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BOOK REVIEW: Dr. David G. Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa
Reviewed by Robert D. Wilson

suzume no ko soko noke o-uma ga toru

baby sparrow
move aside!
Mr. Horse passes

Though Japanese children are made to memorize it, this haiku is no mere child's poem. It not only vocalizes Issa's Buddhist compassion for, and sense of karmic connection with sentient life, it hints of a political meaning. The "honorable horse" (o-uma) comes stomping by without thought for the baby sparrow in its path, and so the poem might be viewed as a gentle satire on how feudal lords relate to "mere" peasants. The first lesson of the haiku for sparrows and humans alike is the same: step out of the way of worldly power . . . or be crushed. The second lesson, a religious one, is implicit in the poet's direct way of speaking to the little bird (or birds): an artificial distinction between "lower" and "higher" forms of life does not apply to cousins. (Page 108)

Dr. David G. Lanoue, a Professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana, is a noted expert on the life, art, and haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Lanoue is the author of two other books, Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems: Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa and Haiku Guy. He has authored several articles on Issa and maintains the website "The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa," a searchable archive of several thousand haiku along with commentary.

His newest book, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, is a treasure chest for those who are interested in the mindset and haiku of this remarkable Japanese poet. It is the first book length English language treatment of Issa that relates his poetry with his life as a Buddhist priest.

Some think of Issa as a children's poet. Others see him as a whimsical poet with an avant garde sense of humor. Many see him as a deeply spiritual man with a love for even the simplest creatures. And there are, of course, his critics. But whatever people think of Issa, he is one of the world's most celebrated Japanese haiku masters.

Who is Issa? Is he a children's poet? A man possessed with a comical spirit? A deeply spiritual man? All of the above? So many questions and too few answers. That is until now. Dr. Lanoue's new book is a detailed look into the life and mindset of Issa.

After reading Lanoue's book, I see Issa and his poetry in a different way. To understand the poet's haiku, one has to understand the relation they have to the writer's belief in Pure Land Buddhism and to his understanding of the history and politics of his time. Reading Issa's haiku from this perspective brings a new light to his volume of work.

hana oke ni cho mo kiku ks yo ichi daiji

on the flower pot
does the butterfly also hear
Buddha's promise?

"He called himself Issa-bo haikaiji: Priest Issa of Haiku Temple. His priestly way of life naturally and profoundly influenced his writing. Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) left behind an immense canon of 20,000 one-breath poems that reveal, upon close inspection, these Buddhist themes...(1) travel as pilgrimage, (2) human feeling and the bodhisattva ideal, (3) the latter days of Dharma, (4) transience, (5) spontaneity, (6) karma, (7) prayer, (9) Amida Buddha's saving grace."

David G. Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, Buddhist Books International, Tadoshi & Reno 2004, ISBN 0-914910-53-1, US Publication: July 2004. Purchase at bookstores and order from the publisher, Buddhist Books International.

Dr. Lanoue's essay, Flower Power: Issa’s Revolution, was featured in Simply Haiku, March/April 2004, v2n2.

Copyright 2003/2004 Simply Haiku