Death Poems of the East

A tradition called the death poem emerged in Japan and Korea. This refers to a short poem that is composed near the time of one’s death, using metaphoric language to meet the transition head-on. Death poems sound an artful yet penetrating wake-up call to the living.

At last I am leaving:
in rainless skies, a cool moon…
pure is my heart.

Cicada shell
Little did I know
It was my life.

I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

I pass as all things do…
dew on the grass.

What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world.
(Seong Sam-mun)

Coming, all is clear, no
doubt about it. Going, all is
clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is all?

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out – all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
(Uesugi Kenshin)

Since time began
the dead alone know peace.
Life is but melting snow.

Bitter winds of winter –
but later, river willow,
open up your buds.
(Kozan Ichikyo)

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
…Slice the void in aimless flight –
Thus I return to the source.
(Gesshu Soko)


1. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, ed. Yoel Hoffmann (Tuttle Publishing, 1998)

2. Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die (Death Stories of Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and Zen Masters), Sushila Blackman (Shambhala Publishing, 2005)



5. The photo was taken in Chicago during the extreme cold of the January 2014 Polar Vortex.


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