Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012
Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011
Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011
David G. Lanoue, USA
Animals and Shinto in the Haiku of Issa
Shinto and Buddhism, the two great spiritual traditions in Japan, count animals as their members and celebrants . . . according to Issa. By his time, the Shinto-Buddhist syncretism established in the Heian period was a thousand years old. The esoteric Buddhist schools of Shingon and Tendai mixed the earlier Japanese animism with Buddhist elements—a mingling so successful that, in Issa’s time, Shinto gods or kami-sama existed alongside Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the imaginations of most Japanese people. In fact, as Thomas P. Kasulis points out, “the term ‘Shinto’ had no popular use in Japan until the development of state ideology in the middle of the nineteenth century” (102). In Issa’s Edo period there was no pressure to disentangle the native tradition from the Buddhist one imported from India via China. This is why, in one haiku, a sparrow can sing a Buddhist-style sutra dedicated to a god, Tenjin, without surprising his original audience in the least.
ume saku ya tenjinkyō wo naku suzume
plum blossoms –/ singing Tenjin’s sutra/ a sparrow
Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was a Heian period scholar and poet, posthumously deified and renamed Tenjin: a god of literature and learning. The Tenjin cult, popular in Issa’s time, included a worship service that ended with a recital of the “Tenjin Sutra” (tenjinkyō), a prayer invoking Tenjin’s name in language modeled after Buddhist sutras (Borgen 330). This is the holy text that the sparrow chirps among the plum blossoms, Issa claims, suggesting that worship is not for humans alone.
If a sparrow prays in one of Issa’s haiku, it should come as no surprise that a dragonfly, in another, undertakes the hyakudo mairi —a practice that involves praying while moving back and forth one hundred times between a shrine or temple and some fixed point in that shrine or temple’s precincts, or else visiting a shrine or temple on one hundred consecutive days.
tombō no hyakudo mairi ya atago yama
the dragonfly’s/ 100 prayers pilgrimage . . ./ Mount Atago
The location of the pilgrimage suggests a third possible meaning for the dragonfly’s hundred-fold journey. Atago is a mountain near Kyoto with a major shrine at its summit. In Issa’s time, pilgrims who climbed to it on the 24th day of Sixth Month would reap the benefits of one thousand climbs, the so-called sennichi mairi. Possibly, Issa’s lucky dragonfly is visiting the temple on a similar, special day that multiplies the spiritual benefit of the visit by one hundred. On one level, as we see often in Issa, the haiku functions as a joke: his inclusion of a dragonfly in the religious ritual of humans in a particular location on a particular day can seem a case of whimsical anthropomorphism. Deeper, however, Issa challenges our assumptions. If one believes in the benevolent power of a shrine’s god, is it not possible that a dragonfly—even though unaware of it—will be blessed for coming here on this auspicious day?
He writes other haiku in which dragonflies not only attend Shinto festivals; they seemingly dress for the occasion.
o-matsuri no akai dedachi no tombo kana
departing for the festival/ all in red/ dragonfly
tsuredatte o-bon o-bon ya aka tombo
coming along/ to the Bon Festival . . ./ red dragonfly
In his discussion of Shinto matsuri (“festivals”), Kasulis writes, “On the social level, the festivities bring people together to celebrate their commonality. The matsuri participants sense their perhaps unknown but assumed connectedness. On the religious level, it is an entry point for highlighting the people’s intrinsic inseparability from the kami and at least potentially evokes the sense of living within a kami-filled, tama-energized world” (63-64). Tama is the Japanese term for the spiritual power that infuses matter, resembling the English words, “spirit” and “soul.” In these two haiku Issa extends the net of soul-connectedness to include a red dragonfly along with the human celebrants at the matsuri. Its festive color, he implies, is like a special robe for the special occasion.
Once again, these haiku function as jokes with deeper implications. Readers may smile at the image of an insect festival-goer; yet, upon reflection, they might at the same time come to realize that the immanent gods of this world are just as much the dragonfly’s gods as they are gods for people. In the second example, the particular gathering which the dragonfly joins is the Bon Festival of the Dead, an Eighth Month event in the old Japanese calendar. At this time, people light lanterns to guide their ancestors’ spirits back home—a ritualized acknowledgement of the continuing connection between the living and the dead. Issa reminds us that the dragonfly, too, has ancestors: countless generations without which it would have never existed. Its presence at the festival can therefore be interpreted, by Issa and his readers, as an unconscious act of piety. The fact that it certainly lacks awareness of the spiritual meaning of Shinto festivals does not negate their importance and relevance to its life. It is enough that Issa and his readers perceive this importance, this relevance.
In the next example animals don’t merely celebrate the sacredness of the world; they are sacred. However, as with the red dragonflies, they remain unaware of their role in Shinto belief and ritual.
kami no saru nomi mite kureru ko haru kana
sacred monkeys/ pick each other’s fleas . . ./ a spring day in winter
Literally, the monkeys are “the god’s monkeys” (kami no saru), implying that the scene takes place in the precincts of a Shinto shrine. Issa wrote the poem in late summer (Sixth Month) in his home province of Shinano, prefacing it with the head note, “Winter” (fuyu). “Little spring” (ko haru) refers to mild, clear weather in the Eleventh and Twelfth Months of the old calendar. Since the image is a product of imagination or memory—not based on immediate, local experience—the reader is free to imagine its particular setting. Many Japanese readers will automatically associate the poem with Mount Hiei near Kyoto, where some of the most famous sacred monkeys of Japan reside. The principle god of the mountain is Sannō, one of whose avatars is a monkey. In Issa’s haiku, these god-infused protectors of the mountain’s Tendai Shinto-Buddhist temple complex appear unaware of their spiritual status and importance, casually grooming each other. Sacred power, he implies, can fill a creature even while it is doing the most mundane thing in the most mundane, natural way. A monkey doesn’t need to realize it’s sacred to be sacred.
In two other haiku about monkeys, Issa again depicts them quite naturally.
myōjin no mashira asobu ya aki no yama
the great god’s/ monkeys are playing . . ./ autumn mountain
ko-zaru domo kami no o-rusu wo kuruu kana
little monkey –/ with the gods all gone/ he’s running amuck
The first haiku raises the point that divine avatars, too, like to play. The monkeys do not meditate, participate in a religious ritual or, like the earlier-quoted sparrow, sing prayers. Instead, they honor the mountain’s god (once again, we can imagine Mount Hiei’s Sannō), simply by playing, exuberantly enjoying the spark of divine life—the tama, the spirit—that animates them. Their playing is their praying. The second, more comic haiku alludes to the Shinto belief that in Tenth Month (the first month of winter in the old calendar) all of Japan’s gods vacate their shrines to congregate at the Izumo-Taisha Shrine. With its deity absent, one little monkey seems to have lost all sense of decorum.
A haiku about a buck strikes a more reverent tone.
saoshika ya shadan ni tsuno wo tatematsuru
on the shrine’s altar/ the buck offers/ his antlers
The antlers take on religious significance: a sacrifice offered to the god of the shrine. In the very next poem in his journal, Bunka kuchō (“Bunka Era Poem Collection”), Issa rewrites the scene, shifting from Shinto to Buddhist associations.
mi-botoke no yama ni otosu ya shika no tsuno
on Buddha’s mountain/ he sheds them . . ./ the buck’s antlers
Issa’s image of a buck shedding his antlers on a temple mountain is allegorical. Like monks who shave their heads, the buck seems to be relinquishing worldliness. Shedding the weapons with which he earlier battered rivals in the struggle to win and keep a mate further suggests the notion of celibacy. The buck, Issa hints, has become a monk, taking his first step on the road to enlightenment.
The following haiku presents a cat and a New Year’s “auspicious direction shelf” (ehōdana).
tobu kufū neko no shite keri ehōdana
the cat considers/ jumping up . . . / New Year’s offering shelf
The haiku alludes to the Shinto custom of visiting a shrine located in an auspicious direction on New Year’s Day. At home, a shelf decorated with flowers and offerings is positioned so that while facing it one faces the direction of the shrine where that year’s Toshitokujin, the Auspicious Direction Goddess, is located—a Japanese New Year’s ritual that originated in Chinese Yin-Yang divination (Japanese: onmyōdō). Issa’s cat takes aim at the goddess’s shelf perhaps out of curiosity or, perhaps, because it plans to steal a food offering. Whatever its motive, the cat, tensing to leap, faces the spiritually beneficial direction. Once again, Issa implies that religious consciousness is not a prerequisite for reaping religious blessings.
In a related haiku, he portrays a cat making itself at home on a Bon Festival altar.
tama-dana ni dosari to netari dorobo neko
on the ancestors’ altar/ flopping down to sleep . . ./ thieving cat
The tama-dana is a home altar honoring the visiting spirits of ancestors during the Eighth Month Bon Festival. Issa describes this cat as a “thief” (dorobo), revealing that its motive for visiting the altar has plainly been to steal food from it, after which it brazenly curls up to sleep at the scene of the crime. The image is comic while at the same time suggestive of a deeper religious truth. Despite the cat’s thievery, one can imagine that it enjoys the spiritual protection of Issa’s ancestors.
In a haiku about a butterfly Issa connects its pure whiteness to Shinto purification.
kamigaki ya shiroi hana ni wa shiroi chō
shrine fence –/ on a white flower/ a white butterfly
The kamigaki is a decorative fence surrounding a shrine, a symbolic barrier between the ordinary world and the divine. The white butterfly and white flower are emblematic of the purified world of the kami-sama. Issa wrote this haiku in Third Month 1818; later that same month he returns to the image of a white butterfly but switches the religious context from Shinto to Buddhist—just as he did earlier with the back-to-back haiku about the buck sacrificing his antlers.
iwai-bi ya shiroi sōdachi shiroi chō
festival day –/ white monks/ and a white butterfly
Again, the butterfly embodies spiritual purity, its color this time matching the festival robes of Buddhist monks. Whether we look at it through the prism of Shinto or Buddhism, the butterfly, without conscious effort, achieves a purity of being that Issa appreciates and praises in religious terms.
Even a frog can play a religious role in Issa’s haiku.
o-yashiro e jikunande iru kawazu kana
taming the flesh/ he enters a shrine . . ./ frog
The frog appears (comically) as a flesh-taming ascetic, willingly undertaking “self-suffering” (jikunan) as a religious discipline. The image of a suffering holy man, or in this case “holy frog,” does not directly pertain to Shinto but rather to Shugendō, the ancient practice of asceticism in the mountains. Issa places his flesh-taming frog in the setting of a Shinto shrine, suggesting a spiritual connection between its mortification and the local deity. Conflating Shugendō and Shinto ideas, he suggests that the frog’s suffering is meant to honor the kami-sama. The reader might wonder how the frog suffers as it enters the shrine. I believe that a haiku of 1826 might explain the situation: the frog is gamely crawling through a thorn bush.
jikunande ibara wo kuguru kawazu kana
taming the flesh/ he moves through thorns . . ./ a frog
Because of their unusual depictions of ascetic frogs, these two haiku must have been closely connected in Issa’s mind. The frog endures its path of thorns for what humans can understand to be a religious purpose—to enter the divine space presided over by the shrine’s god—even though it has no conscious awareness of this purpose. Once again and not coincidentally, the image of an animal being simply itself is charged with spiritual significance in Issa’s poetry.
In the next haiku, he directly addresses one of the Shinto deities, drawing her attention to a butterfly.
ichihime no kami emi tamae kusa no chō
O goddess Ichihime/ smile!/ a meadow butterfly
Kamu o-Ichihime is an important Shinto goddess, the mother of O-Toshi no Kami, the great harvest god and guardian of rice fields (Jordan 237; 298). She has an important shrine in Kyoto, the Ichihime Jinja. In his poem Issa politely asks the goddess to deign to smile upon a butterfly flitting over the grasses. By suggesting that a great kami-sama should pay attention to—and delight in—a mere winged insect in a meadow, Issa strongly implies that his readers should do the same. Although the butterfly may not grasp our human concepts of deity and religion, this goddess of Nature, Issa imagines, will behold it approvingly . . . and smile.
Shinto purification rituals have ancient and even mythical precedents. According to an account in the eighth century Kojiki the great kami-sama Izanagi and his sister-wife Izanami created many of Japan’s islands and gods. However, after Izanami died, Izanagi (like Orpheus in search of Eurydice) attempted to retrieve her unsuccessfully from the Land of the Dead. In that dark place he saw her corpse, thus breaking a grave taboo, and so when he emerged from the darkness Izanami purified himself in the river-mouth of Tatibana—in the process spawning fourteen new deities (68-70). This is the mythic origin of the Shinto practice of misogi: purification by water. Misogi can take many forms, from washing one’s hands and rinsing one’s mouth before entering a shrine to extreme physical rituals involving immersion in cold water or waterfalls. Misogi or harai can also involve using the water of a river to float away the impurities, diseases and bad luck embodied in paper boats (katashiro). Issa often refers to this rite of exorcism, as in the following example.
hōsō no sandara-boshi e kawazu kana
onto a straw lid/ marked “Smallpox”/ hops a frog
Sandara-bōshi is another word for sandawara: a round, straw lid used on both ends of rice bags. In place of a paper boat—as my Japanese advisor Shinji Ogawa envisions this poem—the straw lid has been released onto a river to carry the smallpox god away. Six years later, in 1819, Issa will make use of a similar ritual in an attempt to cure his baby daughter Sato. He writes, “We made a boat with bamboo grass, sprinkled it with sake and released it to carry away the Smallpox God, but she only became weaker and weaker . . .” (6.150). In the haiku of 1813 his tone is lighter. A frog has chosen to climb aboard the smallpox god’s boat. Like the captain of a tiny ship, he drifts away, heroically taking with him the disease of a city or village.
Other Shinto rituals also involve purification. In addition to the launching of paper boats to carry away disease, believers will crawl through hoops of reeds at shrines to secure divine protection from infectious diseases. This haiku by Issa mentions such a “purification hoop” or chinowa.
chōchō no fūfu-zure shite chinowa kana
two butterflies/ pass through together . . ./ purification hoop
The butterflies, literally “husband and wife” (fū fu), fly through the disease-preventing hoop together. As in other haiku that we have previously considered, their consciousness of the meaning of the religious ceremony into which they have injected themselves might not be required for them to reap its benefits. In a sense, their unconsciousness makes their participation in the rite even more exemplary. Unlike human believers who crawl through the chinowa due to their egoistic desire to prolong their own lives, the happy butterfly couple flits through it expecting, and asking for, nothing. This act of “natural piety”—to borrow a phrase from Issa’s faraway English contemporary, William Wordsworth—might not go unrewarded by the kami-sama, or so Issa implies.
In another haiku, a cat uses the occasion of evening’s purification to purify his or her fur.
yase nomi wo furuu ya neko mo yū harai
rousting his skinny fleas/ the cat too . . ./ evening’s purification
Issa comically sets the cat’s flea-scratching and nibbling in a religious, Shinto context. Yet still, despite the poem’s humor, the reader may suspect that the cat, as much as any human pilgrim, genuinely deserves divine blessing. Issa suggests the same in a haiku about a dog.
harukaze ya o-harai ukete kaeru inu
spring breeze –/ purified at a shrine/ the dog comes home
In Kobayashi Issa’s vision of the universe, awareness is not a prerequisite for enjoying the blessing of Buddha or of Nature’s immanent gods. Animals, our cousins, can reap the benefits of Buddhist and Shinto deities and rituals even without understanding that this is happening. Simply being what they are—fully present here and now—animals are possibly even closer to Buddhist enlightenment and Shinto divinity than most human beings who spend so much of their precious energy and time fretting about the future.
Borgen, Robert. Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 1994.
Jordan, Michael. Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004.
Kasulis, Thomas P. Shinto: The Way Home: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality. Honolulu: Univ.
of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶. Issa zenshū. Ed. Kobayashi Keiichirō. 9 vols. Nagano: Shinano
Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-79.
Kojiki. Trans. Donald L. Philippi. Princeton & Tokyo: Princeton Univ. Press & Univ. of Tokyo