Kobayashi Issa and the ‘And yet…’ of Human Existence

By Adam J. Pearson

The Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) once wrote:
露の世は露の世ながらさりながら
Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .”

For a video reading of this poem press play below:

These lines emerged from a tragic story. As Sam Hamil explains in The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku: Kobayashi Issa, “after years of legal wrangles, Issa managed to secure rights to half of the property his father left. He returned to his native village at the age of 49 and soon took a wife, Kiku. After a brief period of bliss, tragedy returned. The couple’s first-born child died shortly after his birth. A daughter died less than two-and-a-half years later, inspiring Issa to write this haiku (translated by Lewis Mackenzie).” The impermanence Issa expresses with the word ‘dew’ is therefore not an abstract concept; he is touchingly speaking of the fragile lives of his own children.

The poem underscores our recognition of the impermanence of life, “and yet” our tendency to hold on to things as if they would last forever even though we know they cannot.  This “and yet” also points to another essential aspect of the human condition. This aspect is the persistent feeling that there is something more to be found or learned, that part of us that leads us to repeat a pattern or habit despite knowing it does us no good, or to hold on to an illusion despite being able to see through it.

When I shared this poem with Alexie Csipak, she responded with Ogden Nash’s telling lines, “God in his wisdom invented the fly / And then forgot to tell us why.” She saw this lack of a definite answer as directing our attention to the search for our meaning in life and the meaning of the world around us.

I replied that Zen had an interesting perspective on this issue. For Zen, the fly’s existence is the why; life supplies its own reason for being. The fly comes into existence as a result of countless causes and conditions. It never exists by itself, only interdependently, relying for its existence on everything that supports it. The fly depends for its being on the non-fly. We are the same; everything we are depends on everything we are not.

Hearing this, Alexie pointed out that we still feel a strong need to live with a purpose, to be driven by some reason to live. And it can be scary when we feel we have lost our purpose, almost like being a ship with no bearing, no chartered trajectory, simply floating along in the open sea…

An important point emerges from this idea and that is that it is we who define our own purpose. We have a limited time here on this earth, a few waking and sleeping hours between the cradle and the grave. Now the question is: what do we wish to do with this short time? What do we want to achieve? What do we value? What can we contribute to heal the natural world or to save the sentient beings all around us from their suffering?

These are difficult questions and have no easy answers. But they are necessary questions. They give us direction, even if that direction is subject to change. It is better to ask them and walk, for a time, the way to which they direct us than to unreflectively oscillate between this and that fleeting activity.

Many people stifle these questions and refuse to face them because they can be frightening, especially when we are really not sure of how to answer them. But if we don’t ask them, we risk living and dying without ever having drunk the deep essence of life, without ever having considered what we could have truly become and done for the world. If we refuse to ask these questions, we live an unreflective life. And an unreflective life, as Socrates famously pointed out, is superficial and barely worth living.

See also The Striking Honesty of Ryokan.

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