Issa (1763-1826)

Re-Discovering the Milky Way I would have liked to have taken long and frequent walks with this poet. He found God everywhere.

Here at my old house
I see the face of God
in the face of the snail.

But there is much more to my love of this man. It was during, for me, the worst days of the AIDS pandemic that I increasingly leaned on Issa’s work and life. I became aware of this when my friend Paul Monette (1945-1995), the writer and AIDS activist, began referring to Issa as “Toby’s beloved poet.” He was right.

Adjusting to the destruction of a world we knew and loved is very difficult. But it is not hopeless. Just after the horrors of the First World War, my mother completed a cross-stitch piece of needlework that said, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” It now hangs in the hall outside my bedroom. I have never been able to survive a great loss on my own. I have had the support of heaven and the wisdom of gentle people.

For me Issa is one of the great masters of the art of living with loss, whom I have cited in most of my writings. I deeply respect Issa, not only the haiku poems but the man himself. He had a troubled life in which he was always search-ing for grace. One poign-ant poem contains only a few words in the original Japanese: “loveliness,” “rip/shoji screen,” “milky way.” This is what it says to me:

How lovely it is
To look through the broken window
And discover the Milky Way.

Finding the Milky Way after a great loss is not easy, but we should try. Whatever- beauty, peace, and harmony Issa found was in the midst of sickness and decay.

Born Yataro Kobayashi, he was two years old when his mother died. Five years later, his father remarried. The new wife disliked and mistreated him. All his life he was to identify with the weak and helpless, be they children, flies, or sparrows.

you can play with me —
orphaned sparrow.

Melting snow
makes the village brim-full:
of children!

Of all the animals and insects with whom Issa identified, toads and frogs seemed to be the closest to his heart.

He who appears now
is Lord Toad
of this thicket!

Whatever its failing, it is his thicket!

When Issa was thirteen he went to Tokyo and studied poetry. In his twenties, he committed himself to religion and poetry. It was then he chose the name “Issa,” which means a “cup of tea.” Like the tea, he saw himself as simple and ordinary. The poetry of this lonely man captured the spiritual isolation of the human condition.

Distant mountains
reflect in the jeweled eyes
of the dragonfly!

Issa was a priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which was much less austere than Zen. It emulated Buddha Amida who refused to enter Nirvana until his merit was so great that those who would call upon his name would also be able to enter “The Pure Land” (Jodo).

For ten years Issa traveled on long journeys. Like Basho as he traveled he became more liberated from his attachment to self and worldly things.

A sudden shower, equals
being naked
on a naked horse.

A forty-year-old struggle with his stepmother ended when Issa was fifty. Happy, but in ill health, he was able to return to the village and the old farmhouse where he had been born. He married Kiku, a twenty-seven-year-old village woman. They wanted children badly. Their first child, a boy, died soon after birth. Then, on a day in May, Sato was born. Issa was fifty-seven.

“Sato” means “wisdom.” It was a good name. Her first year brought much joy. The child was the center of Issa’s universe. He rejoiced in every little ordinary but miracu-lous event of her active life. “She is ” he wrote “moonlight from head to toe . . . .” To live in the presence of such vitality was to experience again the freshness of his life. “Watching her I forget my years and my corrupt past.” On his daughter’s first birthday Issa contrasted his “meaningless endeavors” with the peace, grace, and joy in Sato’s life. “I am ashamed to admit that my little child of one year is closer to genuineness than I am.”

Just after Sato’s first birthday, Issa took to the road as was the custom for Japanese poets. But a foreboding soon brought him home again. He found Sato seriously ill. A variola virus had attacked and her immune system was collapsing. She had a very high fever. The frightening signs of smallpox were beginning. Ulcers were covering her beautiful young body. On her recent birthday, Issa had mused that in time she would learn to dance and “her dancing will be lovelier than celestial music!” The little dancer was now struck low. Issa cried out:

My child is dying. Why? She has just begun to taste life and ought to be as fresh and green as the new needles on the everlasting pine. Why must she lie here on her deathbed, with festering lesions, caught in the vile grip of the god of pox? I am her father and can hardly bear to watch her fade away, a little more each day, like a pure blossom in a rain storm.

That lethal virus was known as early as 1122 B.C. and not eradicated until 1980. Smallpox plagues claimed millions of victims over three thousand years. Each statistic was the destruction of a unique universe of human experiences. So it was with Sato.

She grew weaker until on June 21, as the morning glories closed their petals, she closed her eyes forever. Her mother held the cold body and cried out in unremitting pain.

Emotional attachment was not encouraged in Issa’s spiritual tradition. He had been taught not to invest his energy in worldly matters that disappear like dew on the grass. But religious doctrines do not withstand the personal experience of death: “I tried hard, but I could not break the bonds of human love.” About his loss he wrote:

This world of dew
Is nothing but a world of dew,
and yet . . .
and yet . . .

No matter what a person’s religious or psychological principles may be, a death adds

and yet …
and yet …

In 1820, another son was born to Issa and Kiku but he died after four months. Two years later a third son was born. The next year Kiku died in May and the boy in December. On November 19, 1827 Issa himself died. He was sixty-four. Shortly before his death his house burned down. He spent his last days in a storage shed without windows and with holes in the roof. He could see the mid-winter sky. His final poem, found under his pillow, summed up his spiritual quest:

Again, I give thanks —
the snow falling on the bed quilt,
it also comes from God.

Would it have been easier on Issa if Sato and his other children had not been born? Sometimes I hear people suggest things like that. Issa saw it differently. One autumn he wrote:

Deep in my heart
I give thanks to my children,
as the night grows cold.

I have sometimes felt I was stumbling down a path where Issa once walked. Certainly as a writer or spiritual seeker, there can be no com-parison. But he was also a father to a little girl. My daughter Tina died in 1991. She was the same age as Sato. Tina died of AIDS. Her little body also was given over to a vile pox. Like Issa, when I was near sixty, I lived under the shadow of a killer virus. And we both walked with a child into the heart of God. It was not an easy journey for either of us.

Issa knew there would have to be a special year in his life after the death of Sato. Soon he resumed his journey. When he returned home again, he wrote Oraga Haru or The Year of My Life. I was also to have an unparalleled year after Tina’s death, but I was not aware of the year, or even of the need for it, until it was over. That seems to be the way it happens to many, if not all, of us. It is, with God’s help, a great gift from someone we love. Again,

How lovely it is
To look through the broken window
And discover the Milky Way.