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re:Virals 122

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     All the time I pray to Buddha 
     I keep on 
     killing mosquitoes
          — Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa 
(ed. R Hass, The Ecco Press, 1994)

Garry Eaton lets the current take him:

A comic, common sense, but conflicted point of view about karma, self-preservation and the Buddhist injunction to practice reverence for life. It is a classic demonstration of a typical Issa dichotomy in its embrace of a suffering world and its devotion to reaching the Pureland of the compassionate one, Amida Buddha. In its deeper implication, the haiku shows us a man fighting against the current, but feeling he is nevertheless being carried relentlessly downstream by the struggle to survive in the material world. The only resolution is in accepting and laughing at the ironies.

Lynne Rees presents her ideas on the present:

I’ve been told (but have never been able to accurately source it) that Arthur Koestler said, ‘true understanding involves transcending the barrier of paradox.’ And that idea seems to be the backcloth to this haiku by Issa, how he subscribed to the non-violence at the heart of Buddhist thinking and behaviour yet could not live up to the first of the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow: ‘Avoid killing, or harming any living thing.’ Because there’s no wriggle room to say that mosquitoes, annoying or not, aren’t living things. How could he call himself a Buddhist but also act in a way that betrayed his core beliefs? Does that make him a hypocrite?

On the logical surface of the argument, yes. But I imagine we are all culpable of what could be described as self-betrayals. Are we Christians whipped into road-rage rather than turning the other cheek? And what about us vegetarians who like leather boots? Or writing tutors who convince our students that daily writing practice is the only way but haven’t followed that advice ourselves for quite some time?

‘Walk the talk’ has become a popular expression, the antithesis of ‘Don’t do what I do, do what I say.’ But is it even remotely possible for us imperfect, unpredictable, contrary human beings to always do that?
Perhaps Issa is saying he is not perfect, that he never will be. Perhaps he is saying that the only thing he can do is to be aware of himself, present to the who and what he is and does. Perhaps that act of being present, of facing up to who we are and what we do, of accepting but not judging, creates a space for slowly becoming our more authentic selves. Perhaps that’s how we transcend the paradox.

David G. Lanoue looks at the juxtapositions of Issa’s flies and Buddhas:

Since Robert Hass admittedly could not read Japanese, basing all of his English versions of haiku on translations by R. H. Blyth, it’s anyone’s guess which exact poem by Issa this is supposed to be. Issa wrote several haiku juxtaposing the recital of the nembutsu (“All Praise to Amida Buddha”) with mosquitoes either attacking or being swatted at. 

For example:

namu aa to ôkuchi akeba yabu ka kana

while praising Buddha

with wide-open mouth . . .

a mosquito

. . . humorously implying that the mosquito has flown in?


namu amida butsu no kata yori naku ka kana

from the direction

of “all praise to Amida Buddha!”

a mosquito’s buzz

It might even be (as editor of re:Virals Danny suggested to me in an email):


abare ka ni juzu wo furi-furi ekô kana

swatting prayer beads

at a pesky mosquito . . .

memorial service

If Hass is creating a version of the latter haiku, he has unfortunately removed some important and vivid elements: the prayer beads (along with the silly and impious action of using them as a mosquito-swatter), and the memorial service, which hints of a common death for all, humans and insects. A brilliant tragicomic poem has thereby been reduced to a mediocre one through “translation.”

Ajaya Mahala plays a zero-sum game:

The haiku aptly depicts the duality in our existence. Buddha enunciated the principle of ‘Ahimsa’ or non-violence. He preached for shunning of violence in any form against even the smallest of the creatures. The haiku gives the picture of meditation by the poet where mosquitoes create obstruction by biting. This compels the poet to swat the mosquitoes to death.

This brings to fore the conflict between the end and the means. Can there be immoral means to a noble end? Why all these genocides and massacres in the name of religion? Is there some weight in the statement that the means can never be bad if the ultimate goal is noble? Or that if the effect of good deeds outweigh the effect of bad deeds, then the net result will only be good?

According to Hindu philosophy, good and bad deeds never cancel each other out and one has to undergo the repercussions of their actions separately. While human life is a common cauldron of a variety of actions, the trial of each action shall be held in a watertight compartment, and each action will have its bearing on life.

Even if we forget these interpretations, we will come to understand that we have, throughout our life, only played a zero-sum game — that is, all our actions have led us nowhere. In a way, we have robbed Peter all the way to pay to Paul.
Thus, the haiku has a message embedded in it — big pluses in life are of no value if there are also big minuses to offset them. It is better to have smaller good acts to your credit with no evil act detrimental to the existence of other creatures.

Michael O’ Brien finds humour:

The poem might offer multiple readings.

Firstly the hypocrisy or inconsistency of human existence. Most of us want to do good and consciously try to but if we’re honest with ourselves for just a moment, how many us knowingly live unsustainable lifestyles and fall into traps such as keeping up with the joneses? A lot of the time everything from our dinner plate to our petrol munching vehicles contradicts our best intentions.

There’s also a reading of inevitability or fatalism, a somewhat less severe understanding of the prior reading, which we could interpret as: we’re only human and we can never get over that. We eat, we sleep, and occasionally we kill mosquitos.

From reading Issa’s extensive list of work, humour is often close by and that’s why affording any of his works a humourous reading is valuable (except the one’s about dead kids — there’s usually no punch line with poems involving dead children). So if you laugh at the scene of a serene diligent Buddhist with their legs all wound up like a pretzel and their back straight like a poker, flipping their lid over a little mosquito, there is definitely humour to be had.

Personally I read a little of interpretations two and three — the pathos of human nature with a little dash of humour; life can be painful sometimes but if we can’t laugh at the absurdity of it all, it can be too much. Let’s just do our best and not worry if we mindlessly kill a mosquito now and again.

Praniti Gulyani feels the vibes:

On reading this haiku by Issa, I was reminded of rosary beads almost instantly. In today’s fast-paced world, I presume all of us have a rosary, sliding away, bead by bead beneath our finger cushions. The beads simultaneously symbolize our problems as well as the act of superficial devotion. This haiku beautifully captures human insensitivity as well. It speaks about how humans tend to vent their frustrations out on those less fortunate and those who cannot speak.

While praying to Buddha, we mutter our frustrations, problems, and agonies to ourselves. Through this haiku, Issa shows us how vulnerable we are. Our prayers are punctuated by the killing of mosquitoes. Buddha is an icon of peace and enlightenment. He is a tender, warm glow upon the cloudiness of one’s mind. As we push the beads of the rosary forward, our thoughts begin trailing, depleting the intensity of our devotion. A whirlwind of images rushes through my mind as I think of the mere shadow of a pair of mosquito wings struggling — till it all gradually merges to form one single vibration, the lingering note from where it all began.

As this week’s winner, David gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 122:

     harvest moon—
     I circle the pond
     all night
          — Matsuo Bashō 
            (tran. D. Lanoue) 

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