Sugawara no Michizane

Over the course of many centuries, how many public souls have glimpsed the virtues of solitude and simplicity and sought to recluse themselves — and failed to do so for one reason or another?

Reclusion in the classical Chinese sense of being “in the family” was, from Confucius to the Tang era and beyond, a primary option (short of the solitude of the hermit). It is evident in China and Japan among the well-placed. They sensed the precariousness of their status and the suddenness of fortune’s change, while tugged at by the sentiments of family, privacy, and rest.

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was such a soul. He was a government official, highly titled, respected as a poet, court historian, and loyal bureaucrat. But after his six-year old son died suddenly, his perspective on things changed. One year he was at last granted a vacation — only a five-day leave was ever allowed. He stayed at home, observant of the household, attentive to his wife, his children, his garden, reflecting on departed friends. Too soon his leave was over.

I must leave and set out on the long road to the palace.
One sigh brings a sinking feeling in my belly,
a second sigh and tears begin to flow ….
Heaven is indifferent to my longings for leisure;
even at home I’m busy all the time.
Karma piled up from long ages past
keeps us coming and going in these bitter lives.

The death of his son had introduced him to bitterness. He wrote: “Since then I hate the gods and buddhas; better if they had never made heaven and earth.” Unexpectedly, Michizane found himself caught in a political trap at the palace. He fell from favor, stripped of title, and was removed from office. He was banished to a distant province and left impoversihed, allowed to be accompanied only by his two youngest children. His wife stayed behind and his older sons were banished to the opposite direction of the country.

Michizane worries about his impoverished wife. The past haunts him. Trivial memories set him into despondency. He thinks, for example, of his well-tended bamboos breaking in winter cold and how they would have made nice writing slips and fishing poles. He writes:

How unbearably happy life might have been!
No matter how many times I say it, it’s useless now.
It only brings more tears and sighs.

Michizane’s health breaks quickly from malnutrition and the effects of weather. His hovel of a hut leaks cold rain. His clothes are always wet. His single precious box of books and letters is ruined. He is always hungry and cold. His body is weak, full of rashes and boils. “The shadows of sickness darken my whole body,” he writes.

A poem entitled “The Lamp Goes Out” turns out to be his last. Here it is in its entirety:

It was not the wind — the oil is gone;
I rue the lamp that will not see me through the night.
How difficult it is to make ashes of the mind, to still the body!
I rise and move into the moonlight by the cold window.

Sugawara no Michizane died several months later at 58.