“Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku” by Natalie Goldberg


Popular American writer and speaker Natalie Goldberg, best known for her 1986 best-seller Writing Down the Bones, has been a student of Zen for thirty years. A wonderful storyteller, her writing is full of wisdom from Asia. Her new book is a pilgrimage to the places in Japan close to the heart of her favorite haiku poets. 

She begins by asking:


What is the Way of haiku? Bare attention, no distractions, pure awareness, noticing only what is in the moment. Being connected to seasons, and unconnected to self-clinging. And then, out of that, composing your experience in three lines that go beyond logic, that make the mind leap. In the center a taste of emptiness. A frog, a crow, a turnip—the ordinary right in front of you is the realm of awakening. Pure Zen but not Zen.



Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku,  Natalie Goldberg (New World Library, January 2021)
Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku, Natalie Goldberg (New World Library, January 2021)

Goldberg began thinking about haiku in the summer of 1976, when she heard poet Allen Ginsberg speak at the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado. Ginsberg explained that there were four great masters of haiku that they all must study: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. And that:


The only real measure of a haiku … “is upon hearing one, your mind experiences a small sensation of space”—he paused; I leaned in, breathless—“which is nothing less than God.”


Goldberg’s first love was the Edo period poet Yosa Buson. Her infatuation with him struck her like a lightning bolt in 1993 when she was on a short holiday in northern New Mexico.


Ah, grief and sadness!
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn breeze


She felt as if “October poured through the aspens and over rocks.” And she vows, then and there, that someday she will go to Japan and pay homage to this great poet at his grave.

This takes time. In fact, it takes almost two decades. And by then, she has been bowled over by Basho and wants to see the famous poetic place of Matsushima. This was where words failed the poet, so beautiful was Matsushima that all he could say was:


Matsushima ah
Matsushima ah
Ah, Matsushima


Later, back in Kyoto, an old friend of hers from New Mexico, Ted, and his little daughter Sora, escort her to see the legendary pond of Basho’s frog: Plop! And she mischievously delights in going to eat in a Western restaurant, where she gets to have some of her favorite food from home: steak with fries and a coke.

Despite her frequent bowing and prostrating in the book, she is not above playing the self-centered American in Japan, demanding service in restaurants after the kitchen closes and refusing to attend a lecture at Naoshima, the art island, since she simply wants to experience things without preconceived notions. But maybe it is her cluelessness that makes her such a wonderful travel companion around Japan. Her friend and guide in Japan, Mitsue, tries to explain that in Japan people try to be considerate and not make themselves the center of things. Japanese people try to imagine what others want, even changing what they are saying mid-sentence to try and achieve harmony. Mitsue then grows quiet, and says that the continual second guessing makes her tired too.


Goldberg is always herself. And what she wants is unmediated experience—that is: “bare attention, no distractions, pure awareness”. Although ostensibly about haiku, the book is really about Natalie Goldberg. There are no academic explanations about the poetic form or its conventions or history, but there is plenty about the American experience of haiku—from Allen Ginsberg to the great Reginald Horace Blyth—and from American Zen—from Katagiri Roshi to the powerhouse teacher-translators Kazuaki Tanahashi and Joan Hallifax. The book features an all-star cast of characters.

Traveling around Japan from Matsushima and Osaka, she finally makes her way to Takayama to pay a visit to a friend of her revered teacher Katagiri Roshi, about whom she has written so much in previous books. First in her 1993 book the Long Quiet Highway, which was a beautiful tribute to him and his significance in her life, written three years after he had passed away. Sadly, this book was followed by her struggle with disillusionment over the posthumous discovery of affairs he had with several female students, which she described in her later 2004 memoir, The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth. This history is revisited toward the end of Three Simple Lines, when she visits an old friend of Katagiri’s friends, Harada Roshi, in Takayama. Harada asks her about her thoughts on Katagiri for a book he is writing about the remarkable people he has met in his own life. And she describes in honest detail her disillusionment. Harada writes later to tell her how touched he was by her honesty. And that, he thinks as human beings “we must try to always live as ourselves, wherever we are.”

So many truly remarkable meetings take place in Three Simple Lines: meetings between the living and meetings between the living and the dead; meetings between poets and Buddhists and travelers who hail from far and wide. The book ends with Goldberg joining two haiku groups near her home in New Mexico. Still connecting with poets and trying her hand at writing her own haiku, she thinks of Ginsberg, who is perhaps her other great teacher. Encouraging her to study the mind and try and connect that with writing, it was Ginsberg who would illuminate her way forward as a writer. The book ends with a poem she wrote in his memory, in this beautiful way illuminating the way we human beings can inspire and sustain each other across space and time, endlessly:


Allen Ginsberg
Far beyond
Seventeen syllables


Spring wind
Blossomed you
Into another world

Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film. Her book reviews have appeared in Kyoto Journal, the Dublin Review of Books, the New Rambler, and 3 Quarks Daily.