Japan has a long history of jisei, or death poems. Jisei is the “farewell poem to life.” These poems were written by literate people, often monks, royalty or courtiers just before their death.
A Jisei from Prince Otsu in 686 BC is one of the earliest recorded death poems.
Not all death poems are written in the well-known haiku format/style. Jisei was also written in kanshi, waka, and haiku styles. Here are some that really speak to me and sound gorgeous.
My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo-
The blade is broken-
Alas! – Dairin Soto, who died in 1568 aged 89.
Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush. –Shutei
Bitter winds of winter
but later, river willow,
open up your buds. –Senryu (1790)
Not even for a moment
do things stand still-witness
color in the trees. –Seiju
Although some jisei poems seem to be dark and foreboding, others are hopeful and have a sense of peace to them. Acceptance is a key tenet of Zen Buddhism. The acceptance of life as it is and the inevitability of death.
I pass as all things do
dew on the grass. –Banzan
Jisei is a way for us, the reader to connect with the poet’s mind as he or she approaches the very end. All life, beauty/ugliness, past/present and life/death reaches a point of non-duality, a oneness.
Holding back the night
with it’s increasing brilliance
the summer moon. –Yoshitoshi.
On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields. -Basho.
In Japanese culture, specific types of death are used to reference a person. Death is associated with the kind of life a person lived.
shinju: lover’s suicide
junshi: warrior’s death
senshi: death in war
roshi: death from old age