Seventeen Syllable Medicine

Haiku and the great matterWendy Johnson

Article Preview

To access this entire article and all other member-supported
content, join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

Waking up in the long indigo shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, my heart is granite. A beloved dharma sister and deep writing friend of 30 years has been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and has just entered an intensive treatment program at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center of Northern New Mexico. I have come to keep her company for a week. Outside her home, the first honey blonde columbine of summer push into bloom, a glory I am too numb to celebrate.

My friend is a fierce warrior writer, an artist with four decades of training to bolster her spine and spirit. She comes from old Zen. In her words, “A bare cushion / A steel night / Nothing moving but the mountains / And the enormous sky.” Still, her diagnosis and the stark realization that she has been carrying this cancer in her body for 25 years is savage news.

This past winter I took up the study of haiku, teaching a public class on meditation and the poetry of Basho, also a favorite of my friend. In preparation for this class we talked on the phone, sucking red marrow out of the lean shank bones of Basho’s authentic verse. When my friend received her diagnosis in late winter, she called in this Basho haiku:

A bowel-freezing night of tears 
The sound of the oar
Striking the wave.
                           (Trans. R. H. Blyth)

Fortunately, Zen practice and good writing do not tolerate wallowing. In this regard, Basho is a bold guide. He lived in late medieval Japan for 50 short years, from 1644 to 1694. He practiced Zen without insignia or ordination. Every decade he experienced a catastrophic reordering of his life. “Let my name be ‘Traveler,’” he implored, following the narrow road of poetry to the far north. He shattered clever wordplay haiku to create a new mosaic of language, solitary and raw. “The old verse can be about willows,” he observed, “but haiku requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.”

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Become a Supporting Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Supporting Member

Become a Sustaining Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Sustaining Member