Japan and the Emergence of Death Poetry—

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In ancient Japan, the gods hid themselves away, high up in the mountains and far above the villages below, so that they could be closer to the heavens. Still today, if you venture to the summit of those sacred mountain tops, you can see the evidence of this in the form of Shinto and Buddhist temples, which are situated in the most remote corners of those soaring giants.

Traditional minded Japanese still choose to bury their dead way up high in the sky… in the venerated peaks, far above the land of the living. The trek alone is the first part of what they see as a journey… A Death Journey. Sometimes they even dress their deceased ancestors with special sandals to prepare them for this momentous crossing into the afterlife.

When the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence reached the Japanese shores in the seventh century, they took to the practice of cremation, with the smoke symbolizing rebirth. Still innocent and positively disposed in their outlook toward death, the Japanese came to see it as a process of transformation, whereby one could become a Buddha, himself/herself.

All of life is in a constant state of transformation. Life is so short and fleeting, Buddha said. Nothing ever stays the same. The acceptance of this inescapable truth lies as deeply in the Japanese bone as marrow. Death is just a changing season. But the Japanese, situated as precariously as they are, on a cluster of islands in the midst of the wild Pacific Ocean, have always been close to nature and have a deep respect for its impulsive ways. They know that we are not separate from it. So, we had better move along with it, lest we suffer under our own resistance, like a brittle tree trying to fight the high winds.

And so the practice of writing death poems was a natural emergence, from a people so attuned to their place in a capricious universe. The Earliest known was credited to Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto, who transformed into a white bird upon his death.

But there is no more beloved and oft used symbol in Japanese death poetry, than the flower. Delicate, ephemeral and beautiful at the same time… what could be a more fitting symbol of the great departure? Rather than run from it, there is a realistic preparation for it… a calmness around it, and often, even humor, as seen in the examples I will include below.

Deb Shapiro and The Willful Final Voyage

One of my most memorable interviews was with the writers, Ed & Deb Shapiro. They wrote for some pretty notable people, like Oprah Winfrey, and had published several of their own books, mostly on topics having to do with spiritual well-being. What made them so memorable was their good humor and personable way. I used to joke with them about how nice it would be to just hang out with them in their kitchen, noshing on whatever snacks they happened to have in their fridge, and laughing at Ed’s silly jokes. Together they were like one entity. They lovingly gifted the world with wisdom about living, and so, it should come as no surprise that this wisdom would shine forth around death, as well. With her beloved, Ed, now gone, and her own personal health challenges becoming too heavy, Deb has elected to depart from this plane, via the assisted suicide program.

Like the Japanese monks, who knew it was time, she prepared in the way that felt right to her, celebrated this rite of passage in the way that felt right to her, and will be flying high by the time this article is read. As I finish this article, it happens to be exactly the hour, to the minute, of her exit. And I see that their website is already nothing but Go Daddy… trifles of this silly, material realm of existence!

May this occasion serve as an opportunity for us all to look upon death not as something scary, but as something as natural as night.

Here are some of my favorite Japanese death haiku, which I feel capture the spirit of their intention and even bring a little levity to a subject which is all too often, thick with gravity.

Encased by Winter:

before long I’ll

become dried salmon.

Late-blooming cherry:

wondrous workings

of a flower’s mind.

I give my name back

as I step in

this Eden of flowers.

I die

the evening of the day

the hibiscus blooms.

I borrow moonlight

for this journey of a

million miles.

*Credit given to one of my longstanding favorite books, Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman.

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