ISSA - ora ga haru


. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .

Ora ga Haru おらが春 Year of My Life  


Translation and discussion of one of several semi-sequences of hokku, or hokku-clouds
by Chris Drake

Mencius says,
"In ancient times barrier gates were set up at borders to protect the people from violence. Now barrier gates are used to carry out violence."

guards at the gate
harass and punish travelers --
plum blossoms

1. sekimori no kyuuten hayaru ume no hana

human voices --
a doe leads her fawn
out of sight

2. hitogoe ni ko o hiki-kakusu mejika kana

summer's first firefly
swerves deftly away
from an extended hand

3. hatsu-hotaru sono te wa kuwanu tobiburi ya

even lotus blossoms
slightly off-balance
in the floating world

4. hasu no hana sukoshi magaru mo ukiyo kana

neighborhood people
rest here and relax --
tree with deep shade

5. kaiwai no namake-dokoro ya koshita-yami

at Oonuma Marsh --

I'll ride
floating plant blossoms
up to the clouds

6. ukikusa no hana kara noran ano kumo e

in Echigo Province --

in Kakizaki
a cuckoo cries out
no! and again no!

7. kakizaki ya shibu-shibu-naki no kanko-dori (1815)

These seven hokku are from one of the sections about the summer of 1819 in Issa's haibun work A Year of My Life (Oraga haru). They were not written in this order but were edited this way by Issa to achieve a certain effect. The resulting interactions give the hokku a degree of semantic suggestion that goes beyond the literal meaning of each one individually. Issa puts no formal markers in his work regarding where a semi-sequence begins and ends, and such clear borders seem clearly beyond his intentions as writer and editor. Each small series, composed of multiple hokku, shows many different facets when read and viewed from various angles, yet a few characterizations can be made about the general drift and overtones of each hokku-cloud.

The section of Year of My Life in which this series is found begins with Issa relating a story he's heard about a local doctor who killed two mating snakes and then died from a severe pain that began in his sexual organ. Later, when the doctor's son grew up and got married, he discovered his sexual organ was acutely dysfunctional, and, filled with shame, he was finally reduced to leaving the world and living the life of a hermit. Issa concludes that it is a crime to kill any living creature, especially one that is doing something as important and as natural as mating, so it's not impossible that there might be something like cosmic retribution at work. Then follow several quoted poems about not hurting living creatures and about following nature. After these poems comes the semi-sequence translated above.

The first hokku has a headnote consisting of a famous saying by the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi). It amplifies what Issa has said earlier about the snakes by giving an example of how social institutions can become corrupt and injure the citizens of a country. Mencius was fairly popular among commoners in Issa's time for his philosophy based on the assumption that all humans were good at birth and only became corrupt or evil through the influence of unnatural or unjust social institutions and that therefore rulers had legitimacy only as long as they were righteous and benevolent and served the people. Mencius also advocated critical thought, saying that not reading a book was better than reading a book and agreeing with everything in it. However, Mencius' assertion that the overthrow of rulers was justified if rulers did not act like rulers and did not serve their subjects for the sake of the common good was anathema to the shogunate and the samurai ruling elite, as was public criticism of corrupt officials, including barrier gate guards.

In the first hokku, the second line literally says the guards "give ever stronger moxibustion" to those who stop at the gate. The somewhat strange image of guards at a large barrier on a main road giving moxibustion has of course given rise to differing interpretations. My reading is that we should take the headnote quote seriously, both as a comment on the hokku by Issa and as a method Issa uses to connect the hokku with the story of the killing of the mating snakes.

Moxibustion is actually an ambiguous image. It is a part of acupuncture treatment that uses acupoints but not needles. Instead, small cones of dried mugwort are burned either directly on the skin (causing painful blisters) or on a thin material placed on the acupoint. Since less technique is required for moxibustion than for acupuncture, the use of moxibustion by families and friends on each other or by parents on their children was quite common, and with many acupoints (see the opening of Basho's Slender Road to the North) a person could give him/herself moxibustion.

However, the phrase "give moxibustion" also had a figurative meaning. The phrase was (and still is, to a certain extent) a very common idiom that meant to punish or severely criticize someone. In this general-use idiom, which was more common than the literal phrase, the pain caused by the small burning cones on the skin was a down-to-earth colloquial metaphor for severely censuring or punishing someone. The expression also served as a useful euphemism.

The story of killing the snakes and the Mencius quote both strongly suggest that Issa is using "burn moxibustion" in its common colloquial sense of punishing, threatening, or berating. Official corruption was rampant in Issa's day and a major cause of popular discontent with the shogunate, which fell less than fifty years after this hokku, and barrier gate guards and many other kinds of officials routinely threatened and harassed commoners as a way of collecting forced bribes. Issa says that bad treatment by the gatekeepers is increasing or getting more severe (hayaru), so he may be commenting on the social order breaking down over many years. And Issa adds irony to his satire by evoking beautiful plum blossoms.

The lines at the barrier in the hokku are getting very long because of the harsh interrogations, and those waiting their turn have plenty of time to do some leisurely spring blossom viewing. The natural way the plum trees bloom also contrasts with the unnatural violence used by the guards. Mencius criticized official violence long before Issa appeared, but Issa, like Mencius, seems to view the corruption as an indication that the current regime (in this case, the shogunate) is losing its legitimacy. If Issa had written as bluntly about current affairs as Mencius did in his time, he might have been arrested for his hokku, but by invoking a prestigious, now-classical Confucian thinker and using a colloquial euphemism, he could express a limited amount of sharp social criticism.

In the second hokku in the series, a doe is even more sensitive to threatening voices than are the harassed travelers who must pass through the gate in the first hokku. As in Mencius' discussions of young humans, the doe's innocent fawn is unaware of what human voices may mean, and the doe has to pull or nudge it back behind some trees. In relation to the first hokku, there is an overtone suggesting that corruption in the human world is reducing some humans to beings lower than animals, an idea also found in Buddhism. Again, procreation and parental care are contrasted with violence and with killing living beings, even though the season changes directly from spring to summer.

The third hokku has humor, since the nimble firefly is able to outwit the human who wishes to capture it. Issa again uses a colloquial idiom, literally, "I'm not going to eat that hand," which means "You can't fool me!" and overlaps it with the image of a human literally holding out his/her hands to try to trap the firefly. It's the first firefly of the summer, so the human may want to bring it inside or put it inside his/her mosquito net at night. Issa seems particularly impressed by the way the young firefly is able to sense that the human's hands are not extended in a friendly way even though it presumably hasn't had much experience with humans. The skillful way the young firefly swerves away from the human hands indicates it's a fast learner, perhaps more intelligent in its own way than the human who seeks to catch it and limit its natural movement. It's almost as if someone has escaped from the hands of some greedy barrier gate guards.

In the fourth hokku the graceful movements of the firefly are followed by the graceful shapes of summer lotus blossoms, one of the main images in Buddhism for spiritual growth amid various forms of attachment in the physical world. Probably Issa associates the blossoms above all with the lotuses on which Amida Buddha and two bodhisattva helpers sit in the Pure Land and with the countless lotuses in the Pure Land upon which devout humans and other beings are reborn after they die. The lotus blossoms Issa sees aren't perfectly formed, however. They are slightly unsymmetrical or rise at a slight angle or have a drooping petal or two. Issa uses the verb magaru, which means 'be bent, curved, pliant, warped,' or 'to bend, curve, swerve, warp,' all of which can have both positive and negative senses. In the previous hokku, for instance, the firefly is praised for swerving away from danger.

The key term "floating world" in the last line likewise has contradictory meanings. In Japanese two different uki-, one meaning 'painful' and the other main meaning 'floating, exciting, high; also: ordinary, daily,' competed with each other in Issa's time, with the latter being more common. The painful world of constant change, attachment, and illusion taught by the early schools of Japanese Buddhism was gradually replaced by doctrines teaching that the world of change and attachment and karmic causation (samsara) was itself also the world of enlightenment. The True Pure Land school (or Shin Buddhism) founded by Shinran (1173-1263) and followed by Issa went perhaps furthest of all in embracing the floating world of daily life as a potential Pure Land, so Issa is probably not criticizing the lotus blossoms or lamenting their shape-shifting and imperfection. Issa has a number of hokku that seem to take aspects of the present floating world as glimpses of the Pure Land, and the slightly unbalanced or tilted or uncentered lotus blossoms in this world seem to be all the dearer to him for not being formally perfect. Issa also somewhat humorously invokes a third sense of uki-, since the lotus pads are literally floating on the water and the lotus blossom stalks, while rooted in the mud, are affected by the flow of the water and rock gently, causing blossoms to tilt and bend and curve.

The fact that the blossoms are subject to time and change allows them to become inspirational to humans, who are also imperfect, as Shinran constantly stressed. A perfect lotus blossom would presumably be an example of "self-power," of gaining enlightenment for itself/oneself by itself/oneself -- a feat Shinran considered impossible. For Issa the lotus blossoms may seem to be teaching humans that they, too, as fellow residents of the floating world, are imperfect and dependent on Amida and that humans, like blossoms, need to become aware of their dependence on the Amida's "other-power" in order to reach the Pure Land just as they are.

The fifth verse seems to give an example of imperfect humans finding momentary joy in the everyday floating world, a world which is a mixture of both pain and pleasure. On hot summer days Issa's neighbors working in their fields periodically seek refuge in the shade of a large tree with thick with leaves. When they tire or overheat, the neighbors prefer to visit the big tree rather than go home because it is where people gather and talk and joke. The villagers aren't working machines, and their time off from their hard labor lets them "float" together with their fellow humans into a different dimension of communication. The placement of this hokku seems to suggest by association that the people who take time off and gather under the tree are as beautiful as lotus blossoms. There might be a further suggestion that this communal shade is one of many entrances to the Pure Land. There are definitely no guards here to keep people from freely assembling as they wish.

The sixth verse continues the reference to the Pure Land on earth by evoking a famous marsh on the grounds of the Inari Ukishima Shrine in what is now Yamagata Prefecture, an mountainous area to the north of Issa's hometown. Issa doesn't seem to have visited the marsh in the summer of 1819, so this hokku may be based on a memory. The marsh consists of a small, shallow lake with a twisting, turning shoreline and (in Issa's time) more than 60 small "floating islands" (uki-shima), most of which consist of buildups of mud and wild grass and water plants that seem to be floating on the water.

Parts of the islands consist of floating plants with roots hanging down like tendrils into the water, though a large part of the floating islands are rooted in the built-up mud. In modern Japanese "floating plants" (ukikusa) means duckweed, but in Issa's time it was a general term for various wild grasses and other water plants. The time of the hokku is early summer, when these water plants are in flower. By then the large trees that overhang the shore are also throwing deep shadows across many of the inlets on the shore. The image seems to be of one or more clouds appearing very clearly on an unshaded section of water's surface just beyond a "floating island," on which flowers bloom brightly on water plants that rock slightly in the moving water.

As Issa gazes at the apparent fusion of floating earth and floating heaven, his mind also begins to float, and he feels as if he could ride up into the sky. The shade and free floating here continue images from the fifth hokku, while the lotus blossoms in the fourth hokku seem to overlap with the flowers of the water plants, with both kinds of blossoms implying some sort of spiritual travel with no barriers or gate guards. The hokku doesn't mention the Pure Land, but it comes close to suggesting the shrine marsh is a very pure area indeed.

The seventh hokku in this series has a headnote which is a clear allusion known to believers in True Pure Land Buddhism. Echigo, a snowy area on the Japan Sea coast not far from Issa's hometown, was the place to which Shinran was exiled for four years as a heretic who opposed certain doctrines of the Tendai school of Buddhism. Shinran, the founder of the True Pure Land school, once found himself in the coastal town of Kakizaki (Persimmon Point) in Echigo when darkness fell. He was still far from his destination, so he sought shelter for the night at the house of a man who was not a believer in the Pure Land. At first the man adamantly refused to let the heretic Shinran stay the night, but then he changed his mind, and by the time midnight came he was a believer.

After this conversion, Shinran wrote a waka in which he punned and spoke of the man's strong (shibu-shibu) resistance to letting him stay overnight as being like the taste of a very astringent persimmon -- one that ripened and softened overnight. Issa takes this incident and transforms the houseowner into a cuckoo. Apparently the bird's cuckoo-clock-like cries sound like stiff refusals to Issa.

Perhaps Issa is evoking the bird's cry as kekkou, kekkou, "No thanks! No thanks!" In any case, the cuckoo has changed its mind and become an ardent follower of Shinran's teachings. Issa carefully placed this hokku from four years earlier right after the sixth hokku, and in this context the seventh hokku suggests the possibility that the cuckoo is flying up into the clouds with the hope of reaching the Pure Land and seeing Amida and perhaps Shinran. This hokku also presents a world in which gentle persuasion can overcome the gruff refusals of gate guards and house guards. No doubt Mencius would also have approved of this method of solving interpersonal and social problems.

The carefully placed seventh hokku acts as a kind of pivot hokku, allowing Issa to move to a new series, though one that continues to the end of this section of the book with the general tenor of following nature and with images of humans floating, flying, and flowing together with clouds and water.

Chris Drake


source : www.pilot.co.jp
文字:正田千代子 先生

medetasa mo chuu gurai nari ora ga haru

my reason to celebrate
is about medium-size -
my new spring

Tr. Gabi Greve

Issa, published in 1852

. Issa about himself .. I, the first person .


Kobayashi Issa "The Spring of My Life", "The Year of my Life"
- Reference -


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. WKD : Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 .



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