The Magical Zen Death Poems

Zen Death Poems

Recently, in my new favorite book ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ by novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki, I came across a little-known and very beautiful Zen custom.

Traditionally, a Japanese, Chinese and Korean Zen Master would write a final poem or haiku when he was about to die. In the death poem or jisei, the essential idea was that at one’s final moment of life, one’s reflection on death could be especially lucid and therefore an important observation about life. The poem was considered a final parting gift to disciples.

Curious, I tracked down some of these poems for myself and thought they were worth sharing:

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

*

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

– Kozan

Zen legend has it that a few days before his death, Kozan called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony when he died. One morning, after writing this poem, he lay down his brush and died while sitting upright.

As I get older, death feels more relevant. The magical thinking of youth fades – it becomes clearer that death is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. And I wonder what would it take to pass over with such clarity and grace… and a tiny grain of true wisdom worth passing on?

*

15 thoughts on “The Magical Zen Death Poems

  1. Loved the collection… Thank you for sharing.
    And yet felt curious with your last statement for right now, my understanding about death is shifting and I am discovering that as I become more aware of my inner urges to die, the more illusions about life it is destroying for me. I am discovering death is also just a thought. Somehow immortality feels more real at this point (but this too might pass).
    I had shared this on one of Sangeeta’s blog post that brought a deep shift within. Sharing it here:

    “If a man thinks that he is born he cannot escape the fear of death. Let him find out whether he was ever born or whether the Self takes birth. He will discover that the Self always exists and that the body which is born resolves itself into thought, and that the emergence of thought is the root of all mischief. Find where thought comes from, and then you will abide in the ever-present inmost Self and be free from the idea of birth and fear of death.”~Ramana Maharshi

    PS: Synchronistic that Sangeeta, you and me are exploring death at this time when we are in powerful planetary transits in the sign of Scorpio with a Solar Eclipse on 3rd Nov. 🙂

    • Hmmm… interesting synchronicity! I hope I can honestly say “Never Born, Never Died” some day… 🙂 Such a lovely quote from Ramana. Always perfect!

  2. I am currently reading A tale for the time being. Its so absorbing and involving. I am yet to wrap my thoughts around death and the finality of it. Still attached to life and all its beauty.

    • My sense is that the intensity with which you perceive life’s beauty increases when you see that it’s not unlimited. Being aware of death is for, not against life.

      Over the weekend, Mahesh Bhatt put up a haiku on Twitter by zen master Ikkyu that jolted me into remembering death:

      “Why do people lavish decoration on this set of bones destined to disappear without a trace?” – Ikkyu

      But I can understand that perhaps its a bit depressing for many to talk about death in this season of light and new beginnings… 🙂

  3. in our ancient Egyptian traditions, Death was a life of its own. a new beginning believed to be immortal. they knew life is just a step towards Eternity and Death was celebrated in the most sufi ways, singing&dancing in weeping steps, they knew the soul never fades&tried to illustrate the journey in their drawings that we are to discover their mysteries till date. but i believe they had the ultimate secret of its beauty. Great Collection My friend 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. A unique collection. Loved
    A time for everything , and a season for every activity under heaven . Time to be born , and a time to die …
    Are there really people who are not afraid of his own death?? What is the wisdom and perfection to be achieved, with calmness to treat this?Or Masters know something special about death? That Death is just one step in our continuous development.Or that the same step was our birth and the only difference is that the birth is death for one form of life, and death is birth to another form of existence.Maybe full cycle – a “life – death – life.” When we give something to die – at the same time we are giving a chance to be born and something new.
    Yes, not everyone as you rightly said, “with clarity and grace” move this line.But I think that everyone can do important observation about life and transmit them to their offspring
    “”The gods arranged so that everyone can take our lives , but no one is able to deliver us from death””Seneca

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  8. Just inadvertently found you by looking for some death poems to add a link for on my own blog 🙂 Thanks for having done this in the past, it added greatly to what I did today! Good poem picks, btw!

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