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Carlos Fleitas on Issa

Carlos Fleitas

Kobayashi Yataro was born in 1763 and chose as his poetic pseudonym "Issa," or "Cup of Tea." His life was a series of calamaties and sorrows that doubtlessly molded his personality. Among them stand out the death of his mother when he was three years old, his stepmother's lack of compassion and downright hostility (which certainly led to his decision to abandon the family home at age 15), and the death of his grandmother, who cared for him after his mother passed away.

In 1813, at age 52, he married a woman named Kiku, who was 28. Between 1816 and 1820 three of their children died as did, in 1823, Kiku herself—just a little while after giving birth to a fourth child, who also would die soon, in 1823. In 1824, he remarried but separated later that year. A third marriage in 1826 produced his only child who would live to adulthood, but Issa would be dead before her birth.

Such a life story is not only emotionally moving, it invites one to seek connections between the content and significance of his haiku, and the misfortunes he was forced to endure. A great number of scholars have written interpretive analyses along these lines. Yet this approach, while certainly worthy of consideration, can in a certain respect suffer from one-sidedness, ignoring other essential aspects in Issa’s art that transcend his personal suffering. I would like to add one element to that which has been profoundly analyzed: a thing that I value in the haiku of "Priest Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple," as he dubbed himself.

The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet's haiku. I'm referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry's resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.

I don't pretend to establish a unidirectional, causal relationsihp between the shocking nature of Issa's life experiences and their possible influence on his art; on the contrary, I would like to point out a slight connection between the two, calling attention to a trait of Issa's haiku in the context of his biography. Without doubt, his painful family history embedded in him, in his early years, a highly unique disposition. Issa would seem to have been "hurled" into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho's haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body's decline...emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.

Jôdoshinshû, the Pure Land sect that revolves around the epic of Amitabha, counts Issa as one of its members. Following this stream of Buddhism, those who repeat the name of Amida expect to experience the liberation of rebirth in the Western Paradise. Simply by monotonously repeating the chant, "Namu Amida Butsu" (the nembutsu), one will one day enjoy salvation. Alan Watts notes that this is the common understanding of the doctrine, but he adds that its esoteric grounding is different: Amida is our own true self. We are Amitabha. We don't need to attain satori; we are already enlightened. Free of this tyrranical search, Kobayashi Issa can surrender to the rhythms and colors of samsara in all of its infinite variety. And perhaps, deep in his heart, he repeats with each poem, "Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu..."

Unlike Basho, Issa imprints an uncompromising dynamic in his images, an unexpected syncopation that approaches closer to electrical charge than to serene contemplation. He doesn't work as Basho does in his interior, concentrating on the fruits of observation, retiring to a hermit's hut to meditate and separate himself from the world for a time. Instead, Issa thrusts himself into the fullness of the phenomenological world like a dagger, capturing without mediation everyday reality with it most rugged edges. In this way, he can observe the same event or scene as Basho but with a result totally different in his art of haiku.

Basho and Issa, two different sensibilities: the one seeking a revelation, the other knowing that he has already arrived there and is pregnant with it. However, it would be wrong to introduce a standard to this art, leaning the balance toward one or the other. This is because their two faces are the same face and mind of Buddha. "Samsara is nirvana; nirvana is samsara," Eastern wisdom repeats incessantly. So, if Basho shows in his haiku the intimate beauty of the world in its most ecstatic states, Issa endows it with movement, becoming one with samsara in all its rough, gritty texture.

English translation by David G. Lanoue

Spanish version