Books

Black Illumination: Zen and the poetry of death

by Eugene Thacker

Special To The Japan Times

On a winter morning in 1360, Zen master Kozan Ichikyo gathered together his pupils. Kozan, 77, told them that, upon his death, they should bury his body, perform no ceremony and hold no services in his memory. Sitting in the traditional Zen posture, he then wrote the following:

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

After he finished, Kozan gently put down his brush, and then died. He was still sitting upright.

While remarkable, the story of Kozan’s death is not unusual in the Zen tradition. It is part of a larger practice of writing jisei (“death poems”), which continued for hundreds of years from as early as the seventh century by both monks and laypeople alike. Some of the earliest examples of jisei were appended to a will as a sort of farewell gesture to life. Gradually the jisei became a genre of its own, encompassing a range of poetic forms and moods. They are enigmatic, even ambivalent about death. It is because of this, perhaps, that the tradition is often overlooked.

Among the numerous haiku anthologies in English, few focus on the death poem as a genre, with the exception of two anthologies: “Zen Poems of China and Japan” (edited by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto), from 1973, and “Japanese Death Poems” (edited by Yoel Hoffmann), first published in 1998.

Jisei come in various forms, the most popular being the tanka (31 syllables, 5 lines) and the haiku (17 syllables, 3 lines). Not surprisingly, many of them make reference to the general precepts of Buddhism: impermanence, the universality of suffering and the sense that the world is simply a dream — that one’s life, one’s very own body, will evaporate like dew, fade like mist, dissipate like smoke. Neither an elegy nor a last will, neither a eulogy nor a suicide note, the Japanese death poem is difficult to define. Yet the minimalism of the poetic forms used — especially the haiku — invites reflection on the brevity of both the jisei and life itself.

Death poems frequently refer to the natural world to evoke these ephemeral and enigmatic aspects of life. For example, the death haiku of the 19th-century poet Kiba, who lived to the age of 90:

My old body:
a drop of dew grown
heavy at the leaf tip

During the same period, the poet Hamei wrote:

Man’s end
a mound of gleaming bones:
a flowering and a fading

Dew, mist, rain, fog, smoke, snow and the blossoming and withering of trees, flowers and grasses — all these examples from the elemental world form the vernacular of the Japanese death poem tradition. It’s as if the equally finite and withering human being writing the poem dissipates before this impersonal nature. After writing, they pass into an unhuman zone that can only be hinted at through the death poem’s brevity, its ability to say a great deal while saying very little.

But not all jisei are so serious. Humor, absurdity and the grotesque are also their terrain. Ikkyu (1394-1491), the poet-monk who frequented bars and brothels, once wrote a prose-like variation on the traditional form: “And now, at the hour of my death, my bowels move — an offering raised to the Lord of Worlds.” With the same irreverence, the 19th-century poet Moriya Sen’an penned:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak

And then there are those poems so absorbed in the great unknown that death becomes nearly indistinguishable from life. The jisei of Rankei Doryu, who died in 1278, reads:

Thirty years and more
I worked to nullify myself.
Now I leap the leap of death.
The ground churns up
The skies spin round.

The death haiku of Choha, who died in 1740, also evokes this silence:

A raging sea
thrown from the deck —
a block of ice

Other jisei are not poems at all. When the 17th-century poet Takuan Soho was asked to compose his own, he took a brush and simply painted the Chinese character for “dream.” Perhaps even more enigmatic was the death poem of Shisui, who, in 1749, painted a circle — an important symbol in Zen Buddhism that can mean both “the universe” and “the void” — and then died.

The poet Kisei, who died in the autumn of 1764, left this as his death poem:

Since I was born
I have to die,
and so …

I find the unfinished aspect of this poem fascinating. Did Kisei finish his poem, and then die, or did he die while writing the last line? Did he intend to make his “failure” part of the poem itself?

There is, for many poets, a sense in which the death poem is not just a subset of other types of poetry, but encompasses them all. Basho wrote his well-known death poem while on one of his many travels:

On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields

And yet, one anecdote has Basho telling his students that all of his poems are his “death poem” (given the extent to which traditional haiku contemplates the passing of the natural world, it’s possible that — following Basho — all haiku really are jisei).

The Japanese death poem is neither the summary of a life nor the culmination of a life. If anything, it is the opposite: the emptying of a life, of a body, of a self.

But in a way this is all speculation. Many of the jisei reflect back on the tradition itself, suggesting that such poems are simply a mirage we’ve constructed, another part of this dream-world we call life. Perhaps the real lesson of the death poem lies in the way that it takes a person beyond the human-made world of human concerns and into a zone that is at once personal and deeply impersonal, something the death poem of Toko, who died in 1795, encapsulates nicely:

Death poems
are mere delusion —
death is death.

This is the fifth and final article in a series on pessimism in Japanese literature. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).