The Poet's Dreamingbody
The Poet's Dreamingbody
Wayfaring Poet Profile: Chiyo-ni
Wayfaring Poet Profile: Chiyo-ni
Woman Haiku Master (1703-1775)

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One Hundred Aspects of the Moon #74 - Lady Chiyo / Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1889) - inspired by her haiku: morning glories / have taken my bucket / I ask for water

Greetings Good Travelers, Wayfarers, and Red-Dusters. In this episode of The Poet’s Dreamingbody, we are taking another look at a Wayfaring Poet Profile – this time the female haiku master of the Edō Period (1603-1868): Chiyo-ni. 

Like many Wayfaring poets, she was known by various pen names over the course of her life: Kaga no Chiyo, Matto no Chiyo, and Chiyo-jo. The name Chiyo itself means “a thousand years.” She was an artist, haiku poet, Wayfarer, and – later in life – a Pure Land nun, which is when she added the suffix “ni” to her name, denoting that she is a nun.

Born in 1703 to a family that ran a scroll-making business, she grew up in an atmosphere saturated in art, calligraphy, poetry, and the ringing of nearby Buddhist temple bells that echoed throughout the valley. The small town of her childhood is called Matto in the Kaga region of Japan (present-day Ishikawa Prefecture), at the foot of Haku-san (White Mountain) known for its sweet spring water and beautiful natural scenery. The “North Country Road” — made famous by Matsuo Bashō’s travels in Narrow Road to the Interior — ran right through the middle of Matto, so it was a route that brought many travelers, samurai, poets, and people on pilgrimage right past her door.

From the account of her life, Chiyo was what we would call today a gifted child. She penned her first haiku at the age of seven. By the age of twelve, her father had recognized her creative genius and sent her to study with one of the haiku masters of the day, Hansui (1684-1775), with whom she also learned to write Chinese characters.

Though Chiyo was born nine years after the death of Master Bashō (1644-1694), there were many haijin (haiku poets) who studied with Bashō who lived in the vicinity. One famous Bashō disciple, Shiko Kagami (1665-1731) became another of Chiyo’s early teachers. Though they only crossed paths a few times, they maintained a haiku correspondence that lasted for years.

It is believed that until her 20s, haiku was only a hobby for Chiyo, but in her mid-20s she began making pilgrimages, on foot, to Kyoto (132 miles) and Ise (175 miles) to “brush sleeves” with other disciples of the late Bashō.

In her 30’s, Chiyo experienced a series of tragic losses – the death of both of her parents, the death of her brother and his wife, and other relatives. This left Chiyo alone to manage the family’s scroll-making business. Though she continued writing poetry, studying art, and engaging in spiritual practice privately, it is said that from her 30s to her 50s she primarily focused on the scroll-making business until such time that she adopted her niece, who then inherited the business.

At the age of 52, Chiyo became a Pure Land nun and committed herself to a simple life as an urban hermit. Her Buddhist name was Soen (Simple Garden) and upon shaving her head she wrote:

I am not rejecting the world, but because of feeling a lonely sense of mujō (impermanence), I am rather seeking a way for my heart to take after pure water, which flows night and day. 

Though Chiyo-ni was a follower of Jōdo (Pure Land Buddhism), we know that she blended Pure Land cosmology and what is called nembutsu practice with the study of Zen and meditation. She is known to have spent time at the famous Sōtō Zen temple, Eiheiji, and we know that she was involved in at least one rohatsu retreat (an eight-day silent retreat in the Zen tradition).

While Buddhism undoubtedly had a shaping influence on Chiyo-ni, her practice of Nature communion, Nature observation, and haiku was at the heart of her path. One Chiyo-ni biographer, a former abbot of Shokoji Temple in Matto said:

“Her haiku was her meditation. All her haiku written after she became a nun were enlightened haiku. Before she became a nun, she had too much technique, trying to impress people, but after becoming a nun, she was liberated and purer and forgot herself.” 

A brief sidebar is warranted here to emphasize something about Chiyo-ni’s haiku poetry, which was undoubtedly rendered in her own voice, but which is firmly nested in the Wayfaring lineage of Bashō’s Nature-oriented contemplative poetics. 
Prior to Bashō, haiku was a poetic form that tended toward cutesy parlor games, with genres – such as senryu – built upon the 5-7-5 syllable structure of haiku but characterized by satire, cynicism, dark humor, a focus on human foibles, even overt sexual vulgarity. Then, along came Bashō.
In the words of the late Chiyo-ni scholar and Western haijin, Patricia Donegan: “Bashō transformed haiku into a poetic form of depth and sophistication. After his passing, the [haiku] form tended to revert to its older character as either trite or amusing wordplay, except for gifted poets like Chiyo-ni.”
Donegan paints a portrait of a number of rustic poets who sought to preserve haiku as an awareness practice, a Nature-rooted spiritual practice, and even one expression of Zen mind (or a soul flowing with Tao). It isn’t that there is no room for humor in haiku. We find knee-slapping poems of hilarity among such haiku poets as Buson and Issa, for example. But, as a generality, those who followed in the footsteps of Bashō – like Chiyo-ni – haiku was a season-guided consciousness that created dynamic openings in heart-mind for both poet and reader. 

So, Chiyo-ni was one of these poets who continued to cultivate the aesthetic of Bashō. She also studied calligraphy and painting and frequently collaborated with artists, such as the well-known samurai artist and printmaker Toho Naito (1728-1788). Chiyo-ni was also known for her portrait painting and haiga – paintings of Nature that weave imagery and haiku verses. Additional examples of her carrying on the Wayfaring lineage of Bashō were Chiyo-ni’s innovations in the arena of haibun – travel writing that weaves together prose writing and haiku poetry – such as her Pilgrimage to Yoshizaki, which she made at the age of sixty.

Chiyo-ni’s most prolific period as a poet and artist was in later life. She published two collections of her own poems, contributed to more than 120 anthologies, and was even asked by Yosa Buson (1716-1784) – often cited as one of the four primary masters of haiku – to write the foreword to one of his collections. 

In 1763, at the age of sixty-one, she was commissioned by the daimyō, a samurai by the name of Lord Maeda of Kaga, to brush twenty-one of her poems on scrolls and fans to be included as gifts from the Tokugawa government to Korea.

There are many facets of Chiyo-ni’s life that are notable. At a time when women had few rights in Japan, and haiku was considered primarily a male poetic form, Chiyo-ni distinguished herself and was considered an equal by many male haijin (haiku poets). She also actively cultivated a community of female haiku poets that included prostitutes, the daughters of both samurai and merchants as well as other Buddhist nuns.

Let’s turn our attention to a few curated verses of Chiyo-ni:

one mountain after another

unveiled —

the first mists

cool breeze —

enclosed in my kimono sleeves

til falling asleep

flying cranes

as high as the clouds —

first sunrise

airing out kimonos

as well as her heart

is never enough

New Year’s sake —

until the next

this first delight


the beauty

of hidden things

plum flower scent

where has the snow woman’s

ghost blown to?

sound of the waterfall

diminishes in the peaks —

cicadas’ voices

among a field

of horsetail weeds —

temple ruins

even the butterfly

voiceless —

Buddhist service

touching the fishing line —

the summer moon


is left

in the maple leaves

at the crescent moon

the silence

enters the heart

a hundred gourds

from the heart

of one vine

autumn field —

some grasses flower

some grasses don’t

full moon —

keeping it in my eyes

on a distant walk

over the flowing water

chasing its shadow —

the dragonfly

one must bend

in the floating world —

snow on the bamboo

unfinished dream —

a chrysanthemum blooms

in the tatami room

And, at the end of her life, she wrote two final haiku as her jisei (death-poems):

I also saw the moon

and so I say goodbye

to this world

clear water is cool

fireflies vanish —

there’s nothing more

Though it is out-of-print and hard to find as a used book for less than $100, if you’re interested in exploring more about the life of Chiyo-ni, the flagship study of her life and poetry in English is CHIYO-NI: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi.

Thanks for stopping by The Poet’s Dreamingbody. We still have a few more Wayfaring Poet Profiles ahead such as Rengetsu (Lotus Moon), Ryōkan, and Saigyō, but I’m going to be taking a bit of a break from this space. The Spirit of Autumn is calling for silence and stillness. Until we meet again, I wish you and yours well.


In the Silence of the Subconscious by Moss Garden

The Poet's Dreamingbody

The Poet's Dreamingbody

an exploration of Wayfaring, ancient and modern