Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The beautiful spirit of Issa by Gabriel Rosenstock


The most beautiful thing we

can experience in life is the

mysterious. Albert Einstein


Picking up a book called Writing and Enjoying Haiku by Jane Reichhold (Kodansha International, 2002) one notices dozens of references to Bashō in the Index and not one reference to Issa. It’s as if Issa has been stuck with the ‘country bumpkin’ label instead of being acknowledged as one of the three pillars of the haiku world.

In Makoto Ueda’s Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa (Brill, 2004) we read: ‘His poetry is lacking in the viewpoint that transcends time and space.’ I fail to see the truth of this statement. I am constantly drawn to Issa precisely because he transcends, over and over again, the particularities of his own time and space and gloriously so in the following haiku:


óm chroíse

a thiteann

sneachta Shinano


falling from my heart

the snows

of Shinano


When I receive the Daily Issa service from David Lanoue, I gaelicise those haiku that hit the spot, that transcend time and space for me. This is my spontaneous personal response to the burst of light which Issa releases for me. Then I often do a back translation, that is to say I translate my Irish into English, and this delightful activity keeps me out of pubs and prisons.

The snows in the above haiku are as universal as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and deserve to be as famous as the snows of that short story or any other snows you care to mention. The above snow-haiku is a miraculous encapsulation of that most desired quality in haiku, and in life, interpenetration. This is not something you can fake. This is not something you can manufacture. It’s a gift. Issa had it. His gift was great. There is more than interpenetration at work here. This is pure non-duality, the internal world and the external world fused as one. This is, manifestly, a transcendence of time and space. It is the stopping of time. The snows are falling from Issa’s heart. They will do so forever. Universally.


a ghé, a ghé fhiáin

cén tús

a bhí le d’aistear?


goose, wild goose

what was the beginning

of your journey


Here we see the child-like universal quality of wonder which characterises great haiku and great art across many genres. But it expresses more than idle wistfulness, of course. Issa, it seems to me, had the great gift of cosmic intelligence. He may not have had as much education or sophisticated insights of a Buson or a Bashō; nevertheless, he instinctively knew what all the great writers of the world, writers of immense stature such as Shakespeare or Goethe, were constantly seeking to plumb, the very nature and meaning of existence itself. What was the beginning of your journey, he asks. But this endearing naivety hides a tremendous, a frightening profundity. What Issa is really doing in this great haiku is looking at the Self. He is engaging in what Advaita asks us to do, Self-Enquiry, in meditating the Self, in abiding in the Self, in knowing that in fact the Self is beginningless and therefore endless. Yeats said, ‘I am looking for the face I had before the world was made.’ Precisely. And Osho’s epitaph? ‘Osho, never born, never died.’ And we have it here in Issa, in his contemplation of the goose and it is utterly, utterly wonderful! He manages to do it, quite simply, because his heart is open – to the goose and to himself. This is the key. He could easily have closed his heart. By keeping it open, haiku flowed.

Issa knew what he was doing. He was a conscious poet, dedicated to the life of a poet. No other life was possible for him and even when weakened by a stroke there was a palanquin there for him from which he could observe the world. He says in his journal, ‘A wandering poet can’t help being what he is any more than can a wave that breaks on the shore. His time is short, like foam that disappears in a minute.’ Thus the name he gave himself, Issa – the feathery foam in a cup of tea. Blink and it’s gone. And the haiku moment, how fleeting it is.


glacann colainn

an Bhúda léi –

báisteach an gheimhridh


the body of the Buddha

accepts it –

winter rain


We see the cosmic mind at work again in this sobering haiku, the universal in the particular. I would argue that Issa’s prolific output is due to one thing and one thing only, namely that he was charged with a cosmic battery, that he was in tune with the infinite, that all things were alive and full of grace and majesty to him, even the lowliest forms of life – especially the lowliest forms of life.


a pháistí

ná ciapaigí an dreancaid sin

tá clann uirthi



don’t torment that flea!

she has offspring


Were children to recite this haiku everyday, bullying might disappear. Once bullying disappears, you never know… wars might become unacceptable!


Let’s get back to the Buddha and the rain. The body of the Buddha accepts the winter rain. Of course it does. It accepts everything. The Buddha became enlightened not for me or you but for everybody and everything. And, subtly, Issa gives the initiated reader a hint that says: so with the Buddha, so with Issa. He, too, accepts the winter rain. He does not argue with it. How can he? Chilling though the winter rain may be, it is charged with divine energy, divine grace. It is rain, a universal gift and a necessity for life. Uisce na spéire it’s sometimes called in Irish, sky-water. Haiku is a blessed bridge between heaven and earth, between stillness and movement.

Rain and now snow:

anoir, aniar,
aneas, aduaidh ...
caidhleadh sneachta


from the east, from the west,

from the south, from the north,

driving snow


Issa sees through the driving snow, he sees it coming from all directions, because our country bumpkin has a vantage point, the vantage point of cosmic intelligence. The evidence for this is insurmountable but we may not have seen what was there before our eyes. We may have been fooled into thinking that Issa wrote nothing other than charming, amusing and sometimes sentimental haiku, much appreciated by children. Lucky children to have such a Master! Issa is a Master like none other. It is not that I am extrapolating layers of meaning that are not really there. They are there, most assuredly, to the sympathetic eye.


dúnann an doras
is titeann
dá chodladh ...


he closes the door

and goes to sleep …

a snail


What is he saying here, that he too switches off sometimes? No, it seems to me that an enlightened master is always awake and the more I absorb Issa the more it strikes me that he was, in fact, an enlightened master. For all his travails and hardships, his spirit was free:


croí éadrom

ag eitilt tríd an saol seo...

féileacán bánghorm


a light heart

floating through this world ...

a pale blue butterfly


Many such haiku could be said to form part of a spiritual autobiography. Look at the interpenetration we have in the following haiku:


stánann sí idir an dá shúil
ar an bhfear

gé ag imeacht


she looks at him

straight in the eye –

departing goose


What a moment in time, captured forever. The universality of this haiku is in its

grasping the reality of time, of change, of movement, of seasonality; but as the Indian non-dualist sage, Papaji, once said, ‘We do not seize Reality; Reality seizes us.’ (I have quoted this before and it’s worth quoting again). Time and time again, Reality seizes Issa and he tells us what it’s like, this hair-raising confrontation with what is real, with what it feels like to be awake, to be looked straight in the eye by a goose that’s about to depart. It’s full of mystery as well. There is something ineffable about this strange encounter between man and bird, yet wonderfully real for all that.

Reading Issa, we get a strong feeling of an awakened one, of someone who doesn’t wish to drift off into fanciful worlds:


tabhair slogadh na lachan

do thaibhreamh seo bhreacadh an lae

a chuaichín


gobble up

my dawn dream



His pure response to the pure call of the cuckoo is that the bird might, as it were, gobble up all his fantasies, dreams and illusions and leave him only with the purity of the beginner’s mind.


leánn uaim

ina chearnóg fhoirfe

sneachta an gheata


in a perfect square

the snow on the gate



The endless coming and going of phenomena, the appearance and the disappearance

of generation after generation, of civilisation after civilisation. It’s all in Issa if you look. He tells it as it is. The snow. And the melting of the snow. We don’t get one without the other. Issa wants us to have a full picture. The picture given above, ‘in a perfect square the snow on the gate disappearing’ would, I think have been appreciated by Dutch artist and Theosophist, Piet Mondrian.


an chéad bhrat sneachta

ina scifle ...



the first blanket of snow

all in rags ...


Nothing sentimental about that, is there? It’s not quite nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ but hints at it nicely. In English poetry, such as London Snow by Robert Bridges, we often find a picture-postcard view of nature:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,

In large white flakes falling on the city brown,

Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,

Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town...

A different sensibility is at work in the haiku of the Japanese master. We do not necessarily have to prefer one to the other. Each has its special qualities. What Bridges tries to achieve is something similar to Walter de la Mare’s poem, Snow:


No breath of wind,

No gleam of sun,

Still the white snow

Whirls softly down

Twig and bough

And blade and thorn

All in an icy

Quiet, forlorn...


But I could not read Bridges or Walter de la Mare repeatedly, over a lifetime. Issa I can. The best of his haiku never get stale, not for me at any rate, and it is because his haiku emerge not from some imaginative, atmosphere-building fiction but from the depths (or heights) of Reality itself.

Furthermore, each glimpse of Reality is as real as the next:


an ráib faoi bhláth –

agus nuair a fhéachaim siar

Teampall Zenko


flowering rape –

and looking west

Zenko Temple


gealach an fhómhair –

agus nuair a fhéachaim siar

Teampall Zenko


harvest moon –

and looking west

Zenko Temple


Such close similarity between two poems would be intolerable to poetry lovers. Mainstream poetry would, rightly, see it as a form of self-plagiarism. Not so in haiku. Because it is Reality that matters. And nothing is as universal as Reality, Reality that reflects nature, the spirit of nature, human nature, animal nature:


ag imeacht san áit

ar gann iad na sealgairí éan -

an sionnach


he sneaks off

to where fowlers are scarce –

the fox


Issa’s sympathy is with the fox, of course, but in a way it’s with everything and everybody, even the bird hunters. What I like about this haiku is its connectedness to the earth, to landscape, to the ways of the land. One of the problems we encounter in the haiku world today is that city haikuists often bend over backwards to argue for the validity of urban haiku. Urban haiku existed in Issa’s time but he reminds us that in the area of the old capital, Edo, even the scarecrows are crooked! So be warned!

There may be a sneaking admiration in the above haiku for the wily old fox; after all, Issa was not the best at handling his worldly affairs. But even the fox doesn’t always get his own way:


imithe le gealaigh

ag na clocha sneachta –



hail stones

driving him crackers –

the fox


Poets such as Robert Bridges and Walter de la Mare rely on stock devices – rhyme, rhythm, onomotopoeia and so on – devices which the haiku usually shuns. Avoiding these imaginative layers of beguiling ornamentation and suggestion, dispensing even with a title, the haiku relies solely on the pure shock of Reality.

We must talk now about fleas: they too are part of Reality, of the scheme of things. Let’s revisit the flea haiku above:



don’t torment that flea!

she has offspring


This is not, I would argue, an example of anthropomorphism. Off course a flea has offspring, otherwise how do fleas come into being? Rabindranath Tagore says there is no higher religion than that of sympathy for all that lives. And Einstein says, ‘Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.’ Issa’s sympathy for fleas, frogs and baby sparrows is often interpreted as simply amusing or touching. It is much, much greater than that. The flea-haiku is a statement of universal compassion. Only someone who was taunted or exluded, or witnessed exclusion, could write such an effective haiku which is nothing short of a plea from the heart for all cruelty, mindlessness and aggression to end.

Issa’s enlightenment is found in the balance of rest and activity:


ag socrú síos arís

sa chiúnas séimh

géanna na ngort ríse


settling down again

in gentle stillness

geese in the rice fields


Sublime! It’s almost a call to meditation. It is universal in the sense that rest and activity is the lot of all beings. The scene is described on the cusp of serenity, so to speak. The geese are settling down again, which is not the same as some seconds earlier when all is commotion, or some seconds later when the geese are reposing: we actually catch a glimpse of them in motion, settling down to motionlessness. This is superb interpenetration, the spirit, the inner eye following the dynamics of a fleeting moment, becoming that fleeting moment itself and the stillness thereafter.

Actually, we might say that its fleetingness is precisely what demands spontaneous alacrity from the haijin, a response which is more than perception, or mere observation, and it is this which creates the haiku moment.

Certainly Issa had his sorrows and travails but throughout his body of haiku

great joy issues forth as from a fountain:


na raidisí fiú

ag bláthú sa ghort ...

an fhuiseog ag ceiliúradh

even the radishes
in the field blooming...
the lark singing!


This is the spontaneous often unexpected ecstasy experienced by poets and mystics universally and it can visit any of us, at any time, when we are at one with Creation. There is nothing to be sought, to be desired; listen to the delicious sermon of the radishes, that’s all, and the heavens will open in song.

And even in a more sombre mood, Issa is saying... what can be added? This is enough beauty, enough happiness for any man:


ag breathnú ar an sliabh

ag breathnú ar an muir ...

tráthnóna fómhair

looking at the mountain
looking at the sea...
autumn evening


The gaze, the untroubled gaze, stretching into infinity, at one with the nature of the Self and the universe. The simplicity of it all. I’m sure it unnerves quite a lot of people! It’s strange how people react differently to a handful of syllables. Some enter the mood immediately. It’s more than a mood, of course. Others are untouched, unmoved.

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening. Something of the quality of dreams colours our perceptions and a good haiku is like a splash of water from a cool mountain stream that wakes us up from our doze. Looking at the mountain/looking at the sea .../autumn evening. A universal experience, timeless, and ever new. The act of making a haiku is a celebration of pure consciousness. Thousands of millions of people have gazed at a mountain, have gazed at the sea. But with what degree of consciousness, of awareness, of perception and interpenetration? The haiku opens up all our channels of perception to take in the mystery of mountain and sea, the soul of the mountain and sea; the haiku act is an act of interpenetration, a kind of celibate eroticism!

And from vast vistas back to minutiae again:


báisteach earraigh
ar dhuille an bhambú
á lí ag luch

licking spring rain

from a bamboo leaf...


In the last line of the Irish version, á lí ag luch, you can actually hear the little tongue lapping up the droplets of rain as the ‘l’ sounds imitate the action of the tongue. And this is the great gift of haiku, and Issa’s wonderful gift to us. He shares with us his blessed witnessing of the unfolding of life in a myriad ways; most of these revelations are quite ordinary and reveal how extraordinary the ordinary is. We are there with the mouse. It is the mouse, not a pop star or president, that is centre stage, for a few seconds. That little mouse has been immortalized by Issa in a manner which may well outlive Mickey Mouse.

Issa’s boundless creativity is such that he is naturally in tune with the thousand and one creations and recreations that are going on all around him all of the time, from season to season, year in, year out, and he never tires of these daily miracles:


castáin bheaga
ar mhún an capall orthu...
ag glioscarnach, úrnua

little chestnuts
pissed on by the horse...
shiny new


This is a strikingly fresh metaphor for what is going on inside Issa himself. His seeing the world through haiku-vision means that he, too, is being sublty altered and refined by all that he sees and hears, all that he smells, touches and feels. He is walking the haiku path, ceaselessly, living and expressing the haiku creed which is nothing but life itself in its neverending game of decay and renewal. Indeed, Issa saw not only change around him but metamorphosis. He says in his journal (Oraga Haru):


‘No sooner has the snow of last year disappeared in sumer than the first frosts of autumn have come. All the trees not native to this place but brought in from better climates undergo some changes. The mandarin orange tree shrinks to half its natural size ...’


I love this observation... the shrinking tree; it’s almost a metaphor for haiku itself.


beatha an tseilmide

téann a luí agus éiríonn

díreach mar atá sé


the life of a snail

he goes to bed and gets up

just the way he is


This is priceless! Haiku’s compactness makes it wonderfully suitable to handling small things. Not that haiku couldn’t handle a herd of elephants, of course it could. But there’s something exquisitely charming about those haiku of his that deal with frogs, fireflies, fleas and snails. ‘The life of a snail/he goes to bed and gets up/ just the way he is’. Just the way he is, that’s great. As if he could be any other way. And Issa says that the way he is cannot but be perfectly fine. 100%. Just the way he is! And so it is…

This identification with snails and the like is also a form of self-effacement. The sage with the Chinese name (whose father was High Sheriff of Armagh, God help us!), Wei Wu Wei, observed that a saint is someone who disciplines the ego and a sage is one who drops it.


tús an earraigh –

gealbhain ag an ngeata

gona n-aghaidheanna beaga


beginning of Spring –

sparrows at the gate

with their little faces


Issa observes the sparrows at the gate and then his heart goes out to them on seeing their little faces. It is the heart that sees. He might have had his head in the clouds a lot of the time but Saint Exupéry got it right when he said something very similar: ‘It’s only with the heart that one sees rightly.’ Issa saw with the heart, the universal heart of man. Paternal-maternal. He saw with the heart like none other. But it is not the way of the world, alas, to see with the heart. And that is why Issa’s world stature is not as great as it should be.

Let’s go back to Zenko Temple:


is cosúil go rabhadar

i dTeampall Zenko

aghaidheanna na mionghealbhan


faces looking like
they've been to Zenko Temple
baby sparrows


Read this haiku with the purity of mind in which it was composed and we, too, become visitors to Zenko Temple; we, too, acquire the face of a baby sparrow, the

Eternal innocence of our inherent Budda nature. The Self cannot be defiled. The mind and the body can know defilement but not the Self. Issa’s immortal haiku spring from his immortal Self. (Not all of his haiku, of course. He could indulge in trivia as well).


an broigheall is gile liomsa

é siúd a thagann aníos

is a ghob folamh!


my favourite cormorant

the one who surfaces

with nothing


In parts of the East, they still fish with cormorants, their necks ringed so that they don’t swallow the catch, and Issa’s favourite is the one that comes up with nothing.

In a world obsessed with success, Issa teaches us to love a loser. If there isn’t a Love a Loser Day, let’s have one! ‘My favourite cormorant/the one who surfaces/with nothing’. Perfect!

The nothing is also something, of course. As a Buddhist, Issa would have contemplated nothing, emptiness, the Void. Nothing is essential! Without nothing there can’t be anything. And the Void, sunyata, is universal. The Heart Sutra tells us form is emptiness, emptiness form. This understanding adds an extra flavour to the cormorant- haiku.

Issa’s Buddhism can be expressed in pious, traditional terms or equally with a touch of humour. In this haiku we overhear the tea-harvesters:


Molaimis an Búda!

Molaimis an Búda!”

ag piocadh duilleoga tae


“Praise Buddha

praise Buddha!”

picking tea-leaves

The lowliest tasks become impregnated with a celestial flavour. And in the next, an awesome statue of the Buddha makes us smile:


ar shrón oirirc

an Bhúda oirirc –

bior seaca


from the esteemed nose

of the esteemed Buddha –

an icicle


Has the serene beauty of the statue been lessened by the icicle, and caused us to fall from the sublime to the ridiculous? No. The statue is made of stone. The icicle on the other hand is a living thing. Zen-haiku Master J. W. Hackett says: ‘Remember that lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.’ Lifefulness! Issa is not lacking in that respect.


nuair a lonnaíonn

an filiméala sa ghiúis –

guth na giúise


when the nightingale

settles in the pine –

the voice of the pine


We keep returning to interpenetration. Einstein talked about extending our circle of compassion to all living things. We have concluded that we can do this perfectly by seeing with the heart. We have seen Issa to excel in this field, perhaps above all other haijin. Look at this:


a chastána beaga

nach mion minic

a shatlaítear oraibh!


little chestnuts

how often

you are trampled upon


My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

Issa’s chestnut-haiku is seeing with a very big heart indeed, into the living heart of the universe:


oíche shamhraidh –

tá na réaltaí fiú

ag cogarnaíl lena chéile.


In Robert Hass’s translation:

summer night –

even the stars

are whispering to one another!


This is the gift of haiku, of course. It gives a hint, just a hint, but an unmistakeable hint nonetheless, of immensity. To have written such a haiku, there must have been an immensity in Issa himself. Whether he was conscious of this immensity or took it for granted is not the central point. His was a great soul, a mahatma, a universal spirit.

The best description I have read concerning the opening of the heart, seeing with the heart and how this might influence our endeavours (artistic and otherwise) came from a Sufi source:

‘As one can see when the eyes are open, so one can understand when the heart is open.’( Hazrat Inayat Khan).

Now let us look at a commentary on that by Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan:

‘Every name and every form speaks constantly, constantly makes signs for you to hear, for you to respond to, for you to interpret, that you may become a friend of God. ’

So far so good as to linking these words with the haiku path, namely, every name and every form constantly speaking, constantly making signs for us to hear, to respond to and to interpret...’ This challenge, which needn’t be arduous at all, gives meaning to life. Let’s read on:

‘How can we grow to read and understand the message that life speaks through all its names and forms? The answer is that, as by the opening of the eyes you can see things, so by the opening of the heart you can understand things. As long as the heart is closed you cannot understand things. The secret is that, when the ears and eyes of the heart are open, all planes of the world are open, all names are open, all secrets, all mysteries are unfolded.’

It must be fairly obvious how this wonderful insight into life can be applied to haiku, to Issa’s haiku and to the best haiku that came before and after him. Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan then ges on to ask us how is it done? How do we open the heart, how do we see and understand with the heart?

For the haikuist, for most artists, and for most people, this is the most important question of all, I would suggest:

‘The way to it is a natural life, the life of the child, smiling with the smiling one, praying with the praying one, ready to learn from everyone, ready to love. The child has enmity against no one, he has no hatred, no malice, his heart is open. It is in the child that you can see the smiles of angels; he can see through life. When the grown-up person is made ready, when he has acquired the attributes of the child, then he creates heaven within himself, he understands. The child with his innocence does not understand, but when a man with understanding develops the childlike loving tendency, the purity of heart of the child with the desire to be friendly to all -- that is the opening of the heart ...’

All this applies to Issa. The seeing heart of Issa saw the cosmos as leela, play, and what else was Issa to do but enter into this cosmic play with child-like delight. And the result?

‘Everything becomes spiritual once this door of the chamber of the heart is open. If a man is a musician, then his music is celestial. If he is a poet, then his poetry is spiritual. If he is an artist, then his art is a spiritual work. Whatever he may do in life that divine spirit manifests. He need not be a religious person, he need not be a philosopher, he need not be a mystic. It is simply that what was hidden in him and thereby was keeping his life incomplete begins to manifest to view, and that makes his life perfect.’


sneachta ag leá

is an sráidbhaile ag cur thar maoil ...

le leanaí


snow’s melting!

and the village overflows ...

with children







Gabriel Rosenstock

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