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Flower Power: Issa’s Revolution
An Essay by David G. Lanoue

Issa satirizes worldly authority in haiku, but he is no Edo-period revolutionary, at least not in the political sense. This is evident in his eyewitness description of a peasant’s uprising at Zenkôji Town on the 13th day of Tenth Month, 1813. That year’s rice crop had failed and the price of rice shot sky-high, leading to civil unrest, but Issa makes no mention of these facts. Instead, he writes that a mob of “night thieves” armed with spears and hatchets ran amok through the town, ransacking houses of the rich (5.130). Though he was perfectly aware of the real cause of the incident, he imputes it vaguely to an evil influence in the world: the work of the Devil (maô), and caps his comments with a haiku:

toku kure yo kotoshi no yôna akudoshi wa

end quickly!
this year, you’ve been
an evil one

It would have been dangerous to commit to writing an encouraging or sympathetic word about a peasant insurrection. Nevertheless, Issa’s moralistic take on the Zenkôji revolt resonates perfectly with his Buddhist appreciation of worldly corruption. Evil rampages through the world, but its answer can never be more evil. Issa’s revolution calls for inner, spiritual change: foregoing calculated action, one simply opens heart and mind to whatever is, which brings us to the topic of “flower power.”

Nature’s gifts can redeem, if only for a moment, the fallen world of mappô (the Pure Land Buddhist idea that we live in the corrupt Latter Days of Dharma)...and so offer a glimpse into a purity unsullied by human covetousness. This is why Issa’s mood is upbeat even in “this world” (shaba) on New Year’s Day, the beginning of spring in the old lunar calendar:

kotoshi kara marumôke nari shaba no sora

from this year on
clear profit . . .
this world’s sky

kotoshi kara marumôke zoyo shaba asobi

from this year on
clear profit, carousing
in this world

kotoshi kara môke asobi zo hana no shaba

from this year on
just carousing . . .
this world of blossoms

The poet rejoices despite the worldly depravity that surrounds him. In the first example, written in 1820, he seems especially optimistic as he gazes at the sky and declares that whatever time he has remaining to live in the world will be “clear profit” (marumôke). The following year, he expresses this idea again, pledging in our second example to devote the “clear profit” of his remaining time to “carousing.” This particular haiku has a long, exultant prescript in the journal, in which Issa notes that the previous Tenth Month, 16th day, he was stricken with a life-threatening paralysis. But now, “On this New Year’s Day, awakened by the rooster, the sun rising brilliantly over eastern mountains,” he greets the new spring with a new sense of life, “like one who has amazingly been born again” (4.151). The world, despite the fact it suffers in the Latter Days of Dharma, energizes rather than depresses him. In our third example, another haiku of 1821, he identifies that which is worth celebrating amid worldly corruption: the blossoms of spring. New Year’s Day, the first day of spring in the old calendar, ushers in the flowers, the haiku poet’s raison d’être, giving him cause enough to enjoy and carouse despite the fallen age.

In one verse, a butterfly also carouses in the world of mappô:

chô tobu ya kono yo ni nozomi nai yô ni

butterfly flits
as if wanting nothing
in this world

The butterfly desires nothing from the world. In his translation, Blyth presents it flitting along “As if it despair[s]/ Of this world.” He comments, “Our souls flutter with the inadequate wings of the butterfly, pilgrims and strangers in a world that was not made for us” (Haiku 2.549). Blyth’s interpretation might be a bit too glum. In light of Issa’s New Year’s poems on this same theme, it seems more likely that the butterfly is celebrating life in the corrupt world. With its purity and innocence, it craves nothing in or from such a world and so is exempt from its karmic penalties; it flits through it but is not of it. Its wings, though fragile, are not “inadequate.”

In Buddhist terms, Issa’s butterfly presents the possibility of detachment from the world and worldly addictions. In many of his haiku, Nature performs a parallel salvational role to that of Amida Buddha, providing people with release, though perhaps only momentary, from suffering. For example, a cool breeze in summer compensates for the poverty, misery, and oppression that humans at the bottom of the social pyramid must endure:

gege mo gege gege no gegoku no suzushisa yo

it’s a down, down
downtrodden land . . .
but cool

Issa’s province of Shinano is poor and downtrodden, but all who toil in its mountain-hugging fields find themselves rich with a wondrous, high-country coolness. The fallen age of mappô provides a broad framework for Issa’s vision of society in haiku, but this framework does not entirely mold that vision. To put it another way: one might expect dreary pessimism from a poet who accepts as a religious premise the moral depravity of the ten thousand year era in which he lives, yet this is not the case with Issa. Working against the grain of cosmic mappô, he most typically displays spiritual optimism, lampooning secular conditions and hinting of Nature’s ability, despite corruption, to provide glimpses into Buddha’s Pure Land here and now:

suzushisa ya goraku jôdo no hairi-guchi

summer cool—
the gate to Buddha’s
Pure Land

suzushisa no ie ya jôdo no nishi no kado

a cool house—
the Pure Land’s
west gate

suzukaze no mado ga gokuraku jôdo kana

cool breeze
through the window...
Pure Land Paradise!

It is as if the Pure Land has palpably invaded the world, rescuing its inhabitants from summer’s heat. These poems can be viewed as merely metaphorical; Issa simply conveys his appreciation for the coolness by means of exaggerated, paradisiacal imagery. Perhaps, however, he is not using metaphor or exaggerating at all: the summer coolness is the gate to Buddha’s Pure Land, which situates the Western Paradise not very far from this world. In fact, it is so near, Issa suggests, its perfect air spills easily into our corrupt world of mappô, now and then—if one is open to it.

In similar fashion, spring’s cherry blossoms usher a divine splendor into the everyday world:

ten kara demo futtaru yô ni sakura kana

like they fell
from heaven...
cherry blossoms

yozakura ya bijin ten kara kudaru tomo

night’s cherry blossoms—
heavenly ladies
among us

The first haiku is a favorite of Issa’s, appearing in six different texts. In it, he makes use of a simile: the cherry blossoms look “like they fell/ from heaven.” The second haiku is an even stronger statement, wherein the blossoms appear as heavenly “ladies” (bijin), a touch of poetic fancy that emphasizes how exquisite, delicate, feminine, and precious they are. As in the cool breeze/Pure Land examples, Issa again might be using metaphor—but, also again, a literal reading is possible and, I believe, preferable. The beautiful blossoms are, in fact, a heavenly gift. Paradise invades the world of suffering and so relieves its sufferers, here and now. This “heaven” with its courtly ladies is the mythic palace of Chinese tradition, not Amida’s Western Paradise. Nevertheless, Issa’s point is consistent. Coolness wafts eastward into the world from the Pure Land; cherry blossoms fill it as if denizens of Heaven’s court. In both cases, Nature’s gifts transform the universe, just as Amida Buddha’s saving grace transforms those who trust in it.

This is Issa’s revolution.

NOTE: The above is excerpted from Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, scheduled to be published in 2004 by Buddhist Books International. Translations first appeared on my website, “The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa

Works Cited:

  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949-1952; rpt. 1981-1982 [reset paperback
    edition]. 4 vols.
  • Kobayashi Issa. Issa zenshô. Ed. Kobayashi Keiichirô. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi
    Shimbunsha, 1976-1979. 9 vols.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, David Lanoue earned his B.A. at Creighton University (1976) and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (1977, 1981). He is presently a professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

From 1984 on, he has published original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies--including Modern Haiku and Frogpond.

He conducted research in Japan in 1987 and 1988, and participated in the N.E.H. Literary Translation Institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989. The result of this labor was his book, Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems; Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991).

* April 2000 presented a paper on Issa and Buddhism at the Global Haiku Festival, held at Millikin University--and launched this website.
* August 2000 published Haiku Guy (Red Moon Press 2000), a novel about haiku, life, love, and mad, moonstruck poets.
* December 2000 read from Haiku Guy at the Haiku Society of America's meeting in San Francisco.
* Summer 2001 visited Japan with his son; there, he gave a talk on world haiku sponsored by Ginyu Press (June 2001).
* December 2001 made presentations on haiku for the Haiku Society of America in Long Beach, California and for the Modern Language Association in New Orleans.
* September 2002 co-hosted with co-founder of the New Orleans Haiku Society, Johnette Downing, the HSA meeting in New Orleans. Check out the.
* Summer/Fall 2003 edited The Haiku Society of America's Members' Anthology 2003.
* October 2003 participated in the World Haiku Association Conference in Tenri, Japan.
* November 2003 participated in the HSA Quarterly meeting at Hotsprings, Arkansas.
* January 2004 read his essay, Not Your Ordinary Saint: Jizô in the Haiku of Issa, at the South Central Christianity and Literature meeting in New Orleans; won the Sims Award for best conference paper.A book he's been writing and rewriting for the past 15 years, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, has been accepted for publication.

Online Essays
* Confessions of a Translator-Part 1, in World Haiku Review 1.1, May 2001
* Issa's Comic Vision, in Haijinx I.2, Summer Solstice 2001
* Confessions of a Translator-Part 2, in World Haiku Review 1.2, August 2001
* A Little Help From My Friends, in World Haiku Review 1.3, November 2001
* From Translation to Creation, in World Haiku Review 2.1, March 2002
* Random Clicks in World Haiku Review 2.2, August 2002
* Treasures from Issa, in World Haiku Review 2.3, November 2002
* Issa's Haiku Lessons, in World Haiku Review 3.1, March 2003
* Not Your Ordinary Saint: Jizô in the Haiku of Issa, in World Haiku Review 3.2, December 2003

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