Japanese Death Poems

In the death poem or jisei, the essential idea was that at one's final moment of life, one's reflection on death (one's own usually but also death in general) could be especially lucid and meaningful and therefore also constituted an important observation about life. The poem was considered a gift to one's loved ones, students, and friends. The tradition began with zen monks, but was also popular with poets, whose poems were often just as solemn as those of monks, or entirely flippant and humorous. The poems are often full of symbols of death, such as the full moon, the western sky, the song of the cuckoo, and images of the season in which the writer died.

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death by Yoel Hoffmann.

Examples from Hoffman:

Gesshu Soko, died January 10, 1696, at age 79:

 

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
Arrows, let flown each to
each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight
--
Thus I return to the
source.

Goku Kyonen, died October 8, 1272, at age 56:

 

The truth embodied in the
Buddhas
Of the future, present,
past;
The teaching we received
from the
Fathers of our faith
Can be found at the tip of
my stick.

The story goes that when Goku felt that his death was close, he gathered this monk disciples around him. Sitting up, he gave the floor a single tap, said the above poem, raised his stick, tapped the floor again, cried, "See! See!" Then, sitting upright, he died.

Hosshin, 13th century wrote:

 

Coming, all is clear, no
doubt about it. Going, all is
clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is all?

Hosshin's last word was "Katsu!" which signifies the attainment of enlightenment. Sort of a spiritual "Eureka."

Shoro, died April 1894, at age 80:

 

Pampas grass, now dry,
once bent this way
and that.
Sunao, died in 1926 at 39
Spitting blood
clears up reality
and dream alike.

Senryu, died September 23, 1790, at 73:

 

Bitter winds of winter --
but later, river willow,
open up your buds.

Kozan Ichikyo, died February 12, 1360, at 77. A few days before his death, he called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, forbidding them to hold services in his memory. After writing this poem on the morning of his death, he lay down his brush and died sitting upright.

 

Empty-handed I entered
the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Senryu, died June 2, 1827
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
I vanish.

Shinsui, died September 9, 1769, at 49:

 


During his last moment, Shisui's disciples requested that he write a death poem. He grasped his brush, painted a circle, cast the brush aside, and died. The circle— indicating the void, the essence of everything, enlightenment— is one of the most important symbols of Zen Buddhism.

Yoshitoshi, a printmaker who produced a series called "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon". His death poem reads:

 

Holding back the night
with it's increasing brilliance
the summer moon.

The death poem of Basho, one of the greatest haiku poets of all time:

 

On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.

Zoso Royo died on the fifth day of the sixth month, 1276, at 84:

 

I pondered Buddha's teaching
a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now
locked about me.
No one was ever here -
Who then is he about to die,
and why lament for nothing?
Farewell!
The night is clear,
the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines
is like a lyre's song.
With no I and no other
who hears the sound?

Four Death Poems set to Music: http://www.christopherbrakel.com/4JDP.html

They say that the moment of death can be terrifying, especially when it comes suddenly and one is unprepared. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, today I will die in an accident, today I'll be murdered, but one never knows. So prepare. In order to meet death consciously and with a composed mind, begin each day with a death poem. Haiku is a good form to use, or simply restrict yourself to four lines.

Dharma Writing Workshop