiku, I'd say, doesn't speak about anything in particular; its verses don't celebrate anything; it has almost renounced the language, that is to say it does not use it to achieve ornamented speech, which is the traditional definition of poetry. That is something only a Westerner can do, for, to him language is the home of the Being. (5) (Heidegger) One should also say that an impossibility exists in the very task to express the essential with a poem (and for Zen, the Essential is nothing (6) /void/mind without mind/non-residing mind; etc.): How to express nothing, emptiness, with some particular linguistic means? To say a single word about it, would already be making a mistake! (7) It is, therefore, impossible to carry out the task directly, same as it is to give the 'right' answer to a koanic question like, for example: 'What is the sound of one hand?' or 'What is the nature of Buddha?' I'd say that each haiku is a Zenic answer to questions like 'What is the truth?' or, to put it Zenicly, 'What is Buddha?' To express the essential does not, therefore, mean to use many abstractions and long shrouded sentences, but to give birth to the essential through words and (only) in that way prove it to be a part of ourselves and of everybody else. That Essence, that nothing/emptiness, omnipresent and ubiquitous breaks out in a haiku like a mini-eruption and it is through its characteristics (small, short, clear, simple) that we recognize it as an eruption of nothingness/emptiness/mind-without-mind which is, as it is commonly known, ashamed of itself and prefers to dress up in veils of mystery, almost in its counterpart, but not because it fears defiling, but because of the danger to be blinded by (its own) sanctity which, paradoxically enough, the greater it is, and the 'holier', the more filled with light, instead of enlightening you, it can make you blind. (8) That, too, is one of the reasons why, despite its simplicity, haiku is so mysterious. Let me remind you of the most famous among haikus:

The ancient pond!
A frog jumps in -
a splash!

In only six words (9) Bashô expressed/indicated/pictured the essential (10), not by describing it, but by confirming it. A Westerner, a believer in the words’ meaning-making, would have used a thousand words for the same purpose, and would have written a poem heavy with symbolism and metaphors, because such a subject demands them.


The a(nti)tropicity of haiku is equally important for its essence and function as it has its very basic statement nature. How else, if not without tropes, without poetic figures, can one speak about the essential, conceived as nothing/emptiness/mind without mind, if not unadornedly and impersonally? Also, in line with the cultural and the historic tradition of Japan, the homeland of haiku, something like that is self-evident. Since haiku is not about a subjective impression of the objective reality, since that subjective impression is not measured by the quantity of tropes (metaphors, personifications, rhymes, allegories, symbols, etc.) and by their arrangement, but is about an instantaneous insight of the essential nothing/emptiness/mind-without-mind emerging into the reality here and now (12), the entire poetic apparatus becomes unnecessary, even superfluous. Instead of demonstrating the essential, it unintentionally focuses the poet and his impressions, and substitutes them, again unintentionally, for the essential. It, as a rule, happens because of the author's non-disengagement from the Western conception of poetry, or his replacing objects with words. In the collection of the Tenth Samobor Haiku Gathering there are examples such as: peace of snowflake, sun kissing, eye of the sun, autumn blooming, glass walking, silence sitting, branch giving to itself, window watching, sun giving, sounds dwelling, squirrel kissing, cobweb scarf, reed whispering. . . . (13) They are all very lyrical, lovely, and poetic in a European manner, but their words celebrate; they are more about it, than they're being it (14), they are indicators of the connoisseurship of the ars scribendi, where haiku only partially fits into. (15). Haiku's entering Western literature and its, more and more frequent, appearance in a different literary tradition has, judging by the prizes awarded at international haiku contests, even in Japan itself, inspired the appearance of the haikuoid, a poem similar to a haiku, a lyric miniature consisting of three verses written in the haiku tradition. It is good that this has happened, because it might bring about the birth of a new literary form. I believe it to be almost necessary, for if we are to continue with:

Plastic sea waving with purple tulips
Coral reeds skinned over by skyscrapers
Sun fallen asleep behind purple sky guarding the carbonized woods
Phoenix stuck with cross-bow diving over New Queens
Clouds eaten by extinct KKK morbid branches flames . . .

(Forum Literary Magazine, Nos 1-3, 2003), I'm afraid that poetry will soon be read only by the authors and their spouses. Haiku is, however, one of the guarantees that this is not happening, because it asks for (almost) no literary education, but for a pure heart/mind, and a gift to perceive the essential in ordinary, everyday ephemera. As paradoxical as it may sound, even if it stays 'pure', 'idealess', and 'factitious', even if it expresses the essential nothing/emptiness/mind-without-mind, haiku can, it is haiku and such haiku that can take part in the combat against nothingness, against the force that depletes life of its meaning, that convinces us that nothing is important, because everything can be bought.


(1) 'What is nothing?' - asked a student. 'Were it to be anything, I would tell you,' the teacher answered. With this kind of nothing in mind, I find it hard to write an essay on the subject. Everything I write should, therefore, be taken cum grano salis.

(2) All quoted examples are taken from the collection Tenth Samobor Haiku Gathering.

(3) This more, which is the result of the poet's--therefore subjective--comparison, makes, strictly speaking, the haiku less 'haiku-like'.

(4) Nirvana literally means extinction, i.e. the release from samsara, the real world of living and dying, to sunyata, the void, the impersonality.

(5) One could ironically allege that the Being dwells scarcely in contemporary Western poetry, because words became embodied, materialized. This statement, taken literally, can also be reformulated into: 'The more words, the more Being .' That is why words are replacing Being in contemporary Western poetry. Actually, they drive it out with their arrogance and do not allow for any "space", any silence among themselves. Wasn't it, after all, the excess of confidence that made Judas betray Jesus? Such self-admiration and self-sufficiency render the language useless, depleted of universal meaning, and poetry it produces is hardly ever read. It is advisable to recall the 11th stanza from The Book of Way and Virtue, one of the corner stones of Zen, which says that usefulness of the house stems from non-existence of walls, that we gain from the existence of things, while their non-existence serves us.

(6) Several quotations: 'Nirvana is not non-existence/ How could you think about such a thing?/ We call Nirvana the cessation/ Of all thought of non-existence and existence. . . .' (Living by Zen, p. 141); 'Void is simply non-attachment. . . .' (ibid, p.141); 'Void is to be understood as absence of usual values, concepts of dualistic opposition, of our particular distinctions, cravings and attachments. . . .' (ibid, p. 141); 'What is meant by the place of non-abiding? It means not abiding anywhere whatsoever. What is non-abiding anywhere whatsoever? Not abiding in goodness, evil, being, non-being, inside, outside or in the middle; nor in void, abstractions or non-abstraction--that is not abiding anywhere. . . . (ibid, p. 145); '. . . we can say that everything is non-existing, selfless and to experience this selflessness or void means to experience the peace of Nirvana, Buddha nature and enlightment. . . .' (HAIKU Magazine, No. 4, 1996, p. 6).

(7) Again, the opposite of the western '. . . but say a word and my soul shall heal'. Basically, in the West the word is sense-creating, while in Zen, it is superfluous. What counts is the meditation, the absorption. Word is needed only as a part / an instrument of sensations. Or, as Suzuki says: 'A word should never be separated from things or from facts, or sensations'.

(8) Isn't that one of the reasons why so many artists and philosophers have gone mad?

(9) Seven words in the Croatian translation.

(10) I am kindly asking you to try to understand this haiku as an answer to the question: 'What is the truth?'

(11) A. Nejgebauer wrote about the poetic side of it in the Varaœdin HAIKU Magazine, Nos 2 and 3, 1978.

(12) This is 'my' definition of haiku.

(13) This is also an example of pleonasm.

(14) Here, I am tempted to say mu (please look at Joshua's mu mondo at the beginning of Mumonkan), but I am not allowed to, because of the pretentiousness of the answer.

(15) I would say that haiku is primarily the art of perception, therefore, ars sentiendi.


R. Linssen: Living by Zen, Grove Press, New York, 1960.

D. T. Suzuki: Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, New York, 1973.

V. Devide: Japanese Haiku Poetry and Its Cultural and Historical Context, Zagreb, 1970.

Booklets of the Haiku Gatherings in Samobor and Ludbreg, Croatia From Haiku zbornik, Ludbreg, 2003 Published here by the author's permission.

Zeljko Funda was born in Varazdin, Croatia in 1950. He lives in Varazdin and works in Varazdin's Gymnasium where he teaches English and publishes a magazine, D GIMNAZIJA TAJMZ.

In 1988 he published a book of novels, Varazdinske price (The Varazdin Novels) and two books of poetry in Kajkavian dialect (1991 and 1997).

He has been represented in collections and anthologies of Kajkavian poetry and has been published in both domestic and international collections and anthologies of haiku poetry and has received many awards and commendations.

Further information and some of Funda's haiku can be found on this WHA site.