Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is generally counted as one of the four greatest haiku poets, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Issa was a devout, if irreverent, Buddhist of the True Pure Land sect whose pen-name means “one cup of tea.” His haiku are extremely down-to-earth, making ample use of vernacular speech and often taking insects or other invertebrates for their subject matter. He wrote at least fifteen haiku about excrement and excretory functions, in which I believe he was not only riffing on the Buddhist doctrine about the essential oneness of nirvana and samsara, but also trying to challenge traditional Japanese concepts of beauty and purity. Japan is a purity-obsessed culture, in which cleanliness and beauty are closely linked. Foreign visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that, in this otherwise extremely clean and tidy country, public restrooms, especially in train stations, can be unspeakably filthy. Since such places are considered inherently impure, little effort is expended to keep them clean. But to Issa, any place where people or animals pause to take a shit seems worthy of a second look. After all, anything that breaks us loose from our ordinary mental habits might lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.
For a more comprehensive sample of Issa’s work, see David G. Lanoue’s massive online archive (to which I am indebted for the Japanese texts below). The following are my own translations.
ta no hito no kasa ni hako shite kaeru kari
The wild geese take wing
from the flooded fields,
shitting on the farmers’ hats.
sôjô ga no-guso asobasu higasa kana
In the middle of the field,
the high priest takes a shit —
no setchin no ushiro wo kakou yanagi kana
An impromptu outhouse,
screening bare asses from view:
the lone willow.
musashi no ya no-guso no togi ni naku hibari
On Musashi Plain,
I listened to the song of a skylark
while I took a shit.
nichi-nichi no kuso darake nari hana no yama
The mountain in cherry blossom time:
each day a deeper layer
kado-gado ni aoshi kaiko no kuso no yama
At every gate,
a blue-green mountain
of silkworm frass.
uguisu ya kuso shi nagara mo hokkekyô
The bush warbler
intones the Lotus Sutra
even as it shits.
kasugano ya dagashi ni majiru shika no kuso
In Kasuga Field, between the temples,
cheap candy mingles
with the deer pellets.
hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso
not even enough to hide
all the dogshit.