Celebrating life–even at death’s door!

Whether it’s for gems to share with readers or to light the way in my personal quests, I am always searching for nuggets of wisdom. Sometimes I strike it big and they are revelations that seem like they should be accompanied by a shaft of light.

When I found a book of haiku written by monks and poets on their deathbeds called “Japanese Death Poems,” (edited by Yoel Hoffman), I snatched it up. I was hopeful. If any book had the potential to part the clouds, this one would be a good bet—a font of knowledge collected over lifetimes, the last ideas committed to print of people whose lives were dedicated to decoding life’s truths.

Apparently, it’s a centuries-old Japanese custom to compose a poem before you go. I couldn’t wait to read the messages they left behind. Goku Kyonen died on Oct. 8, 1272. He was 56. Here is his death poem:

The truth embodied in the Buddhas
Of the future, present, past;
The teaching we received from the
Fathers of our faith
Can be found at the tip of my stick.

When Goku felt his death was near, he ordered all his disciples to gather around him. He sat at the pulpit, raised his stick, gave the floor a single tap with it, and said the poem above. I love the flair, the drama. Seems like a stylish way to go.

I also appreciate that he took on such a big topic. Where many resign themselves to more manageable concepts, Goku Kyonen had none of it. He tackled time, religion and truth. But what did he come up with?

The tip of his stick. He leaves us looking at it with baited breath. Was the stick resting on the floor? Pointing to the pillow on his deathbed? Resting in an empty shoe? Or was it pointed out the window to blowing trees? There is no way to know. These specifics are left out.

This definitive statement—passed down the line to the rest of mankind—is focused on a detail. It just doesn’t matter which detail.

My interpretation: Concern yourselves with noble pursuits because what you focus on becomes the point of your life. But in the end, the need for an ultimate conclusion is just a crutch.

According to Salon.com, when he finished, he raised the stick again, tapped the floor once more, and cried, “See! See!” Then, sitting upright, he died.

Very dramatic; very cool. I tried another, this one by Kozan Ichikyo, who died at 77 on Feb.12, 1360.

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

When a work of art is hard to understand, biographical details often help and they offer a way into this poem as well. 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. On the morning of his last day, he wrote this poem, laid his brush down and died sitting upright.

With this in mind, the poem offers more than a simple, cyclical interpretation. Don’t let my death be a reason for self-indulgence, the poet advises. Going deeper, why should the natural way of the world — the world that we are part of — make us cry? How egotistical is it to think that we are different, that we stand apart?

Why would we even want to be different than the very process that gave us life? Forgetting this, we worry as we watch the circle of life spinning around us, we try to cling to the things we love. But we didn’t enter the world holding on to anything and we won’t need our shoes when we go.

Even with this knowledge, however, I know I’ll continue to cling to the things I love. I may have come into the world without the things I’ve found along the way, but wouldn’t I be a fool to travel barefoot in the meantime?


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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1 Response to Celebrating life–even at death’s door!

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    Hey Gene,
    (1) I was disappointed that the book you reviewed does not have the original poem (I read Japanese). Do you know any that do? Any good Japanese-English poem anthologies you recommend? BTW, I agree, I will gather goods in this life. But no need to carry them out — I hope to know enough in advance to give it all away before the government eats it. 🙂

    (2) I am just trying to discipline myself to read and then to try and write poetry. Do you know if many people do that on-line. A buddy says he is afraid to publish on a blog out of fear that his writing will be plagerized and he won’t later be able to publish. Is this a concern? Do you think it is good for a raw beginner like me to start a blog on it and search out other poets?

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