Sunday, June 12, 2005

More on Death

Montaigne's essay that I posted about yesterday, "On Judging Someone Else's Death" put my Bookman in mind of Japanese death poems. It was tradition as death came near, and preferably right before you died, to write a sort of farewell poem, your final words. I doubt that Montaigne had heard of this since if he had he would have mentioned it I'm sure. So here on some deaths and the resulting poems that would have made Montaigne proud (none of them involve removing one's own entrails and all of them are by Zen monks). Dokyo Etan died on the sixth day of the tenth month in 1721. He wrote his last words while seated in the upright Zen position (it was the badge of an enlightened one to die while sitting upright or standing). Here is what he wrote:

Here in the shadow of death it is hard To utter the final word. I'll only say, then, "Without saying." Nothing more, Nothing more.
After writing these words, he put down his brush, hummed "an ancient song" to himself, suddenly laughed out loud, and died. Then there is Kozan Ichikyo who died on the 12th day of the second month in 1360 at the age of 77. A few days before his death he called his pupils together and told them how he wanted his body taken care of after he died. On the morning of his death he wrote this poem:
Empty-handed I entered the world Barefoot I leave it. My coming, my going-- Two simple happenings That got entangled.
When he finished writing the poem, he laid down his brush and died sitting upright. Yakuo Tokuken died on the 19th day of the fifth month in 1320 at the age of 76. Two days before his death he called his fellow monks together and told them he was going to die soon. The next day he called his pupils together and told them how to prepare his body after he died. Then he reportedly told them, "Tomorrow morning I shall eat rice porridge with you for breakfast, and at noon I shall go." At noon the following day he wrote his final words:
My six and seventy years are through. I was not born, I am not dead. Clouds floating on the high wide skies The moon curves through its million-mile course.
He then threw the brush from his hand and died sitting upright. Of course not all deaths go as planned as Kokei Sochin found out. On the second day of the eighth month, 1596, Kokei took ill. He was certain he would die soon and so composed this poem, reciting it to those who were with him (katsu is a cry of enlightenment):
For over sixty years I often cried Katsu! to no avail. And now, while dying, Once more to cry Katsu! Won't change a thing.
He then died. But six hours later he revived and began preaching to the monks gathered around his bed. Kokei finally died for good five months later. These poems and attendant stories as well as an entire book of other ones can be read in Japanese Death Poems compiled by Yoel Hoffman