poetry

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.