Paul Reps: Weightless Gifts

“I feel that I am equal to each grass blade and pebble and believe it is possible to be happy though human and grow up. Paul Reps

Paul Reps was born in Cedar City, Iowa on September 15, 1895. A man that always felt there were too many words used to describe anything he was a master of minimalist haiku, Zen Buddhism, and swift sumi-e brush painting. Reps can truly be called the father of Buddhism and haiku in America. He never was caught up in tradition, breaking all that are now considered the haiku rules and, although he respected his teachers, he forged new paths. Always, in his wide travels, Paul was accompanied by his humor, wit and independent spirit. As Paul would say, If not fun, leave undone.

Way before any other western haiku poets, Paul was the harbinger of modern haiku. As a youth in the early 1900s, Reps traveled to the orient where he studied haiku, Zen and eastern art with many teachers which made an impression on his writing and style but he adapted haiku to his own interpretation. Paul never used the syllabic constraints and rarely abided by seasonal words that were the then rules of eastern haiku. He created his own form of haiku, minimal and without punctuation except for the occasional dash or exclamation point which were frequently illustrated with his sumi-e brush painting. His first book, More Power To You — Poems That Everyone Can Make, was published in 1939. From 1957 through the sixties he put on shows wherever he roamed; India, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, Mexico, USA, Greece and probably many other planetary sites.

Reps rarely settled in one place too long. A sort of haiku hobo, he wandered the world far and wide and felt and viewed the whole earth as his home. Everywhere he traveled, he made, found, or had friends who took him in and cared for him.

At one of his gallery showings, he hung his haiku, like laundry, on bamboo poles with lines strung across the room. He placed a fan where it would make the scraps of paper flutter in the breeze. He sold the haiku to the attendees; there was a sign that read, 1,000 yen to automobile owners, 500 yen to well dressed persons, 200 yen to students, 100 yen to anyone poor, 10 yen to lovers of Buddha. These “weightless gifts” as he called them were given away to his friends. His shows frequently included sound effects, and of course, his brush paintings, frequently done on the spot, to replace the haiku he sold. Because Chinese and Japanese letters are in themselves word pictures, Paul tried to bridge the gap in his haiku with his brush painting calligraphy; it is ingenious and solves the problem neatly. Paul felt that these ink patterns offered another wider dimension to the haiku it illustrated but it was the words, themselves, that he believed were the most important. Some of his haiku consist of just one, two or three words, succinct and pointed.

As an artist myself, I can relate to Paul’s attitude that each and every piece he created was for ONE individual, who would recognize it when seen. No other haiku poet received as much acclaim or media attention from the mass audience as Paul Reps. He was his own best advertisement. His popularity among readers is evidenced by the many times his books have been reprinted.

Original American haiku is what Paul is noted for but he was also an ecologist, and participated in the anti-establishment movements in the sixties as an example of peaceful singularity. His Zen attitude and introduction of Buddhism affected many of his admirers in the peace movement.

Late in his life, his appearance, as described by a friend, was one of a wise, old elf with a spark in his eye and a spring in his step. He loved to sit and tell tales of his many travels to any and all that were privileged to listen. Joel and Michelle Levey, in their book, Living in Balance, tell of the time Joel met with Paul and how he got to telling about a trip to Korea during the beginnings of the Korean Conflict:

In the early ’50s, Reps, who was in his forties, had traveled to Japan en route to visit a respected Zen master in Korea. He went to the passport office to apply for his visa and was politely informed that his request was denied due to the conflict that had just broken out. Reps walked away, and sat down quietly in the waiting area. He reached into his bag, pulled out his thermos and poured a cup of tea. Finishing his tea he pulled out a brush and paper upon which he wrote a picture poem. The clerk read the poem and it brought tears to his eyes. He smiled, bowed with respect, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. Reps’ Haiku read: ‘drinking a bowl of green tea I stop the war.'”

The last ten years of his life were spent in Kamuela, Hawaii, enjoying the beauty, weather, and friendships in that tropical spot on his beloved planet. Before his death, he lay unconscious for several days with his hands folded across his chest, each finger touching the opposite finger of the other hand in classic mudra. A nurse that cared for him exclaimed, “What is he doing?” Of course, this is the classic yogic posture of the oneness of the universe. It seems even in his unconsciousness, Paul was still very aware. He died on July 12, 1990 at age 94 in Los Angeles, peacefully, I am sure.

Paul used to say, “I thank you for your life” to those he came into contact with. Paul introduced me to haiku with his publications of Zen Flesh Zen Bones and Zen Telegrams, oh so many years ago, and I thank him for his life.

Paul felt that his haiku were not separate but one long poem. A few examples of Paul Reps haiku, alas sans pictures:


through the sky
never lost
wild geese cry


sometimes in May rain
I can hear
my fingernails growing



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