I have spoken before about the pervasive influence of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality — influenced by Daoism and a dash of Animism (via Shintō) — in old hokku. Usually I just call it the “spirituality” of hokku, and some call it the influence of Zen in hokku, which indeed historically it was.
When we come to the verses of Issa, however, we see a variant influence. It is still Mahayana, but with a difference; Issa was a follower of the Pure Land sect, the aspect of Japanese Buddhism — in fact a kind of “folk Buddhism” — that some see as most like Christianity.
Zen believed in relying on one’s own efforts. Pure Land believed in relying on the “other,” the other being in this case the compassion of the Buddha Amitabha, called “Amida” in Japan, who in Pure Land tradition vowed to save all beings who sincerely call upon him. In feeling, Pure Land is very different from Zen. It is the “easy” way, which is no doubt why it became the most popular form of Buddhist practice in Japan.
Today Buddhism in Japan has degenerated to the point where temples are handed down in the families of married priests, and people seldom visit them at all, except on special occasions. In a bizarre twist, Buddhism has become associated in the minds of the modern Japanese people with funerals, as the country becomes ever more materialistic. Even in his day, R. H. Blyth lamented that the Japanese had abandoned their traditional culture. How horrified he would be to see today’s technological Japan, and Buddhism in even greater decline there!
But back to Issa and his brand of Buddhist practice.
He wrote a series of six verses all on the same theme, which is the “Six Ways” or “Six Paths” that one may take after death, standing for the six realms in which one may be reborn. When Protestant Christians say they have been “reborn,” what they mean is not at all what a Buddhist means by the term. In traditional Buddhism, when one dies, one’s kamma (karma in sanskrit) causes rebirth in one of several realms, either in a “hell,” or as a suffering ghost, or as an animal, a nature spirit, a human (the most favorable in Buddhist belief) or as a deva or “god.” Each of these realms has its own characteristics.
One can see that in these verses Issa has a peculiar take on the various realms, seeing them not so much in other places as in this very world. Keep in mind that this is not really what hokku is for, but Issa had his own personal quirks and his hokku reflect the kind of person he was.
Here are the “Six Ways”:
Yūzuki ya nabe no naka nite naku tanishi
Evening-moon ya pot ‘s inside boiling mud-snails
The evening moon;
Boiling in the pot —
Crying mud snails.
This verse reflects Issa’s awareness of lower forms of life, which permeates his verses. Quite aware of suffering in his own life, he was aware of it also in the lives of “lesser” creatures. Isn’t it obvious that for many creatures, this world is Hell?
The next higher stage of rebirth is
2. HUNGRY GHOSTS
Hana chiru ya nomitaki mizu wo tōgasumi
Blossoms fall ya drink-desire water wo far-mist
The water we thirst for —
In the far mists.
The realm of Hungry Ghosts is the realm of spirits whose tormenting desires cannot be satisfied. They want to satisfy their hunger but cannot, to satisfy their thirst but are unable. Here amid the falling cherry blossoms — which embody transience — the water for which the spirits desperately thirst is far off somewhere in the confused mists of the afterlife, always enticing them, always grieving them, always never quite attainable.
Chiru hana ni butsu tomo hō tomo shiranu kana
Falling blossoms in Buddha even Law even know-not kana
In the falling blossoms,
They see neither the Buddha
Nor the Law.
Animals have not the perception of humans. Men look at the falling cherry blossoms and are able to see the impermanence of life in their transience, and think of the Buddha and the Law — the Dhamma (Dharma in sanskrit) that will lead them out of suffering. Animals are aware of none of that, and Issa feels for them.
Koegoe ni hana no kokage no bakuchi kana
Voice-voice at blossom ‘s shade ‘s gamblers kana
With arguing voices
In the shade of the blossoms —
The Asura (Japanese Ashura or Shura) realm is the realm of temperamental, self-important and easy-to-anger creatures just below the human realm, a kind of touchy nature spirit.
Here Issa sees them as shouting and arguing as they gamble in the shade of the blooming cherry trees. In spite of the beauty of the blossoms, the Asuras are too intent on their own “pushy” pursuits to notice.
Saku hana no naka ni ugomeku shujō kana
Blooming blossoms ‘s among at wriggling human-beings kana
The blooming flowers,
Not a flattering picture. Humans wiggle about, moving here and there, amid the blooming cherry trees. One pictures a crowd of people viewing the blossoms, turning this way and that, but really going nowhere.
And finally, we come to the realm of the devas or gods:
6. THE HEAVENS
Kasumu hi ya sazo tennin no gotaikutsu
Haze day ya surely heaven-person ‘s tedium
The hazy day;
Even the devas
Must be bored.
It is a very quiet, hazy day in spring. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the hours drag. The lives of the devas in the heaven realms are unimaginably longer than those of humans. If humans are so easily bored, what must such a day be like for the devas, Issa wonders.
One can readily see that there is both deadly seriousness and humor in this series of verses. And like “Occasion” hokku, we can read them on two different levels. On one level these things are happening in the various realms in which humans may be reborn. On another level, all of these things are happening in this world.
1. In this world creatures and humans suffer at the hands of others — Hell.
2. In this world both animals and humans may ignore the transience of life — Animals.
3. In this world human desires are endless — Hungry Ghosts.
4. In this world people bluster and argue and fight to overcome — Asuras
5. In this world humans waste their time, acting as though they will live forever — Humans
6. In this world people are easily bored — Devas
Issa mixes them all up, seeing the Hells and the Heavens and all Six Realms interpenetrating this world. As Omar Khayyam wrote in Fitzgerald’s translation, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”
As is obvious, this kind of verse is not really “normal” hokku, and I only post it here so that readers may see some of the odd variations into which hokku was drawn historically. Issa, for the most part, does not make a good model for hokku, but just as Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, even so the quirky hokku of Issa — which are very human and often very psychological — became the most popular among the ordinary people of Japan.
As the old saying goes, De gustibus non disputandum est — there is no arguing about tastes. We can, however, point out the differences between hokku put to these ends and the kind of hokku we practice, which from the Japanese perspective would be more “Zen” oriented than “Pure Land” oriented.