Yoel Hoffmann traces the tradition of writing a death poem by Japanese Zen monks and Haiku poets to the early part of the 9th century when Buddhism, already established in Japan, began to become much more influential. The Japanese already had their own indigenous beliefs, related to animism, which continued to develop side by side with Buddhism and which has its modern-day expression in Shinto. The two traditions influenced one another and Buddhism – which originated in India – owes its distinct flavour of Zen to the history and culture of Japan and the impact of its journey through China.
In his introduction Hoffmann writes: “The Japanese love for nature… precluded any escape into abstraction; that which is formless and colourless has no solace for the heart. The idea of transience, expressed in the Buddhist literature of India by the sight of putrefying corpses and rotten food, is conveyed by the Japanese through images of the changing seasons.”
Woven in to this is the Japanese attitude to death, which according to Hoffman “takes place in an atmosphere of serenity, with almost pleasurable expectation of the voyage to the next world”. Japanese culture has given us the concepts of hara-kiri and of course the Kamikaze of the Second World War who flew their planes, packed with explosives, into US war ships in the Pacific Ocean. Suicide in Japan, Hoffmann tells us, does not have the same stigma as in the West.
Hoffmann also traces the development of the Haiku, the 17-syllabel three-line nature poem expressing a poet’s experience that brings about an imaginative leap forward. The Haiku has its origins in Zen but has been adopted by secular poets throughout the world – there is even an Irish Haiku society which publishes the web-based journal Shamrock.
This the landscape in which the ‘death poems’ came to be written, incorporating the Japanese love of nature, Zen Buddhist philosophy of transience and the Japanese stoicism in the face of death. They were mostly written by a poet or monk who realised they were about to die and served as their last commentary on the world they were about to leave.
Japanese Death Poems has the subheading – Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Not all the poems by the monks are Haiku but they do all incorporate elements of nature, its transience and a revelatory insight. Many of the poems are accompanied by a brief biography of the poet/monk and the circumstances that led them to writing their poem.
‘Kozan Ichikyo, died February 12, 1360, at 77
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
A few days before his death, Kozan called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, and forbade them to hold services in his memory. He wrote this poem on the morning of his death, laid down his brush and died sitting upright.’
The Haiku are given in their ‘phonetic’ Japanese version to allow the reader to see the tight syllabic structures but the translations are kept simple, without trying to recreate the 17-syllabel structure (which many Haikuists do not believe is appropriate for the English language).
Hoffmann renders the Haiku death poem of a poet called Senryu, who died June 2, 1827 as:
Like dew drops
on a lotus leaf
There are hundreds of Haiku and other ‘death poems’ in this compact little book and while the introduction is worth reading through to get the context and background the poems and the biographies of the poets and monks can simply be dipped in and out of.
Sometimes you are simply left with a poetic image but on others seem to be written in the true belief that their author felt they were really moving from one state of existence to another.
The Haiku written by Mitoju, who ‘Died on the eighteenth day of the seventh month, 1669 at the age of 82’ was:
The foam on the last water
my mind is clear
or Sodo who ‘died on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, 1716 at the age of 75’ wrote:
Full autumn moon:
my shadow takes me with him