Oba hitori naku
Tsuki no tomo
A frail shadow
The old mother cries alone
Friend of the moon
~ Kobayashi Issa, d. 1828
Abandonment and aloneness. There is a beautiful backstory to the above haiku.
In pre-modern Japan, as in many poor agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures, societies practiced senicide. In Japanese, it was called “ubasute” 姥捨, abandoning to die an old woman who can no longer work.
The above poem refers to a folk tale, wherein a farm family was struggling to feed everyone, and the wife convinced the farmer that it was time to abandon his mother. Reluctantly, he agreed, and put his mother on his back and carried her far into the mountains, setting her down in a meadow. He then turned and left.
It had gotten very dark and as the son was walking, he saw the full moon rise over a ridge. Seeing the moon, he had a change of heart, and went back for his mother. He found her all alone, frail as a shadow, crying in the moonlit meadow. He lifted his tiny mother in his arms, and carried her home.
When we work with koans, poems, and songs in our practice, we often find our minds latching onto just piece of the koan. This is called in Chinese the huatou 話頭, or “word head” of a koan. In Issa’s above poem, the huatou line that stuck with me was the image of the old mother crying all alone in meadow, illuminated in the bright moonlight. And with the utmost tenderness, the son then picking her up to carry her home.
A few days ago, I was talking with my cousin, who cared for his 98 year-old mother, my father’s sister, in the last years of her life. There was no money for outside help, and it was he who bathed her, fed her, and cleaned her. Listening to him, I wondered if I could do the same. The poet Ikkyu wrote:
My dying teacher could not wipe himself
Unlike you disciples, who use bamboo
I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands.
It is pretty easy for us to get self-righteous about the farmer. In an earlier draft, I angrily pounded out: “I could never abandon my mother.” But that is not completely true. In her later years, I probably did abandon her some. When I look back, I don’t feel like I called her or visited her enough. I should have given her more pocket money. I should have told her more that I loved her.
But I don’t think this is a story about perfect behavior, perfect caring. It is a story about imperfect behavior. In a difficult world, the son made choices, and then on seeing the moon, had a change of heart. We, too, abandon others. And probably far more often, we abandon ourselves. And sometimes terribly so.
And despite the pain in that, for self and other, there is also a sweetness and a tenderness in our story of abandonment. A decision is made. The journey is taken. A mother left behind. The moon rises, and we return. Then, we journey back home together. Nothing in this story is out of place. Nothing in our lives is wrong. Even in an imperfect world.