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Laughing Buddha


In Old Japan the calendar was timed so that every year on the 15th day of Eighth Month, the harvest moon—that is, the full, radiant moon of the autumn equinox—presided over sacred agricultural rites. On this most auspicious night, farmers set out dumplings, sweet potatoes, and sprays of grasses as offerings to the moon, whom they considered a kami-sama, a god. Poets especially loved to come together on this occasion to guzzle sake and scribble in their journals the one-breath poetry of haiku.

All the above I learned in my reading of Buck-Teeth's Diary—one of the most famous haiku journals of all time. In that book, Buck-Teeth recounts how he and other literary luminaries gathered one unforgettable night in the mountains of Shinano Province to watch a harvest moon. But soon after moonrise, to everyone's horror, it darkened to total, black eclipse.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just the other night the Channel Six weather guy let slip at the close of an ordinary late September forecast for New Orleans—"muggy and hot"—that a lunar eclipse would happen in twenty four hours, then adding, his eyes strangely intense as if peering at me personally through my twenty-inch screen: "And tomorrow's eclipse will be an exceedingly rare one, it being a harvest moon."

I sat there, stunned.

Before the break to commercial, I had already made up my mind. A shiver of anticipation wriggled up my spine and set my scalp a-tingling. Tomorrow evening, weather permitting, I would drink in with my own two eyes exactly what Buck-Teeth and his cronies had drunk in, so long ago, with theirs! Not only that, but I'd bring along my trusty haiku pad and pen. And then, though we might be separated by a vast gulf of time and space, I could nevertheless be right there, shoulder-to-shoulder with Buck-Teeth and pals, nestled inside the very same experience, scribbling my own one-breath, three-line haiku.

I could hardly wait.


Next night, I chose as my eclipse-gazing site an outdoor café adjoining the Canal Street ferryboat station. Eager to limber up my poetic muscles, I settled at a river-facing table and flipped open my hip-pocket notepad. I grabbed my roller pen, ready to roll. I ordered a beer, watched, and waited.

A cloud, flickering with lightning, stayed mercifully low and distant. I raised my glass and toasted that cloud, gratefully.

"Kampai !" I gulped. This toast led to others. I toasted the moon, the dark, shimmering river...and one lone tugboat that was pushing a barge upstream toward the Twin Span dotted with lights. And then, right on time, the moon lost an edge. I raised my pen...


Back in Old Japan, the boys were cranking out haiku, the harvest moon eclipse whipping their creative juices to a froth. Cup-of-Tea, Buck-Teeth's master, bent over his rice-paper diary and drew with wet, dancing squiggles:

world of man!
even the moon
must suffer

Kuro, a somber Poet in Black, wrote an appropriately dark haiku:

the moon and I
to eclipse

Buck-Teeth, meanwhile, struck a brighter chord on the pale page of his destined-to-be-famous diary:

she cools her sunburnt

Also sitting on the poet-clogged verandah was Shiro, all in white. But he only imagined his poem. As always, he tastefully left the paper blank.


As did I. Yet, unfortunately, unlike Shiro my blank page was not at all by design. I sat and chewed my pen, waiting for inspiration to strike. It didn't.

But why? For over two years now, ever since I first caught the haiku bug and started writing them day and night, I had done so effortlessly, passionately, filling one hip-pocket notebook after another with off-the-cuff, one-breath, improvisational blurtings. I never had to struggle to make haiku before; they just came to me, flowing off the tip of my pen like blessings from some Buddha from beyond—a mischievous, happy, playful Buddha who loved to surprise me in the unpredictable twist-and-turn of each little poem.

Now, itching to write, my eyes scanned the last, recent entries in my notepad, and I wondered what had gone wrong. Just the other day, strolling through Audubon Park, poems had popped into my brain and onto the page as if writing themselves:

no direction is wrong
of the oak

old stone bridge
whether I cross it
or not

horseshoe tracks
in the mud—
the day's last ant

I sighed, wondering what had happened. Buck-Teeth, Cup-of-Tea, Kuro, Shiro...they were filling the eclipse night air with haiku fast as they could write them or, in Shiro's case, imagine them. But I, though I now saw exactly what they were seeing, had gone completely blank.


I chugged my beer, slammed a tip on the table, unlocked my bike, hopped on and headed home, disgusted, my mood as dark as the city.

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©2004 by David G. Lanoue

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