In the Haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson, as well as other Japanese monks, there are sometimes passages about death. In fact, on their death-beds, most Haiku monks wrote “Death Poems” and many of them are haunting and beautiful and not at all sad. . .on the contrary. . .more often they are sublime affirmations of life. The Chinese and Koreans also write death poems. It is an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to write a “jisei” on their death beds.
Poetry in Japan goes hand in hand with religious practice. Haiku poets were almost always monks. The poems were rooted in nature and emotionally neutral, with the spirituality of Shinto and Buddhist teachings being a thematically unifying element.
After the passing of my father I wrote about 50 Haiku. They were, in my mind, his death poems. My father wasn’t much on poetry, though for some reason he could recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by heart. I think maybe it was a sailor thing.
Many “jisei” are written before ceremonial Seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide). In fact, Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese writer and playwright, wrote one before committing Seppuku.
I’ve written about 40 death poems, in case at the moment of the “big Adios,” I’m not feeling it. I didn’t write them out of any morbid notion; just curiosity and the idea of being able to exercise an economy of words and emotions at the wet-ass hour. I like this one:
Me, Red Birds, White Flowers
And Falling Planets.
I always loved that the Japanese pared down the human experience to the idea that we are part of nature; no bigger in the universe than rocks, birds or flowers. ‘m not a Buddhist, but of all of the religions (and I adhere to none of them) they seem the most sane. This one is funny too:
A bath when you’re born
A bath when you die
How Stupid. – Unknown
I’m going to Japan in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure what I am looking for; I just know I need to go there. I’ve been reading Haiku most of my life. I know about Edo (What Tokyo used to be called), I know about the gardens and temples, I know Ronin stories and the code of the Samurai, the honor. . . I’ve read the tale of Genji.
I’m 50 years old. It is time to see an older world.