Notes on Dying 3: Death Poems

Notes on a talk by Michael Stone given at Centre of Gravity, Toronto, July 10, 2012.

Virginia Woolf said, “One ought to stand outside with one’s hands folded until the thing itself has made itself visible.”

Death poems are a Japanese practice that began in the sixth century. The priests were given the practice that on their birthday they would write a death poem. Then when you’re actively dying you work on a death poem. Some poets in Japan – like Basho – were not Zen monks but they dressed as monks. Many old artists in ancient Japan wore robes and begged with alms bowls because they considered their practice to be religious. At the core of every religious experience is the arts. How else do you express what you touched briefly tonight during sitting meditation? What emerges from this deep place is your own life. You communicate that in so many ways, and one of the ways is through language.

Minamoto-no-Shitago (911-83)
This world –
To what may I liken it?
To autumn fields
Lit dimly in the dusk
By lightning flashes

Ukifune (two suitors approach her, before throwing herself into the Uji River to resolve her dilemma, she writes this poem to Prince Niou, the more insistent of her suitors)
If I leave
No trace behind
What then could you

Yamazaki Sokan (died 1540)
Should someone ask
Where Sokan went,
Just say,
“He had some business
in the other world.”

Hanabusa Ikkei (d. 1843)
I thought to live
Two centuries, or three-
Yet here comes death
To me, a child
Just eight-five years old.

Morikya Sen-an (d. 1838)
Bury me when I die
Beneath a wine barrel
In a tavern.
With luck
The cask will leak.

Kathiku (late 17/18th century) – found in the snow outside monastery doors, dressed in rags, this poem in his clothing
Mount Fuji’s melting snow
Is the ink
With which I sign
My life’s scroll,
“Your sincerely”

Kozan Ichikyo (d. 1360 when he was 70)
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled

Aki-no-Bo met Basho twice, the first time it’s rumoured that they didn’t exchange a word. The second time, shortly before Aki-no-Bo’s death, Basho composed this poem.

No sign
In the cicada’s song
That it will soon be gone.

Baika (1843)
People, when you see the smoke,
Do not think
It is fields they’re burning

How to allow for freshness? Breath after  breath. How do you offer what is showing up? So much has to get out of the way for us to show up.

Homework: for the next two weeks wake up and write a death poem. Just scribble it down as fast as you can, whatever is showing up.

Who’s smiling now?
Who’s smiling now?
Who’s smiling now?
Who’s smiling?