Author: Emma Rose Callen

Lessons from Buddhist Poets Issa & Ryokan

When I went to college for the first time, I was completely overwhelmed. I felt like I was being forced to let go of my childhood. All the students seemed happy; they gathered in circles, instinctively picking out peers to befriend. As college went by, I found myself comparing memories. I compared my childhood with my young adulthood. I wondered why I had found so much love at home and so little at college. My memories became dangerous; they trapped me in anger and kept me attached to my ego. I became angry at myself for holding onto my childhood; why couldn’t I enjoy my “adulthood?” I was in danger of becoming bitter; I felt as though I was pitted against the world.

Our memories are sometimes dangerous, but they also have the potential of being extremely liberating. If we learn to see the world in all its complexity, we can look at our memories with detachment and honesty. The ancient Buddhist poets Issa and Ryokan both experienced the sadness and isolation we sometimes feel in college. Yet, instead of becoming bitter and self-pitying, they learned from their pain. Both men learned how to “become children” again; they learned how to live in the present. Childhood is not something that is lost suddenly; it fades away, and at moments, it shines through. Issa and Ryokan taught me this. I have learned how to cultivate the freedom and appreciation children feel for every moment and keep this vivacity alive throughout college and on into adulthood. It is only pain that threatens to destroy the passion we all have for life. Here are the important lessons I have learned from them to help put college into perspective. 

Reach for Happiness

Lessons Learned from Buddhist Poets Issa & Ryokan

Issa has profound insight into the nature of the world. He believes we “walk on the roof of hell/gazing at flowers.” Most humans only “gaze” and hope for happiness, instead of reaching for it. We look backwards and forwards in time, waiting for the next “flower,” instead of appreciating the moment, whether the moment is painful or pleasurable. We look forward to college weekends, instead of enjoying the day in front of us. It is often difficult to see that time is not linear; we are not trapped on Earth, waiting to reach something greater. We are simply living every day as it comes, attempting to be present in every moment. It is natural that some of these moments will be painful and some will be joyous. Though college can be extremely stressful, that does not mean we should avoid these painful moments.

Remain in the Present Moment

Lessons Learned from Buddhist Poets Issa & Ryokan

Issa uses his memories as fuel to help him understand how to live a meaningful life. Even in a poem Issa wrote about his deceased daughter, there is a simplicity and a sense of peace. Issa recalls the “scarlet flowers/she liked to pick.” He gives no reflection; he simply remembers his daughter and her love of flowers. He seems to learn from the simplicity of his daughter; it is important to love the flowers and to be happy in the moment. Issa reflects on the past, but he does not get stuck in it. Issa seems to understand that being “here” is all you can be. The snow will fall and life will always continue. If you are a part of this world, you have a duty to be fully “here;” if you are not, you are missing out on life.

Learn From Children

Lessons Learned from Buddhist Poets Issa & Ryokan

In their self-healing, both Issa and Ryokan come back to images of children and the relationship between parent and child. This sacred relationship captures the complex nature of the world. The past is always disappearing, making room for the present. Yet, remnants of the past always remain. In modern society, we often see a clear separation between “child” and “adult”. We assume that, as we enter college, we abandon the immature child inside of us and become mature adults. However, as we age and move away from home, we are continuously tempted by the world; college tempts us to see ourselves as independent and egocentric.

Like flowers, children bloom. The world is always unfolding and bringing new things in and out of being. Ryokan refers to the “three thousand worlds,” or the multiplicity of the world we so often see as singular and linear. There is no objective world; we all have our own lives, and our lives are intertwined with the lives of everything around us. Ryokan appears to understand that there is no “winning” or “losing;” life does not pit the ego against the rest of the world. Likewise, we are not competing with our fellow students; it is not us versus them.

Ryokan knows that “if we gain something, it was there from the beginning” and that if we “lose anything, it is hidden nearby.” This mantra applies to perfectly to college life. If we experience joy, we must appreciate this joy, yet we must be careful not grow attached to it. We must love the feelings and experiences of the current moment just as children do. When we lose something, we must accept this and not curse the world for taking something away from us. Time is not linear; things that are lost will eventually be found. Perhaps we will recover what is lost in a different form, just as Ryokan did. As Ryokan aged, he seemed to grow closer to his youth. He spent his time with children, laughing and thinking about how time passes and how people change. We are all capable of recovering the innocence of our childhood and the joy we had as children.

Live Passionately

Lessons Learned from Buddhist Poets Issa & Ryokan

Both Issa and Ryokan warn us that we must not let our memories consume us. We must not live in the past or in the future; there is only the present moment. As we go through college, we cannot look back; we can reflect on our past, but we must always remain present. In our moments of sadness, we must follow Issa and Ryokan’s lead: we must use our pain to create something beautiful. These poets found a way to honor the beauty of the world and accept the pain. Issa believed that “this world is like a rope, flailed with strands of joy and anger, pain and pleasure. All that meets will part.” Many call Issa a cynic, but truly, he is a realist; the world is filled with unbelievable happiness and unbearable pain. Sadness is an essential part of life; it reminds us that we must cherish every moment. We must live by Issa’s example and use our “cynicism” to make our lives honest and beautiful. We must also follow Ryokan’s lessons and learn to love every moment for what it is. Childhood is not something that must be forgotten as you grow up. Childhood may fade away, but, at moments, it shines through us all. We must cultivate the freedom we enjoyed as children and the passion children have for every moment of life.

To Survive or to Thrive: College Edition

Children are unapologetic about what they love; they are passionate and even obsessive. My childhood obsession was with archaeology; I read about the sarcophagi in Egypt thrive - childhood dreamsand the ruins in Pompeii. I dreamt that ancient bones and artifacts were still buried under my feet, just waiting for me to uncover them. Unfortunately, the dreams we have as children often fall away and are replaced with the pessimistic, “adult” mindset deemed necessary for the “real world.”

My dream of becoming an archaeologist was set aside, and I spent my high school trying to live up to an arbitrary definition of success. Adults stress the importance of “success;” they do not explain–and may not even understand– that this term is relative. I was told I needed to get into a good college in order to get a good job, and thus I set aside my “silly” childhood dreams.

By the time I entered college, I was used to the system; I understood that if I wanted to be successful, I had to manage my busy schedule and dedicate myself to my studies. Although I was a hard-working student, I felt like I was losing something; I was slowly forgetting the passion that I once felt for learning. By the time students enter college, they resemble machines; they are programmed to manage their classwork, jobs, and social lives. Time for rest and reflection are rare. We are always busy, and thus we grow distanced from our thoughts and ourselves. Like many of my fellow students, I grew detached from my true passions; I lost sight of what I really wanted.

Many students handle their academic and social stresses by simply going through the motions; attending classes and social events because we think we are “supposed to.” I tried to follow the example set by my peers, but, by sophomore year, I could see it was not working for me. I learned that it was better to let something go than to pretend. Instead of taking a class I was  not interested in simply because it looked impressive, I began taking classes that my childhood self calls out for– the class that reminds me of forgotten dreams.  If you simply pretend and go through the motions during college, it is likely that you will continue this habit after graduation. If you decide not to major in what you love because you are told it won’t make you “successful,” you will grow distanced from yourself. One day, you may forget who you are and what you truly love.

If we drop some of the tasks we feel we are “supposed to” complete, we become closer to ourselves and learn to understand who we are. When we are faced with a stressor, it is the way we respond to it that brings us closer to our true selves. In turn, we learn to love ourselves rather obsess over what is temporary. What is temporary includes both academic and social stresses, as well as our bodies. If we maintain perspective, we see that many of our worries are not worth dwelling on.thrive - college routine

If we want to truly love ourselves and become happy, successful adults, we must practice moderation. In school, we are forced to navigate two extremes. We are told to stay committed and work hard in order to succeed and make money. A nagging voice is often in the back of our minds, telling us we have no time to lose. The other extreme is a voice that tells us we are powerless and inadequate; it tempts us to give up. Our childhood fantasies are looked back at as silly dreams. We must navigate these extremes if we want to nurture our souls and stay grounded. Conflict forces us to either go through the motions or to reflect. We must reflect and force ourselves into consciousness. This creates an intimacy and honesty within ourselves. If we want to find the career that makes us happy, we must both love and learn with our whole hearts. 

thrive - meditation

If we do not practice moderation, we often end up neglecting our mental and physical health. I use the app “Headspace” in order to check in with myself and stay focused on what truly matters. The app is described as “a gym membership for the mind.” Just like you train your body, you can train your mind. The app allows you ten days of free meditation. Using this app, I have slowly been learning how to clear my mind. By taking ten minutes each day to focus on my mental health, I have become more in touch with myself and what I really want. I have cut out activities that I was simply doing because I saw other students participating. I have learned that sometimes, the most productive thing I can do is to spend time alone and to not stretch myself too thin. My favorite meditation sessions focus on self-love. It is so easy to forget to congratulate yourself on what you have done, especially when you always have a new assignment or exam coming up. Being mindful of the present moment has allowed me to put things in perspective. During every meditation, I remind myself of all that I have to be grateful for and all that I have accomplished thus far.

Last weekend, I finally saw the ruins at Pompeii. During this experience, my heart was aching; I kept thinking about my childhood dreams and the love I had for archaeology. I let these dreams go because I believed they were unrealistic;  no one understood why I wanted to be an archeologist. I felt defeated. Through practicing both moderation and meditation, I have learned how to let things go; I have learned to focus on what I love and to disregard what others expect of me. Though I regret that I was defeated so easily by the pressures of adulthood, my experience in Pompeii reminded me that it is often the ideas and subjects you obsess over as a child that are the most true; the dreams we have as children never really die. The clean, “perfect” plan college students feel forced to follow is nothing but an act. If we keep on acting rather than living, we risk never truly understanding ourselves or what we want out of life. We must decide whether we will simply try to survive, or whether we will choose to thrive.