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Angelika Wienert on Issa

Angelika Wienert

When I read my first Issa haiku (translated into German) I was fascinated. In Issa's haiku I met a friend, and I still do.

In 2003 I wrote a little essay about Issa in German, Issa, der verkannte Haijin. My readers were very astonished that Issa had lived as a devoted Shin-Buddhist; most of my readers had never heard about Shin-Buddhism before.

Years later, I had the opportunity to speak with David Lanoue about Issa's poetry, an interview that I published in English as Haiku an Art of Discovery, and in German as Haiku, eine Kunst des Entdeckens

I wanted to pay homage to Issa, to his work, and so I wrote this haiku:

stay red tulips!
the garden wall needs
your color!

(Angelika Wienert; Mainichi Daily, May 2006)

Haiku written by Bashô, Buson, Issa, Shiki and other famous haiku poets are often mentioned as good examples of the form. It is usual that there are different opinions about the quality of haiku translations. Some prefer haiku of this master, some the haiku of another. But often about one thing there is a consensus: in literature about haiku you find a reference to Zen.

When I read Issa's haiku for the first time (translations from Japanese into German), I was very astonished and a bit confused. I felt that there was a nearness to Shin-Buddhism. No, it was more! Issa's religious roots were obviously to find in Shin-devoutness. I thought that it would be interesting to see what I could find about Issa`s religious background in the literature on this subject.

In her well-known essay about haibun (Was ist ein Haibun?/ What is a haibun?, 1998) Dr. Lydia Brüll refers to Issa's religious belief. She explains that Issa was a follower of Amida Buddhism (Pure Land Buddhism). Pure Land Buddhism is very common in Japan (more popular than Zen-Buddhism). The founder was Shinran Shonin (1173–1262). In the center of this spirituality we find Amida Butsu (a Japanese expression for Buddha Amitâbha, the Buddha of infinite light and life). The main thing in Shin-Buddhism is belief, the trust in Amida Butsu who has promised to save all sentient beings who rely on him. In contrast, the Zen-Buddhist tries to achieve enlightement (satori) with the help of meditation (zazen) and koans. The Shin-Buddhist has only one thought: he avoids to trust in his own power (jiriki); he fully relies on the Other Power (tariki). Shin belief is that only the Other Power, only the promise of Amida Butsu, can save one. The Shin-Buddhist recites the Nembutsu (namu Amida Butsu—honor to Amida Butsu, refuge in Amida Butsu) with devotion. The trustful spoken Nembutsu will save, will lead to rebirth in the Western Paradise (sukhâvati), which is a preliminary stage of Nîrvana.

Among Issa's haiku we find palpable references to this way of Buddhism.

Ein Segenszeichen:
der Schnee auf der Bettdecke
aus dem Reinen Land.
(Issa; in Rudolf Thiem, Haiku-Anfänge und—Entwicklungen in Japan)

a sign of blessing
the snow on the quilt
from the Pure Land
(translation, Angelika Wienert; this haiku is attributed to Issa, though no manuscript of it exists in Issa's handwriting)

Our simple honest servant: every day
From next door, too, he sweeps the snow away.
(Issa; in Stewart, H., Jodo Shu and Shin Buddhism)

Shin-Buddhism is a Buddhist way with simple methods (see before: Nembutsu) for simple (and honest) people—real belief, real trust can only be honest.

In his essay Jodo Shin Shu and Shin Shu, Harold Stewart emphasizes the importancee of Pure Land Buddhism for Issa ("...Issa, a lifelong follower of Shin Shu whose spirit permeates so many of his haiku...").

A butterfly on the gilded lotus-flower
Hears of Rebirth through Amitabha's Power.
(Issa; see before)

This occurs in a Shin-temple. The believers recite the Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu). A butterfly, settling on a golden lotus-flower, "hears" about Amida`s promise, the Other Power.

D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen teacher, was an expert of Pure Land Buddhism too. In his book Der Buddha der Liebe (The Buddha of Love) he treats this theme masterfully. Naturally, Suzuki mentions Issa and his haiku.

When we speak about Buddhism we have to recognize its diversity (Zen, Shin, Tibetan Buddhism etc.). Issa's haiku show clearly that we should appreciate the importance of Shin-Buddhism in his poetic work.

(Oberhausen, August 2006)

Brüll, Lydia: Was ist ein Haibun? (What is a Haibun?); in: Quarterly Review of the GHS (German Haiku Society), June 1998

Stewart, Harold: Jodo Shin Shu and Shin Shu. (Journal of Shin Buddhism)

Suzuki, Daisetz T.: Der Buddha der Liebe (The Buddha of Love). Freiburg 1997

Thiem, Rudolf: Haiku-Anfänge und –Entwicklungen in Japan. In: Quarterly Review of the GHS (German Haiku Society). February 1995

From Issa—roots in Shin—a shorter version of my German essay, Issa, der verkannte Haijin

German version