top of page


 with Kevin McLaughlin

Kevin MacLaughlin, poetry magazine, haiku

For seven months, Bankei failed to give Master Tozan a satisfactory response to the koan, “Is there a teaching no Buddha has ever taught?” The Master was becoming short tempered with the monk’s bewildered answers.  In all other zazen practices, Bankei excelled.  He was a talented student and devoted to the Dharma, but he just wasn’t able to penetrate his koan.

The morning after the April full moon, Bankei came for instruction, bowed respectfully to Tozan, and in response to the Master’s standard question, said:

Dragonflies have hatched:

Spring tides flood river sandbars

Exposed all winter.

“Absolute purity,” replied the Master.

-Kevin McLaughlin


Zen and haiku are two of the most misunderstood words in any language. Fittingly, there is a close connection, almost a symbiotic relationship between the two. Zen is the ability to tame your mind, to understand the true nature of reality, and to engage in altruistic deeds. Zen is not strictly a religion, a philosophy, or a psychology.  It is a Way (Tao). Haiku is the poetry of mindfulness, seventeen syllables that provide appreciation of the natural world, both the mundane and the supramundane.

Koans are questions or short tales intended to break the mind away from pure cognition.  An authentic haiku can be the response to any koan (What is the sound of one hand clapping?  Does a dog have Buddha nature? ). In one famous koan, “Master Basho said to the monks, “If you have a stick, I shall give one to you. If you do not have a stick, I shall take it away from you.” To many students, this cognition baffling koan-tool is nothing more than nonsense. But if you read haiku with mindfulness, or go through your day with mindfulness, you may divine much wisdom in these odd little tales.


Lake filled with gold:

A strangely lighted forest,

Casts slanted shadows.


Insects in the air:

The palmetto’s lower fronds

Are burnt by the cold.


The ficus bonsai:

A lizard springs off a branch,

Quickly disappears.

-K. McL.


These two poems are suffused with Zen, yet it is extremely likely Mr. Godfrey has never read a Zen text, attended a retreat, or received any formal instruction. He apprehends the thing-in-itself, and captures reality in the language of poetry. The first poem is the equal of any piece produced by the classical haiku writers.  The entire third line is a kireji, providing emphasis and dividing the verse into two discrete parts. While reading this piece, I was reminded of the Zen proverb, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

In the second piece, he adeptly sketches the progress of human life (birth, sickness, death), and contrasts our life on this planet with the wonderful hummingbird image.  


Venus keen at dusk,

Dim Mars at upper left:

The Moon dominates.


A bane of old age,

Disappearance of comrades:

Spring hummingbird eggs.

-James Godfrey

I am pleased to be able to publish three more haiku by “house poet” Joan McNerny.  There is a beautiful German word, Waldeinsamkeit, that means both solitude, being at one with nature, and love of the woods.  By all measures, Ms. McNerney has Waldeinsamkeit in its most natural form.


Winds sway maple trees

Leaves drop like butterflies

 Falling to the warm earth.


The morning mist roams

Back and forth like a

Voiceless wanderer.


Deep winterset night.

Sleepless stars glide through the sky

In aerial ballet


-Joan McNerney.

The haiku below, written by Rose Oliver, embodies that sense of Waldensamkeit.  It is an example of total identification with nature’s cycles.  Yet, the poet’s presence is entirely subtle.  She is implicit in the three lines, but does not draw attention to herself or to the human realms.  All on this planet is fleeting and evanescent.  But read Oliver’s poem a second time and enjoy what many secular Zen schools would deem a moment of enlightenment.  Read it and relax into the utmost composure of mind.

A lone blackbird sits

Dressed always in mourning

For the fallen snow.

-Rose Oliver

The next haiku allows me to stay with the theme of being “at one” with nature.  Rebecca Parrot’s preferred form of writing poetry is not haiku writing, and she has been gracious in allowing us to publish this piece.  But in this verse she demonstrates the ability to identify with the image and to sense the presence of a world beyond the five senses.  I admire her characterization of that herd of clouds.


A herd of clouds

Thin with age, snakes along

Following water’s scent.

-Rebeca Parrott.

​Vera Ignatowitsch submitted a verse accompanied by some insightful questions about the kireji in haiku.  This “cutting word” has more than just one purpose, and my intent is to elaborate next month on the lesser known functions of the cutting word.


Tongues tasting tender

Lips delicious scents inhale

Ascending desire.


-Vera Ignatowitsch


​My reading makes the entire third line as the kireji as it makes a transition from individual senses to the five senses plus the mind.  It definitely represents a transition of focus.


The second line of this piece by Colin James III has the flow of a traditional haiku.  The first and third lines do not.  But taken together the three lines do have a koan quality, which makes it consistent with this month’s theme. 


Prison statistics:

Black birds pecking at rabbit.

God gives me food stamps.


-Colin James III


We will again close out the column with two haiku by American author Richard Wright, who was beset by anger much of his life, but eventually found peace in the Other World that is haiku.  These verses are from his published collection.


A cock crows for dawn

And then a neighing horse tells

Of spring in his blood.


Rain drops are tilting

Pink from magnolias

In the setting sun.


-Richard Wright

Yet once more I encourage all haiku writers to share their work, their insights into the nature of all things, with fellow poets and BTS readers.  For those interested in haiku, I recommend you cast back into the BTS archives and reference the September haiku column.  It provides a pretty thorough explanation of the basic format.   - Kevin McLaughlin

poetry magazine, kelly writers house
bottom of page