This is definitely a Zen-tinged haiku or senryu (I would place it in the senryu box). With its humor, it shows the frustration of learning and of unlearning.
have I learned nothing?
only conflicting answers
© Mark Meyer
“Have I learned nothing?” is a common feeling someone gets when they are learning something new–and in the case of Zen, it could be for “advanced” learners as well. It could have two meanings: learning what nothing is, and learning nothing at all. The question is itself a conundrum. In Zen, feeling emptiness within–having a lack of ego and conditioning–is a “goal” to achieve. Learning something is not quite the goal of Zen: usually, it is about unlearning what we have learned.
The second line makes more sense in the context of previously mentioned statements. Answers in Zen are usually malleable and practitioners of its art try not to stick to ideas.
We don’t know the exact reason the sensei (teacher) laughs. It may be in the humor of asking this question in the first place, the teacher seeing the contorted face of the student, the teacher recognizes the student is making a joke about his learning, or feeling joy from knowing that he does not need to know answers, or all of the above.
In the poem, you can feel the frustration and comedy in the moment. It is simply written, but gets straight to the point. The “l” sound runs through it with “learned” “only” “conflicting” “laughing.” To me, the “l’ sound gives it a lilting feeling, which makes it more whimsical.
The simplicity of this piece has a lot to it actually: philosophy, anti-philosophy, and the endearing relationship between a student and a teacher.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky