Thursday, 27 October 2016

Issa Nails The Thing

Kobayashi Issa is my all-time favourite poet. Regular readers will find this tediously typical, for though he's one of Japan's Four Great Haiku Masters, Issa is not "the Zen one". (That would be Bashō. I like Bashō too, but he doesn't "hit" nearly as often as Issa.)

Issa annoys modern Zen on many levels. He was ordained in the Jōdo-shū sect, a Pure Land Buddhist denomination that Zenners (including myself) find a bit futile. Worse yet, he was a hermit, and on the contemporary model: he had a family, and socketed his stick dead-centre of the Red Dust World.

Yet his descriptions of hermit practice, and his distillations of eremitical insight, are the most concise, most incisive, and most accurate I've found.

Witness his most famous lines, written hours after his baby daughter died:
This world of dew
Is a world of dew
And yet.
And yet.
That simply can't be improved. If you take anything out, it falls short. If you put anything in, it collapses.

Non-Buddhists may miss the sad satire here. Our teachers often compare human existence (mistakenly but universally called "the world") to dew: it comes from nowhere, sparkles for minutes, and goes back to nowhere. Attachment to same – craving permanence in the eternally temporary – is the origin of suffering.

Accepting this sets us up for cushion error: proudly declaring that we're liberated, because we know the truth.

And yet.
And yet.

Starting to get why this middle-aged suburban church-boy so troubles Zenners?

He's also easy-going, an affront to Zen's samurai puritanism, and accepting of his own nature. His perspective is, in short, eremitical.

Exhibit B:
Napped half the day
no one
punished me.
On the eremitical path, you do what practice suggests. This is different from monastery life, where you do what order demands, what tradition demands, sometimes what the current master demands, whether it makes sense or not.

Life inside requires that kind of discipline; life outside, another kind. Issa's poem suggests that on this day, this was the right call.

And as always, his trademark self-mockery. "If only I were half the monk I claim to be."


Note the same theme, with a different conclusion, here:
Napping at midday
I hear the song of rice planters
and feel ashamed of myself.
And then there's me on ango:
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.
And what of those elegant Zen dilettantes, as hip in the West today as they were in 18th century Japan?
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
I gotta stop there or I'll copy and paste every poem my brother ever wrote. (I've literally never found one – not one – that isn't my favourite.) If these crumbs have whetted your appetite, you may binge at will here.

OK, one more. Until next week, here's Issa's take on being a haikunist. (Essentially, the blogger of his time and place.)
Pissing in the snow
outside my door
it makes a very straight hole.

(Photo of Kobayashi Issa's monument courtesy of 震天動地 and Wikimedia Commons.)
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