Zen, Deep Ecology, and Haiku A Buddhist and Ecocritical Reading of Matsuo Bashō

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Colin Harold Simonds


In the contemporary English-speaking world haiku is popularly seen as a short poetic form consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. Typically, the form is given more weight than the content, thus giving haiku its reputation as a simplistic form of writing. This, however, is quite a different understanding of haiku than its classical context. For example, the formative seventeenth century haiku of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) did adhere to the five-seven-five syllabic restrictions but was primarily concerned with capturing a direct moment of experience through stark, resonant imagery and season words. Moreover, in this early context, writing a successful haiku was considered to be an extraordinary achievement as can be seen in Bashō’s statement that “one who produces even a single good poem has not spent his life in vain” (Haiku in English, 2013, p.XX). These divergent approaches to haiku provide very different kinds of poems and, thus, operate in very different ways. In its Japanese context, haiku was enmeshed in a Buddhist ontology that informed how poets experienced and wrote about their worlds. The resulting empathetic portrayal of nonhuman subjects in haiku lends naturally to ecocritical readings conducted through lenses like deep ecology. The deep ecological approach to ecocriticism is important for its ability to disrupt normative destructive modes of relating to and acting on nonhuman worlds, and its resonance with classical haiku suggests that the poetic form might do the same. Thus, this paper will seek to articulate the Buddhist ontological framework in which Bashō was writing before investigating how the form relates to a contemporary deep ecological perspective. This will be done with two goals in mind: to demonstrate the parallel theoretical trajectories of Buddhism and contemporary ecocriticism, and to propose haiku, as written by Bashō, as a form of literary intervention into normative shallow environmental discourse.

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