Treasures from Issa

The Magazine of The World Haiku Club
Vol. 3, Issue 2:  December 2003

 Shades of Ink – Translating the Japanese Poem
Xavier University, Louisiana, USA

Not Your Ordinary Saint: Jizô in the Haiku of Issa
David G. Lanoue
Of the first five thousand haiku of Issa that I have translated for my online archive, only thirteen refer to Jizô, a figure that two of my Japanese/English dictionaries identify as “the guardian deity of children.” Statistically, then, it would seem that Jizô is a figure of miniscule importance in Issa’s poetic universe, far less prominent than, for example, Buddha, to whom he refers, in this same sample, 214 times. However, though Jizô appears so infrequently, we should not underestimate his significance to Issa. In fact, one could argue that truly important, truly sacred things must not be mentioned too often or too publicly, or else they might lose some of their power to move and inspire. Jizô is precisely this kind of spiritually forceful image in Issa’s haiku, and, one assumes, in his life beyond haiku.

The dictionary designation of Jizô as, simply, “the guardian deity of children” is confusing for anyone familiar with the fact that Buddhism is not a theistic belief system. Buddhists do not worship a God or gods. How, then, can Jizô, in Buddhist Japan, be a “deity”? The name Jizô derives from the Sanskrit ksitigarbha, a compound of ksiti and garbha: “earth” + “womb” (Ôzuka 359). In ancient India this “Earth-Womb,” as the name implies, served as a fertility goddess whose lineage traces back to the earth goddess, Prthivî (Dystra 179). When Buddhism moved into China, monks translated Ksitigarbha with the Chinese cognates, ti ts’ang: “Earth-store,” “Earth-treasury,” or “Earth-womb” (Soothill 208). Ti Ts’ang Wang (“King Earth-store”) underwent a sex-change somewhere en route from India to China, so that Jizô, the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “earth” and “storehouse,” has spent the majority of his/her time in East Asia as a male.

In Chinese Buddhism, Jizô came to be known as one of the eight Dhyâni-Bodhisattvas, his particular job being that of guardianship over the earth. A bodhisattva is not a god but an enlightened being who heroically helps others on the road to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas roughly parallel the saints of medieval Catholic tradition: they are heavenly VIPs who intercede, when called upon, for their earthly devotees. Of course, key differences pertain between Christian saints and Buddhist bodhisattvas, not the least being the notion that saints have arrived at an eternal state of bliss whereas bodhisattvas have delayed their entry into Nirvana on a compassionate mission to lead other sentient beings to enlightenment. Still, the English word “saint” seems closest to the mark, so in my own translations I usually designate him as “Saint Jizô.”

In Chinese Buddhist myth Jizô became associated with Yama, the overlord of Hell, most likely because of his (formerly her) ancient association with earth’s womb. Nevertheless, in folklore he appears as a savior, not punisher. For example, in one old Chinese tale a son’s filial piety moves Jizô to deliver that son’s sinful, dead mother out of hell. Similarly, in a Japanese story, he appears in the form of a beautiful young boy and rescues a righteous man from hell by offering to suffer in the man’s place (Dykstra 180; 194-95). In Pure Land Buddhism, that branch of Buddhism that relies on Amida Buddha to enable one to be reborn in his Western Paradise, Jizô gained a reputation as one who could assist sinful mortals in their last moments of life, effecting their rebirth in the Pure Land. This is why, in many Japanese temples, statues of Jizô stand on one side of Amida, while Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy, stands on the other.

Jizô’s role in Pure Land Buddhism made him widely popular in medieval Japan, where this movement spread far and wide among the masses. Somewhere along the way, he picked up other duties in addition to helping souls reach Amida’s Pure Land, such as providing protection for travelers. Even today, stone and wood Jizôs can found all over Japan along remote roads, where they watch over those who journey there. Jizô’s kind, generous, and selfless nature led Japanese people to revere him additionally as a guardian of children. Yet, as we have seen, he is much more than this thumbnail sketch found in dictionaries.

Issa’s earliest reference to Jizô appears in the eighth year of the Temmei Era, 1788; in a text titled, Go jû-eki (“53 Post Towns”). He was only twenty-six, just starting his poetic career, when he wrote:

koke no hana ko kizu ni saku ya ishi jizô (1788)

moss blossoms bloom
in a little crack…
stone Jizô

The middle line might also be translated, “in little cracks,” since the noun, kizu,signifies either singular or plural, depending on how the reader chooses to imagine the scene. The haiku has a prescript: “A big seashore,” a specific setting that suggests the haiku is a sketch from life. Thirty-three years later, in 1821, Issa returns to the same image:

o-jizô [no] hiza mo mehana mo koke no hana (1821)

in Saint Jizô’s
lap, eyes, nose…
blooming moss

In this second haiku, the image of moss blossoms erupting lushly from Jizô’s lap, eyes, and nose resonates with the bodhisattva’s ancient role of fertility god: the womb of the earth whose every crack and crevice gives birth to tiny gardens. Issa energizes both of his portraits of blossoming Jizô by means of juxtaposition: nonliving statue and living moss come together to create a powerful unity of which the saint of stone (or, perhaps, wood) is not only a living presence but a life-giver, the “Earth-womb” for summer’s smallest flowers. Issa taps into the rich semantic heritage of Jizô in these haiku.

Another pair of haiku brings together Jizô and blossoms, only this time the blossoms appear on a much larger scale, surrounding and practically engulfing the kind saint:

o-jizô ya hana nadeshiko no man naka ni (1812)

Saint Jizô
in the blooming pinks…
dead center

nadeshiko ya jizô bosatsu no ato saki ni (undated)

blooming pinks
behind and in front
of Saint Jizô

Issa wrote the first haiku in 1812; the composition date of the second, evidently a rewrite of the first, is unknown. In both poems Jizô sits or stands in a field of blooming pinks. Since flowers are often used as temple offerings, Jizô’s status as a revered figure in Buddhism raises the question: Are these pinks Nature’s living offering to the saint or, perhaps, are they the Nature-Saint’s offering to us? Either way, Issa evokes a delicate feeling that only deepens when one holds in mind Jizô’s fertility god pedigree. He appears as both Lord of Flowers and their humble, happy recipient, utterly immersed in their beauty.

In this next cluster of haiku Jizô appears in his role of protector of life:

suzume no ko jizô no sode ni kakure keri (1814)

baby sparrow
safe in Saint Jizô’s

o-jizô no te ni sue tamau kawazu kana (1815)

in Saint Jizô’s hand

hachi no su [ya] jizô bosatsu no on-hiji [ni] (1818)

safe on Saint Jizô’s

takenoko no ban shite gozaru jizô kana (1821)

kindly guarding
the bamboo shoots…
Saint Jizô

hiru sugi ya jizô no hiza ni naku kawazu (1824)

midday passes–
on Saint Jizô’s Lap
a croaking frog

In the first haiku, there might be more than one baby sparrow—another case in which the non-specificity of Japanese nouns, in terms of number, provides extra leeway for the reader’s imagination. In all five scenes, a roadside statue of Saint Jizô guards over small, innocent life: baby sparrow(s), frogs, bees, and new shoots of summer bamboo. Jizô’s special role in Pure Land Buddhism deepens the significance of these pastoral scenes.

In one of his poetic journals, Oraga haru (“My Spring”), Issa asks, rhetorically, “Will not even trees and plants one day become Buddhas?” He answers, “They, too, will acquire Buddha-nature” (6.137). In the Pure Land Buddhist perspective, sparrows, frogs, bees and even bamboo will one day realize enlightenment, but in order to do so, they need to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land. Jizô’s reputation as a merciful bodhisattva dedicated to enabling sentient beings to reincarnate in Amida’s Paradise casts these five haiku in a particular religious light. Saint Jizô’s protection is not only physical, but spiritual. His presence in these scenes whispers of future-life hope for these creatures, these plants, and, by implication, for the human readers of the poems.

These next two haiku appear on the same page of Issa’s journal, Shichiban nikki(“Seventh Diary”) in First Month 1814:

haru kaze ya jizô no kuchi no o-meshi tsubu (1814)

spring breeze–
on Saint Jizô’s lips
a grain of rice

botamochi ya jizô no hiza mo haru no kaze (1814)

rice cake and jelly
on Saint Jizô’s lap
the spring breeze

Both haiku present images of Jizô accepting tribute: a grain of rice in his mouth, a bean jam-covered rice cake on his lap. Here, his ancient identity as fertility goddess and contemporary role as compassionate bodhisattva seem to come together. Someone has left rice offerings for the statue, a gesture that might signify thanksgiving for last year’s harvest as well as a down-payment for a good harvest in the year to come. Or, the gesture might be understood in Buddhist terms as a propitiatory offering in hopes of attaining Jizô’s intercession for rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land. Whichever way one interprets these gifts, they palpably acknowledge Jizô’s regenerative power. The seasonal reference, “spring breeze,” adds emphasis to this association, spring being both the season of fertility and an emblem for spiritual rebirth.

From the second haiku, one wonders if the breeze itself has offered the rice grain to Jizô’s mouth, or has it done the opposite: blown away all the other grains that some devotee has put there, leaving just one behind? Issa, as he likes to do, leaves plenty of room for interpretation and imagination. One thing, however, is certain: both haiku celebrate simple, sincere, natural, beautiful…piety.

In a playful mood, Issa writes,

yuki haku ya jizô bosatsu no tsumori made (1821)

sweeping snow–
enough piled up
to make a Jizô

Normally, he might sculpt the snow into a Snow Buddha, but on this occasion he decides to make a Jizô. The feeling in the poem is warm and intimate: the Buddhist saint whose image the poet shapes–both in snow and in the words of his haiku–is an old, familiar friend. Our last example inspires a similar emotion:

kenbutsu ni jizô mo narabu odori kana (1823)

looking on, Saint Jizô
lines up too…
dance for the dead

During the autumn Bon Festival, people light lanterns to guide their ancestors’ spirits back to family tombs and, as part of the festivities, dance traditional dances. In Issa’s haiku, the Jizô statue appears as fully part of the human community, so much so that he lines up with the dancers, joining in. On a superficial level the image is charming and humorous, but the Bon Festival context conjures deeper associations as one recalls Jizô’s connection with death, the underworld, and afterlife. Aware of those who have gone before them, the villagers dance on the earth for their short time but are not alone; they have a friend, a neighbor who lives right alongside them: gentle and loving, a bodhisattva who will guide them in their last moments; an Earth Mother who, when the time comes, will welcome them home.

Works Cited

Dykstra, Yoshiko Kurata. “Jizo, the Most Merciful. Tales from Jizo Bosatsu Reigenki.”

Monumenta Nipponica 33, 2 (1978): 179-200.

Issa [Kobayashi Issa]. Issa zenshû. Ed. Kobayashi Keiichiro. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi  Shimbunsha, 1976-1979. 9 vols.

Ôzuka Shinichi, Ed. Iwanami bukkyô jiten [Iwanami Dictionary of Buddhism]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989.

Soothill, William Edward, and Lewis Hodous. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms.
London: Kegan Paul, 1937; rpt. Taipei Ch’eng Wen Publishing Co., 1975.

This entry was posted in Classics, Haiku, Issa, Vol 3-2 December 2003 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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