Cherry Blossoms by David Lanoue


Cherry Blossoms by David Lanoue

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hana saku ya to aru kokage mo kaichôbutsu

cherry blossoms--
under every tree
a Buddha on display
This haiku is a revision of a poem of 1818, in which the blossoms are scattering (hana chiru ya).

Images of Buddha that are normally locked inside the temple are outdoors on display.

"Blossoms" (hana) can denote cherry blossoms in the shorthand of haiku.

Sakuo Nakamura comments that in Zenkôji Temple, near Issa's native village, a famous "secret Buddha" is displayed to the public once a year. At the time, gamblers are allowed to play on the temple grounds, and so "Buddha on display" also connotes gambling.
year unknown


shira-gumo no sakura wo kuguru toyama kana

creeping through white
cherry blossom clouds...
the mountain

Although Lewis Mackenzie and Kai Falkman contend that toyama is the name of a particular mountain, the word denotes any mountain located near a village; see Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa (London: John Murray, 1957) 25; Falkman, Understanding Haiku: A Pyramid of Meaning (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002) 50; and Kogo dai jiten (Shogakukan 1983) 1185. Robin D. Gill believes that Issa is painting a picture of "white clouds wafting through cherry blossoms on mountains seen from below. The humour, then, for Issa is never without it, lies in the mixing of two types of clouds."

Shinji Ogawa offers three ways to read this haiku: (1) "At Toyama hill, the white clouds creep through the cherry blossoms" [Robin's theory]; (2) "At Toyama hill, we creep through the cherry blossoms in a white cloud"; or (3) "Toyama hill creeps through the cherry blossoms in a white cloud." Although he dismisses the third possibility as the least likely, I find it a compelling poetic image and have redone my translation in this direction. White blossoms form a "cloud" so thick, the nearby mountain seems to slither its way through it.

Alastair Watson writes, "To me this is deeply imbued with Buddhist Life (at least from a Japanese Zen view): contains several comparisons, dualities in which the Buddhist practitioner struggles to merge - the Absolute and the Relative - the Mountain (spiritual path, sacred Way) and the Market (place)/Village (secular, daily World). Each image seems chosen for the layers of meanings/associations: cherry blossoms epitomizing impermanence, the mountain in contrast is 'more permanent'; white clouds are commonly referred to as 'obstructions' in practice, obscuring the fullness of enlightenment (usually covering the full moon or big blue sky, and here perhaps represented as the mountain through the 'blossom/clouds'); and the "creeping" giving a sense of flow, the endlessly flowing river of Worldly Life, in birth, existence, and death, blossom (clouds) flowing to the ground... ; or when one looks carefully one can see through the clouds/blossoms and see the mountain, the Path to Liberation. And so on ... At least these are some of my novice Zen-student understandings, which I would be surprised if Issa as a Pure Land Buddhist would have been not unaware of."



kakurega ya oso yamazakura oso katsuo

secluded house--
the cherry blossoms late
the bonito...late

The cherry blossoms of spring and the bonito fish of summer both arrive the chagrine of the inhabitant of the secluded house, presumably Issa.

Shinji Ogawa notes that Issa is alluding here to a haiku by Sodô Yamaguchi (1642 - 1716):

me niwa aoba yama-hototogisu hatsu gatsuo

for the eyes green leaves
mountain cuckoo
first bonito

Shinji Ogawa comments, "Bonitos swim, along the Black Current (or Japan Current), from the Philippine Sea to the northern sea around Hokkaido. They pass near Tokyo (Edo) in spring [old calendar = summer] on their way to the north. They return to pass Tokyo in the fall on their way back to the south."


tada tanome sakura bota-bota ano tôri

simply trust!
the cherry blossoms
trickling down

The old expression hota-hota denotes the ever-so soft sound that blossoms make as they fall, one after the other; see Kogo dai jiten (Shogakukan 1983) 1487. I believe that Issa's bota-bota is a variant of this. Unfortunately, I can find no word in English that exactly expresses this soft, soft sound. "Pitter-patter" sounds too sharp. I have decided to use "trickling," but the reader should note that Issa's sound is much more delicate and muted.

The haiku's message is that of Pure Land Buddhism. All that one can do in the face of certain oblivion is to trust utterly in the saving grace of Amida Buddha to be reborn in the Pure Land.


eta tera no sakura maji-maji saki ni keri

at the outcasts' temple
with cool defiance...
cherry blossoms

This haiku refers to the outcasts (eta). In Issa's time, they performed "unclean" jobs such as disposing of dead animals, working with leather, and executing criminals.

The word maji-maji has three meanings: "blinkingly," "hesitantly" and "brazenly." Robin D. Gill picks the latter in his reading of this haiku, and on this basis he detects a subtle irony. The outcasts must keep their eyes deferentially lowered in the presence of their social superiors, yet the blossoms "brazenly" bloom. Shinji Ogawa, however, thinks that maji-maji denotes "hesitantly" here. He paraphrases: "The cherry blossoms of the outcasts' temple hesitatingly bloomed."

In my first translation, I relied on Shinji's instinct and included the line, "reluctantly blooming." Since that time, Robin has convinced me that the cherry trees are blooming with calm indifference to racial prejudice. The cherry blossoms belong to everyone.

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