Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japanese Death Poems

“Japanese Death Poems?” my wife asked. “Why would anyone want to write, much less read death poems?”

“Christian recommended this book to me,” was my reply. “He said that he found the poems pithy and powerful. When I saw the book at the library and borrowed it. I’m enjoying it. The Japanese seem to have a somewhat different view of death than is common here in America. Would you like to hear one?” I asked guessing, correctly, that what her answer would be. Ah well.

But maybe you, dear blog reader, would you like to listen to what a few Japanese Haiku poets and Zen practitioners had to say in their last moments?

If so, read on.

This one’s by Shiyo, who died on the fourth day of the second month, 1703 at the age of thirty-two.

Surely there’s a teahouse
with a view of plum trees
on Death Mountain, too.

Kozan died on the twenty-sixth day of the ninth month, 1747 at the age of forty-six saying,

How sublime—
a boat beneath the moon
and from within, a prayer.

And Ryoto’s Tanka delivered on the day he died in 1669 at the age of seventy-five:

Till now
I thought that only
others die
that such happiness
should fall to me!


Jenny Stevning said...

Beautiful! I must find this book!

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Thank you Dan. The title does sound depressing, but the contents - ah to know such surrender and bliss at the moment of death. I wonder if it is possible for those of us who are not zen monks.

May we all know peace at the moment of death.

steven said...

dan - i was reading some poems online and one of them mentioned its being part of a collection of "death" poems. i was surprised at the connection and then reassured. there's so much inside them that has as much to do with life and the quality with which we live it as there is an acknowledgement of its transitory nature. these are beautiful - especially kozan's!! steven

The Pollinatrix said...

There's something about overt references to death that always makes me want to laugh. This book title definitely had that affect on me.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Jenny, The book's compiler is Yoel Hoffman. Published by Tuttle. I'll bet your library can get it for you.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Bonnie. I hope to be very peaceful at the moment of death. I happen to believe in reincarnation, and being peaceful at death and after is critical to a favorable rebirth.

Over the past decade or so, I've found that it really helps to remind myself--often--that this day might well be my final day on earth. When I remind myself of this, I align my life energy with my values.

Some of the poets in this collection clearly were not peaceful, I just didn't include them in this post.

Dan Gurney said...

steven, Kozan's final line, "and from within, a prayer." is the English translation of these words in Japanese: Namu Amida.

Those two words are the first two words of the nembutsu, a Pure Land mantra that is believed to guarantee rebirth in a Pure Land, an East Asian Buddhist heaven realm. So his final words, were, in a sense, his way of giving the ticket to the conductor.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Polli. Laughing at death is a somewhat unusual response, at least in my experience. Death is nearer than sex to being a taboo subject in our culture, or so it seems to me, at least.

People really don't want to be reminded of death, see death, or give death more than a passing thought.

Bagman and Butler said...

I can appreciate this genre greatly! But it takes such timing. I can imagine mine as being:

Fulfillment, at last,
Upon me, I sing the words
I've waited for too long --
"A falling leaf reaches to kiss...
Oops! Crap! Aaarrrggh! Ahhh!"

Dan Gurney said...

Mark, your "death" poem got a good chuckle out of me. I think even the Dalai Lama wonders how he'll do at that moment... somehow I think he'll fare okay.