As Samhain approaches, now seemed like a good time to read and reflect upon this collection of Japanese “death poems,” compiled by Yoel Hoffman.
There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life – a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.
The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.
So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:
Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?
This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.
To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:
Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.
Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.
The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.
Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)
While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.
Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.