barefoot on the sand
pain from the splinter lingers
after it’s been pulled

                       –Jackie Chou

In his Winter 2020 article for Tricycle, “What’s in a Word? Dukkha,” Andrew Olendzki explained that the first noble truth of Buddhism (usually translated “life is suffering”) doesn’t mean what most people think:

This central term is best understood alongside the related word sukha. The prefix su– generally means “good, easy, and conducive to well-being,” and the prefix du– correspondingly means “bad, difficult, and inclining toward illness or harm.” On the most basic level, then, sukha means pleasant, while dukkha means unpleasant.

Dukkha is much lighter in concept than suffering, which is derived from the Latin word meaning “to hold up under.” In Buddhism, one doesn’t hold up under suffering so much as one “wanders” through it. That samsaric wandering is the subject of Tricycle’s Best of Season haiku for Summer 2024.

The poet has put the demands of daily life on hold to take a barefoot stroll on the sand. The feeling of relief is palpable. To go barefoot is to return to our most primal connection, to meet life on its plainest terms. Almost immediately, however, she gets a splinter—probably on the boardwalk connecting the parking lot to the shore.

This is how civilization works: it reduces the abrasions of life, but it can’t eliminate them. Beneath our clothes, inside of our shoes, we are always naked. Take away those protections, if for only a moment, and we are facing the pointy end of some stick.

As straightforward as it is, the poem has several layers. The poet stops to remove the splinter, then continues to the shoreline, where the wound stings because of the saltwater. Even so, the surf is the best thing for it. The water that heightens her discomfort is also its cure. And so, there is the movement from pleasure to pain and pain to pleasure that inspired early Buddhists to compare samsara to an ocean with rising and falling waves.

Then there is the splinter itself: a symbol in miniature for sickness, old age, and death. Not an accident, surely, so much as a simple fact of life.

Below these is another layer that one might call the “message” of the poem: there is no escape from this world, because there doesn’t need to be an escape. “This very place is the Lotus Land of Purity,” says the Zen master Hakuin. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that samsara and nirvana are one.

That the poet has managed to say all this with a splinter is the “haiku humor” of the poem. The tone is detached, but not indifferent, and slyly comical at the core. “This very body is the body of the Buddha,” said Hakuin. Samsara, splinter, and all.

The Tricycle Haiku Challenge asks readers to submit original works inspired by a season word. Moderator Clark Strand selects the top poems to be published in Tricycle with his commentary. To see past winners and submit your haiku, visit To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

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