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Chiyo-ni's Haiku Style
by Patricia Donegan

Excerpts from Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master

In her day it was said that Chiyo-ni's style was true to Basho's. Although Chiyo-ni acquired her own unique voice, eventually, she was surely influenced in her early period by the prevalence of Basho's teachings in the Kaga region. Ranko, author of the afterword to Chiyo-ni Kusho, wrote that Kihaku, the editor, had originally decided to collect Chiyo-ni's haiku because she was true to Basho's shofu, or style. Basho's style of haiku was formulated by others over the years. His well known fundamentals usually include: sabi (detached loneliness), wabi (poverty of spirit), hosomi (slenderness, sparseness), shiori (tenderness), sokkyo (spontaneity), makoto (sincerity), fuga (elegance), karumi (simplicity), kyakkan byosha (objectivity), and shiZen to hitotsu ni naru (oneness with nature).

"Oneness with nature" seems especially resonant in Chiyo-ni's haiku. Basho's theory of oneness with nature was that the poet should make a faithful or honest sketch of nature. In the Sanzohi (1702), Basho's disciple, Doho, explains his teacher's theory: "Learn about the pine from the pine and the bamboo from the bamboo--the poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object . . . so the poem forms itself when poet and object become one." This experience is analogous to the Buddhist idea of satori, or enlightenment, what Kenneth Yasuda called the "haiku moment." When writing haiku, Chiyo-ni immersed herself in nature, honestly observing what she saw, as in the following haiku:

sound of things
dropping from the tree--autumn wind

a single spider's thread
ties the duckweed
to the shore

Roughly ninety percent of her haiku are about things in nature rather than the social realm. This kind of haiku practice emphasizing seeing things clearly, becoming one with nature, and living the Way of Haikai, co-emerged with her Buddhist practice.

Purity and clarity . . . are central to Chiyo-ni's poetry. The haiku poet, Shoin, who wrote the preface to Chiyo-ni Kushu, stated:

"Chiyo-ni's style is pure, like white jade, without ornament, without carving, natural. Both her life and writing style are clear/pure. She lives simply, as if with a stone for a pillow, and spring water to brush her teeth. She is like a small pine, embodying a female style that is subtle, fresh, and beautiful. Chiyo-ni knows the Way, is in harmony with Nature. One can better know the universe, through each thing in the Phenomena, as in Chiyo-ni's haiku, than through her books."

Her clear writing style went hand in hand with her Buddhist practice. In her haiku, water can be a symbol for clear perception. She saw the world clearly and expressed her words clearly, using the image of water, of her most frequently used images, to reflect nature. For example:

hands drop
all things on the ground--the clear water

on the road
today's rain
the seed for clear water

And this haiku, perhaps more than any other, epitomizes her clear perception:

when dropped
it is only water--rouge flower dew

Yet, the most important thing about Chiyo-ni's haiku, which epitomizes her being true to Basho's style, is how she actually lived the Way of Haikai, or fuga no michi (the way of refinement in one's own life and art). With the emphasis on poetry as a way of life, poetry could be a source of awakening. One famous Edo story attests to this. Kaya Shirao (1738-91), an arrogant young male poet, visited Chiyo-ni for the first time when she was sixty-seven, and wept after meeting such a great haiku poet who was so humble, living the Way of Haikai. Although she never set up a "Chiyo-ni school," many people of her time admired her lifestyle, following the way of haiku, and felt that, 'even though' she was a woman, she shared something in common with Basho.

Reprinted with her permission, the excerpts are by Patricia Donegan from her book [with Yoshi Ishibashi], Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master, Charles E Tuttle Co, September 1998, ISBN: 0804820538.

This is the first book written in English about Chiyo-ni, a Buddhist nun and haiku master who lived in Japan in 1703-1775.

Paticial Donegan is the author of a number of haiku and poetry related books including:

  • Haiku Activities: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids
  • Bone poems (mini-cantos)

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