Perchance to Daydream

Having your head in the clouds can actually bolster self-control, creativity, inspiration, empathy, and readiness to learn.

Issa: My Life Through the Pen of a Haiku Master

Experiencing my own life in verse.

We humans-
squirming around
among the blossoming flowers.


When I became ill and began to live a life of relative seclusion, I discovered a kindred soul: the lay Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828). Reading his haiku about small creatures, I often feel as if I'm experiencing my own life in verse:

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

This is how I live my days: slowly, slowly. But, like the snail, I'll get there. "There" for me today is getting this piece posted!

For you too fleas,
the night must be long
it must be lonely.

I, too, have had many a long and lonely night when sleep eluded me due to the severity of my symptoms.

Don't worry spiders,
I keep house

Don't worry Issa, spiders are safe in my somewhat neglected house too.

Issa didn't have an easy life. He was born in a small village in central Japan, the son of a farmer. His mother died when he was two. He wrote this haiku about her:

Mother I never knew,
every time I see the ocean
every time..

My eyes filled with tears the first time I read this. My father died when I was ten, but we packed a lifetime of memories into those few years. Our favorite activity was to go deep sea fishing, so it's not surprising that all my life, I've felt a pull to be near the ocean. I've only been to it once in the ten years since I got sick. As I sat in the sand and looked out to sea, the memories of my father were vivid. Yes, Issa, every time I see the ocean, every time...

When he was eight, Issa's father remarried, but his stepmother abused him so he left his small village in his teens and went to the big city, Edo. There, he began to study haiku and donned monk's robes. At age 27, he set out on ten years of wandering, a tradition with both Zen monks and haiku masters.

He returned to the village of his birth when he was 38 and eventually married a local girl named Kiku. They had a son who lived only a month, another son who lived only a year, and a daughter who died of smallpox after only a year.

I am so moved by how this man, whose life was filled with so much tragedy, could write poems of such careful observation and joy:

Closing the door
he drops off to sleep...

To the lullaby

of mosquitoes

a child sleeps.

I'm going to roll over
so, please move,

Under my house
an inchworm
measuring the joists.

In my life of relative seclusion, I've become a keen observer of little creatures too: a spider, dropping from the ceiling on a silken thread, only to stop a foot above my bed; a mosquito, slowly circling my body, looking for the perfect landing spot; a fly, dashing around the bedroom like some crazy freeway driver.

Here is my favorite of Issa's poems:

The world of dew
is the world of dew
And yet, and yet...

This short gem makes vivid the fleeting nature of life. Almost as soon as we see the dew, it changes to something else. The last line inspires me to question my fixed views about this turn my life has taken. Yes, I'm sick. "And yet, and yet..." Might there not be unexpected wonders awaiting me nonetheless?

© 2011 Toni Bernhard

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

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Issa's haiku are from The Essential Haiku, trans. by Robert Hass. Woman at ocean by iirraa

Perchance to Daydream