Best of the Haiku Challenge (January 2024)

Announcing the winning poems from Tricycle’s monthly challenge The post Best of the Haiku Challenge (January 2024) appeared first on Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Best of the Haiku Challenge (January 2024)

The best haiku overturn our expectations, giving us a clearer vision of the world. Sometimes the unexpected reveals itself through an unlikely juxtaposition of images. At other times, the poet will make an assertion that contradicts our ordinary understanding. Always there is that little element of play that puts the reader in a mirthful or thoughtful frame of mind. The winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge honored the legacy of the Buddhist hermit-poet Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”) in a fresh, contemporary way.

Jo Podvin reveals the paradox of the hermitic lifestyle with her comical question, “Who would feed the cat?” David Bolton reaches the peak of his own private Cold Mountain—without even having to climb.
Nichael Cramer welcomes a kindred spirit to Cold Mountain, admitting that they must both be crazy for having traveled there.

Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

You can submit a haiku for the current challenge here.


I would go with you
on that trek up Cold Mountain
but who’d feed the cat?

— Jo Podvin

An old Zen story illustrates what happens when a religious ideal becomes a law unto itself.

An old and pious woman had built a hermitage for a monk, and for years brought him his daily food and generally looked after him. One day she decided to test him. She told her pretty niece to bring his meal to him, embrace him, and then at once come back and tell her his reaction.

On being embraced, the monk roughly pushed the girl away, saying: “Sap rises no longer in a withered tree.” The girl returned and told what had happened. The old woman stormed up to the hut. “For years I have kept a block of wood!” She drove out the monk and burned the hermitage.

While somewhat terse, Irmgard Schloegl’s retelling of the tale in The Wisdom of the Zen Masters is more faithful to the original than the one popularized by Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, where it was framed as an object lesson on compassion. As a tale from Chinese folk religion, its real message is a lot simpler: “Without lay people, the monastic class could not exist—a truth they neglect at their peril.” The girl hasn’t been sent to test the hermit’s celibacy or his compassion. She is there to confirm the old woman’s suspicion that he is not a spiritual adept, but rather a spiritual elitist in disguise.

Nearly all the haiku submitted for the January 2024 Tricycle Challenge celebrated the hermitic lifestyle of the 7th-century Chinese poet who took his name from the remote mountain where he lived. But the winning poem added an element of comical realism to the mix, resulting in a funnier and—ultimately—deeper kind of poem.

Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”) wrote his verses on stones and cliffs and monastery walls. But he clearly intended for others to read them. In the great tradition of Buddhist hermit-writers like Kamo no Chomei (1155–1216), he could not quite leave the world behind. He was always writing “letters” to it through his poems.

The winning haiku sounds like a response to one of those letters. “I would go with you on that trek up Cold Mountain,” the poet replies, then adds, “but who would feed the cat?”

Or maybe the words are addressed to a present-day spouse heading out for the temporary Cold Mountain of a seven-day Zen retreat. It hardly matters. Always there is a valley where ordinary people remain faithful to the daily tasks that keep everyone fed—monks and cats alike. Cold Mountain is real insofar as it honors that vital connection. Otherwise, it becomes a disembodied abstraction that only adds more suffering to the world.

But the critique is handled so lightly here. The idea that Hanshan might have left a cat behind in the care of a wife or trusted companion is the essence of the poem. At their best, haiku find playful ways to subvert existing frames of reference in order to reveal them more clearly for what they are. The best folk tales do too.


down the basement steps
to a writing desk and lamp
atop Cold Mountain

David Bolton

clearly no sane man
would travel to Cold Mountain
— make yourself at home

Nichael Cramer

You can find more on January’s season word, as well as relevant haiku tips, in last month’s challenge below:

Winter season word: “Cold Mountain”

the end of nowhere
is only the beginning
come to cold mountain

Submit as many haiku as you wish that include the season word “Cold Mountain.” Your poems must be written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively, and should focus on a single moment of time happening now.

Be straightforward in your description and try to limit your subject matter. Haiku are nearly always better when they don’t have too many ideas or images. So make your focus the season word* and try to stay close to that.

*REMEMBER: To qualify for the challenge, your haiku must be written in 5-7-5 syllables and include the words “Cold Mountain.”

Haiku Tip: Come to Cold Mountain!

The American poet and translator Gary Snyder writes of the semi-legendary Chinese poet, Han Shan: “‘Cold Mountain,’ takes his name from where he lived. He is a mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits. When he talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind.”

Japanese haiku poets often allude to classical Chinese literature—especially Basho, who revisited the poems of Han-shan’s contemporary Tu Fu (712-770) whenever he wished to take the long view of human history. Realizing that the poet’s name was also a winter season word, I decided to follow suit with this month’s sample poem.

I used the name to suggest a place so far off the beaten track of civilization that it might be our only hope—a “cold mountain” where humanity might survive the rising waters and temperatures of climate change. But like Han Shan I also wanted to describe the state of mind of a person who was willing to leave everything behind to seek that kind of place.

In 1973, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin published a Hugo Award-winning short story about a utopian city called Omelas where the inhabitants experience inconceivable happiness and delight. There is but one exception. The splendor of the city requires that a single child be kept in perpetual darkness, misery, and filth.

The child’s suffering is kept secret from the younger citizens, but once they come of age they are required to visit the basement where the boy or girl is kept. Even if the experience leaves them disgusted or troubled, most are able to go on with their happy lives after learning the truth about their city. But some are not. These are “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” of the story’s title.

Each of these “leavers” departs the city alone, and none of them ever come back. Thus the story ends: “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The unanswered question at the heart of the story is, “What lies beyond civilization?” It’s a riddle as old as poetry and, as Le Guin suggests, perhaps no one knows the answer. But every now and then, in a verse by Basho or Han Shan, we can see a glimmer of hope.

A note on cold mountain: This month’s season word belongs to the “Landscape” category for winter because it refers to the Earth and its topography. But it is also the name of an 8th century Taoist-Buddhist poet who abandoned civilization to live in the remote Tiantai Mountains of Eastern China. Of the 600 poems said to have been written by “Cold Mountain,” only 320 remain today. These were transcribed by a third party who gathered them from the monastery walls and rocks and cliff faces where Han Shan wrote them, because he never committed his work to paper.

One of Han Shan’s most famous poems, as translated by Gary Snyder:

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.