Part One: The Far East
How do we want to be remembered? Death poems (jisei) developed in the literary traditions of Japan as early as the seventh century. Later, taking much energy from Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on the transiency and impermanence of the material world, the genre spread to China and Korea. Brief as they usually are, these poems consider the big questions, both in general and in terms of the author’s own life and imminent death.
They were traditionally composed by samurai warriors, nobleman and monks, often as final parting gifts to their disciples. The essential idea of the jisei was that in one’s final moments his reflection on death could be especially lucid and therefore an important observation about life.
Some are written as haiku, although most appear in the 31 syllable (5-7-5-7-7) tanka format. Both forms seek to transcend rational thought and evoke a realization that counters our dualistic divisions between beauty and ugliness, life and death, future and present. Some jisei are dark while others are hopeful. They each reflect what is on the mind during the last days or moments of the writer. Acceptance – including the inevitability of death – is one of the key elements:
Breathing in, breathing out,
Moving forward, moving back,
Living, dying, coming, going —
Like two arrows meeting in flight,
In the midst of nothingness
Is the road that goes directly
to my true home. – Gesshu Soko
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
I vanish. – Shinsui
Since time began
the dead alone know peace.
Life is but melting snow. – Nandai
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? – Zoso Royo
What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world. – Seong Sam-mun
As the sound of the drum calls for my life,
I turn my head where the sun is about to set.
There is no inn on the way to the underworld.
At whose house shall I sleep tonight? – Jo Gwang-jo
Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings that got entangled. – Kozan
Oh young folk —
if you fear death, die now!
Having died once
you won’t die again. – Hakuin Ekaku
Riding this wooden upside-down horse, I’m about to gallop through the void. Would you seek to trace me? Ha! Try catching the tempest in a net. – Kukoku
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. -Gesshu Soko
Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush. – Shutei
Holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon. – Yoshitoshi
Not even for a moment do things stand still. Witness color in the trees. – Seiju
From ancient times the saying comes: “There is no death, there is no life.” Indeed, the skies are cloudless and the river waters clear. – Toshimoto
Before long I shall be a ghost. But just now how they bite my flesh! The winds of autumn. – Fuse Yajiro
My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo –
The blade is broken – Alas! – Dairin Soto
Life is an ever-rolling wheel. And every day is the right one. He who recites poems at his death adds frost to snow. – Mumon Gensen
are mere delusion —
death is death. – Toko
I raise the mirror of my life up to my face: sixty years. With a swing I smash the reflection. The world as usual all in its place. – Taigen Sofu
The fourth day of the new year; What better day to leave this world! – Aki No-Bo
Although the autumn moon has set, its light lingers on my chest. – Kanshu
My old body: a drop of dew grown heavy at the leaf tip. – Kiba
I cast the brush aside – From here on I’ll speak to the moon face to face. – Koha
I cleansed the mirror of my heart – now it reflects the moon. – Renseki
Time to go. They say the journey is a long one: Change of robes. – Roshu
Boarding the boat, I slip off my shoes: Moon in the water. – Seira
Autumn winds: Having sworn to save all souls, I am at peace. – So’Oku
The moon leaks out from sleeves of cloud and scatters shadows. – Tanko
In the twentieth century, death poems commented on the “real” world of politics. When Yukio Mishima’s military coup failed, he left a final poem before committing ritual suicide:
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate
Composing a death poem was a task that demanded time and consideration, even input and criticism from others. But they were not necessarily without humor:
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel in a tavern.
With luck the cask will leak. – Moriya Sen’an
People, when you see the smoke, do not think it’s fields they’re burning. – Baika
Many things befell me as I followed Buddha three and seventy years. What is death Freely, from my own true self: Ho, Ho! – Ensetsu
Moon in a barrel: You never know just when the bottom will fall out. – Mabutsu
Life is like a cloud of mist emerging from a mountain cave. And death a floating moon in its celestial course. If you think too much about the meaning they may have, you’ll be bound forever like an ass to a snake. – Mumon Gensen
Dimly for thirty years, faintly for thirty years – dimly and faintly for sixty years: at my death I pass my feces and offer them to Brahma. – Ikkyu
Had I not known that I was dead already, I would have mourned my loss of life. – Ota Dokan
My life was lunacy until this moonlit night. – Tokugen
The owner of the cherry blossoms turns to compost for the trees. – Utsu
Till now I thought that death befell the untalented alone. If those with talent, too, must die, surely they make a better manure! – Kyoriku
Ninth-month moon: Of late, when I have said my prayer, I’ve meant it. – Kisei
Narushima Chuhachiro started drafting death poems at the age of fifty lest he die unprepared. He sent one of his last poems to his teacher:
For eighty years and more, by the grace of my sovereign and my parents, I have lived with a tranquil heart between the flowers and the moon.
The teacher’s response: “When you reach age ninety, correct the first line.”
Even satire could find its way into a death poem. Bashō’s jisei is well-known:
Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields.
Another, unknown poet clearly familiar with Bashō wrote:
Locked in my room, my dream goes wandering over brothels.
In Part Two, we’ll look at some death poems in the West.