Ten Death Poems

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)

3. http://www.quietspaces.com/deathpoems.html

4. http://www.samurai-archives.com/deathq.html

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


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