Japanese Death Poems – written by Zen monks and haiku poets on the verge of death

Compiled and with an Introduction by Yoel Hoffman

Like the tea ceremony or the raked gravel of a monastery garden, composing a jisei  a poem written at the point of death is uniquely Japanese.  These traditions hold the spiritual legacy of Japan; deceptively simple, enigmatic and redolent with immensities that are held but left unsaid.

Featured in this collection is the monk Yakuo, who died in 1320 at age 76. He told his fellow monks: ‘The words of a man before he dies are no small matter.  This is a barrier that all must pass through. Tomorrow morning I shall eat the rice porridge with you for breakfast and at noon I shall go.’ At noon the following day he wrote his final words, threw the brush from his hand and died sitting upright.   His poem will strike a chord with Osho‘s sannyasins:

My six and seventy years are through

I was not born, I am not dead

Clouds floating on the high wide skies

The moon curves through its million-mile course.

Not all death poems, though, are final utterances from the spiritual highlands.  Jikko, who died in 1791, discussed the more practical difficulties; it is probably acceptable to have a death poem in reserve in case you die unexpectedly but a bad poem means you will be a laughing stock for future generations.

These poems are often poignant and regretful at leaving the beauty of the natural world, or they welcome the prospect of a new journey.  Others are earthy and defiant: ‘My last fart.’ Some are simple observations that manage to say everything. A young samurai, one of a group of forty-seven who committed ritual suicide in adherence to their code wrote:

Over the fields of

Last night’s snow –

Plum fragrance.

This book contains hundreds of these poems, often with notes that record anecdotes and memories of the poet and their death.  There is also an introduction describing the culture history around death in Japan. It is surely the most comprehensive – and moving collection of such poems available in English.

Review by Chetan

Buy the book from Amazon Japanese Death Poems

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