Prince Shōtoku: on the dead traveler


He who if at home
would be pillowed on the arm
of his own dear love,
on a journey, grass for pillow,
here lies sprawled, poor traveler!

  –Prince Shōtoku of Japan (聖徳太子) (574-621). Poem in The Gem-Glistening Cup (1993), by Edwin Cranston"A poem composed in sorrow when on an excursion to the Well of Takahara Prince Shōtoko of the Upper Palace saw a dead man on Mount Tatsuta."

Ie naraba
imo ga te makamu
tabi ni koyaseru
kono tabito aware

Toyo Shibata: I have things left to do


The Answer

The wind in my ear
"It's about time now
for the next world
Let's go, what do you say?"
in a soothing voice, like stroking a cat

So I answered quickly
"I will stay here
a little longer
I have things left to do"

The wind
with a troubled face
stopped and went home.

    --Toyo Shibata (1911-2013), who published her first book of poetry at 98. It sold 1.6 million copies. 


なんて 猫撫(ねこな)で声で

だから 私


Nandai: Life is but melting snow

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

    --Nandai (1786-1817) 南台, Japanese poet. This is the translation of Yoel Hoffman in Japanese Death Poems (1986). Professor Hoffman says that in Japan there is a tradition of writing a poem, jisei 辞世 [farewell to the world] at the moment of death.

I am not sure of the correct transcription of the Japanese. If you have a copy of the original poem, could you let me know? 

kanete naki
mi koso yasukere
yuki no michi



Izumi Shikibu: Why did you vanish into the empty sky?

Why did you vanish
into the empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
when it falls,
falls in this world.

               --Izumi Shikibu (和泉式部) b 976?, woman poet of the Heian period, Japan. Her daughter, also a gifted poet, died in childbirth. Translation by Jane Hirshfield and Mariki Aratani in The Ink Dark Moon..


Ikkyu breaks his master's cup


Ikkyu  [一休宗純], the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: "Why do people have to die?"

"This is natural," explained the older man. "Everything has to die and has just so long to live."

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: "It was time for your cup to die."

          --From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones , compiled by Paul Reps (1895-1990)

Naoki Nabeshima: True kindness can be learned from grief

Kobayashi Issa... lost his wife when he was young. Although he remarried in his latter life, his children died one after another at about the age of one year. Remembering such sad experiences, he composed this poem:Persimmons_by_photoartist3_at_flickr_1

A bitter persimmon’s
bitterness itself
turns naturally into its sweetness.

Perhaps Issa’s state of mind in his poem could be re-phrased like this.

Tears of sadness
themselves naturally turn
into compassion.

We cannot change the reality of impermanence expressed in the separation from the loved one. But facing the sadness without turning away from the past, just as the bitterness of a persimmon turns into sweetness by itself, grief eventually turns into kindness in the heart, and from there new tolerance is born....True kindness can be learned from grief.

        --From Shinran’s Approaches towards Bereavement and Grief , by Naoki Nabeshima. Translated by Eisho Nasu