Kochira muke.
Ware mo sabishiki.
Aki no kure.

Won’t you turn toward me?
I too am lonely.
On this fall evening.

~ Matsuo Basho, d. 1694

Abandonment and alone-ness. Last week we visited a Kobayashi Issa poem about abandonment: A frail shadow/The old mother cries alone/Friend of the moon. The backstory for that poem is a son leaves his elderly mother to die in the woods (ubesute). Heading home in the dark, he sees the full moon rise. He relents and returns to retrieve his mother, who is crying all alone in the moonlit meadow.

Basho’s warm and tender haiku is about the emotion derived from our exile, expressing the deep human yearning we have for connection. It is not hard to imagine the foot-traveler Basho (who preferred the company of men), at a small country inn, in the cold of autumn or winter, imploring a new-found friend to turn toward him. He too is lonely. We all are lonely.

That we feel lonely and separate from the world is perhaps the very basis for Buddhist practice. Shakyamuni’s first teaching was that the pain of human existence arises from our belief there is a gap between us and all other things; a gap of our creation. Practice is learning that that gap never existed.

There is a koan about alone-ness that appeared for me in my life some years ago, and it still holds deep meaning for me. Each time I investigate it, even decades later, I find that its meaning evolves:

Qingshui went to his teacher, Caoshan, and implored him:
“I am alone and destitute. Please help me.“
Shan said “Shui!”
“You have had three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not wet your lips!” (Gateless Barrier, case 10)

Many years ago, as I entered sesshin in Kamakura working on this koan, it seemed life events were conspiring against me. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend (our trip to the Philippines did not go so well) and only a few days previously had been fired from my job (my boss flew from Boston to Tokyo unannounced to tell me in person). Sesshin started, I went into the dokusan room, and apparently gave the wrong response to the above koan because my teacher sent me back 40 koans. Now I felt as if I had also lost my teacher. Utterly miserable, alone and destitute, I went back into the zendo and wept.

In a note I wrote about this koan a few years ago, I was a bit critical of my teacher, suggesting if his style had only been more communicative and Western, he would have recognized my condition and given me a gold star rather than demerits. I suppose I was trying to make a sometime valid point. But I don’t see it in terms of understanding or misunderstanding any more.

To suggest that something in our teacher-student exchange was out of place or could have been improved upon, simply does not capture the spirit of the koan. Caoshan is telling Qingshui that even in the midst of his alone-ness and impoverishment of spirit, he is living the finest life in all China. The miserable Shui is shining with a subtle and gracious light, which he cannot see. And in that moment of lost girlfriend, job, and teacher, I was shining with that gracious light, as well.

We are not alone in the world. We have each other to turn toward. All we need to do is ask, on this cold winter night.