Sunday, April 4, 2010

Japanese Death Poems

I have a wonderful book of Japanese Haiku called Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. compiled by Yoel Hoffmann (Chas. A. Tuttle Pub. Co. Inc. 1986)

Here are a few poignant examples:

RANGAI (d. 1845, aged 75)

I wish to die                                                  Fuji-no-yama
a sudden death with eyes                         minagara shitaki
fixed on Mount Fuji.                                        tonshi kana

NANDAI  (d. 1817, aged 31)

Since time began                                             Kanete naki
the dead alone know peace.                     mi koso yasukere
Life is but melting snow.                               yuki no michi

KYO'ON  (d. 1749, aged 63)

A last fart:                                                 Yume no ha ka
are these the leaves                             chiru sharakusashi
of my dream, vainly falling?                           saigo no he

KASENJO  (d. 1776, aged 62)

Depths of cold                                               Okusoko no
unfathomable                                      shirenu samusa ya
ocean roar.                                                      umi no oto

SENCHOJO  (d. 1802)

I cup my ears                                              Unohana ni
among the deutzia lest I fail                    kikisokonawaji
to hear the cuckoo.                                       hototogisu

TOYOKUNI  (d. 1825)

Is it like                                                      Yakifude no
a charcoal sketch—                           mama ka oboro ni
a hazy shadow?                                             kagebōshi

BOKUSUI  (d. 1914, aged 40)

A parting word?                                           Jisei nado
The melting snow                              zansetsu ni ka mo
is odorless.                                                  nakarikeri

TOKO (d. 1795, aged 85)

Death poems                                             Jisei to wa
are mere delusion—                         sunawachi mayoi
death is death.                                         tada shinan

The Zen of death is a very different way of looking at the issue of life and its final chapter .... one that I am not really very well versed in. I have always come at it from a physiological/biological point of view; not a very comforting stance. I appreciate the poetic but concrete reality of how these monks address the issue. Maybe that is why I like the poems with their pragmatic but dark nihilistic view. (like the last one, above)

Although not a haiku, this poem by Moriya Sen'an (d. 1838) showed an expectation of an entertaining afterlife:

Bury me when I die                                     Ware shinaba
beneath a wine barrel                         sakaya no kame no
in a tavern.                                                  shita ni ikeyo
With luck                                          moshi ya shizuku no
the cask will leak.                                      moriyasennan

And finally, Death, with calligraphy by Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768). The poem is written above the character (shi, death), as below:

Wakaishu ya
shinu ga iya nara
ima shiniyare
hito-tabi shineba
mō shinanu zo ya

Oh young folk—
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once
you won't die again.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment, suggestion or question...