In memory of Adam Schuster 1992-2012
“Barn’s burnt down–now I can see the moon.” –Mizuta Masahide, (17th Century Japanese poet and samurai)
There are quite a few instances where this Haiku is used to open a conversation or essay about healing, opportunity, and redemption. So, the moon stands in for God, peace, wisdom, or some other “good” thing that was once obscured by the barn. And, the burning barn is a great falling tower of ignorance; a blindfold removed; a paradigm shift from obscurity to clarity; and ultimately an invitation to feel good in the midst of poverty, loss, and hardship. Americans are known for a tendency to always smile for pictures, even when we don’t experience true joy. Our approach to haiku is similar–we consume haiku like candy. We think they are so small, cute, simple, and innocent–the perfect props for our optimistic epiphanies. So, while this “simple” haiku unpacks its two lines in layers of powerful opposites–violence and peace, closeness and distance, sight and blindness, hot and cold, loss and gain–my cultural conditioning invites me to quickly skim its surface sweetness and to skip over the second dimension of its sorrow. Because, why go there? Right?
This week I tasted the bitterness of grief when I learned that a former student, ultimate frisbee player, musician, and friend–a true spiritual brother of mine–suddenly and violently died. Shortly thereafter this haiku drifted into my life and floated around in my mind as the day of his funeral approached. To my surprise, the funeral service began with the recitation of haiku and then, later in the service, a childhood friend, speaking eloquently of joys and sorrows, cited the type of joy experienced by one whose house has burned down and who prepares to build again.
As this Mizuta Masahide haiku unfolded for me from the mouths of my friends and community and I was struck by its complete lack of optimism or joy–the speaker doesn’t necessarily want to see the moon. Nor is he happier now that his barn is gone or joyful at the thought of building a new life. What else could the burned barn mean than a tragic destruction of his intention, aspiration, status, and potential future prosperity. And the moon? The moon is just a silent and distant face of desertion–a large, looming, unforgiving, and certain death.
For me, the force of this haiku is in the space it leaves for meditation and reflection. The possibility of the speaker’s recognition of an upside to the bad situation in “seeing the moon” mirrors a knee-jerk type of optimism we inject onto our loss as a natural and human process of grieving–not a denial, but a softening.
The death of my friend showed me the moon. Now I can see the moon. And for me, while there is an unmistakable beauty in seeing the moon, I liken it to finding a glimmer of joy at the edge of a vast sorrow. Now I can see the unwavering face of silence. Now I can see the small singularity of my existence and the vulnerability of my children and those I love. My heart goes out to my friend’s mother and anyone reading this who has lost a child, because when I contemplate the loss of my life along side the loss of my children, I can say with absolute certainty that I would rather be the burning barn than one who can see the moon.