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Yoel Hoffmann (1937-)
יואל הופמן



Zen-szerzetesek és haiku költők versei a halál mezsgyéjéről
Yoel Hoffmann nyomán fordította: Somogyvári Zsolt

*jisei [dzsiszei] (辞世の句 jisei no ku) =
= búcsúvers, halál vers

Translations by Yoel Hoffmann:

The Sound of the One Hand

PDF: Every End Exposed

PDF: Radical Zen (The Sayings of Joshu)

PDF: Japanese Death Poems

Part Two: Death Poems by Zen Monks (HTML)


An Israeli writer and poet Yoel Hoffmann is also a translator and cultural researcher on Japan and China.  He is currently a professor of Japanese poetry, Buddhism, and philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel and lives in Galilee.

Born in Braşov, Romania to Jewish parents of Austro-Hungarian culture, at the age of one Hoffmann and his parents fled a Europe increasingly under Nazi influence for the British Mandate of Palestine. Shortly after the move, Hoffmann's mother died and he was entrusted by his father to an orphanage where he spent his time until his father re-married.

As a young man, Hoffmann left his home in Israel and traveled to Japan, where he spent two years living in a Zen monastery and studying Chinese and Japanese texts with monks. He would later return to Japan to earn his doctorate at the University of Kyoto. Hoffmann did not begin writing fiction until in his forties, and though chronologically a member of the sixties "Generation of the State," his work is oft-described as being on the forefront of avant-garde Hebrew literature.

Hoffmann's first book of fiction, Kätzchen - The Book of Joseph, was published in Hebrew in 1988. He has since gone on to write nine more books in Hebrew, six of which have been translated into English and published by New Directions; these six are Katschen and The Book of Joseph (1998), Bernhard (1998), The Christ of Fish (1999), The Heart is Katmandu (2001), The Shunra and the Schmetterling (2004), and "Curriculum Vitae" (2009). Hoffmann was awarded the first ever Koret Jewish Book Award, as well as the Bialik Prize by the city of Tel Aviv and the Prime Minister's Prize.

Hoffmann's translations of Zen works include:

The Sound of the one Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers, tr. with a commentary by Yoel Hoffmann;
foreword by Zen Master Hirano Sōjō; introd. by Ben-Ami Scharfstein,
Basic Books, New York, 1975. Paladin, St. Albans, 1977, 344 p.
[Translation of the first part of Gendai sōjizen hyōron]

Every End Exposed: The 100 Koans of Master Kidō with the Answers of Hakuin-Zen, tr. with a commentary by Yoel Hoffmann;
foreword by Hirano Sōjō;
Autumn Press, Brookline, Mass., 1977, 128 p.
A translation of 虚堂和尚語錄 Xutang heshang yulu [Japanese: Kidō oshō goroku / Kidōgoroku] by the Chinese teacher 虚堂智愚 Xutang Zhiyu (1185-1269), Japanese: Kidō Chigu), with comments by the Japanese teacher 白隱慧鶴 Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769).
[Translation of the final part of Gendai sōjizen hyōron]

Radical Zen: The sayings of Joshu, translated with a commentary
Preface by Hirano Sōjō,
Autumn Press, Brookline, Mass., 1978, 160 pages.


Image result for DAIRIN SOTO Died on the twenty-seventh day of the first month, 1568 at the age of eighty-nine
Yoel Hoffmann

Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
compiled with an Introduction and commentary by YOEL HOFFMANN
Rutland, Vermont, Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1986, 368 p.

Table of Contents


PART ONE : Introduction
The Poetry of Japan
Death and Its Poetry in the Cultural History of Japan
Note on the Poems

PART TWO : Death Poems by Zen Monks

PART THREE : Death Poems by Haiku Poets

Bibliographical Notes
Index of Poetic Terms
General Index


Death Poems by Zen Monks

Died on the twentieth day of the second month, 1387 at the age of sixty-one

Look straight ahead. What's there?
If you see it as it is
You will never err.

When Bassui was about thirty- one years of age, he heard the running of water in a brook and was enlightened. Thereafter, he spent most of his days in a hut in the mountains. When people heard of the solitary monk and gathered to hear "the word, he would flee. In spite of his longing for solitude, Bassui did not turn his back on the simple people, but taught them Zen in words they could understand. He often warned his followers against the dangers of drinking, and forbade them to taste "even a single drop." On the margin of his portrait he wrote, "I teach with the voice of silence."

Just before his death Bassui turned to the crowd that had gathered around and said the words above. Repeating them in a loud voice, he died.


Died on the twenty-sixth day of the second month, 1370 at the age of seventy-nine

A tune of non- being
Filling the void:
Spring sun
Snow whiteness
Bright clouds
Clear wind.


Died on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, 1669 past the age of eighty

Daigu was raised in a Zen monastery. While he was still a young monk, a woman asked him to hold a funeral service for her son. After the burial she asked, "Where has my child gone?" Daigu had no answer for her, and the incident shook him profoundly. He abandoned the monastery and went to be alone in the mountains.

Daigu was fond of drinking; it is said that he was usually half- drunk. He did not restrain his speech and used to insult people while conversing with them. In spite of his eccentric ity, or perhaps because of it, people from all ranks of society were drawn to him, and they would come to him on the mountain to hear his words.

Daigu later moved to Edo, where he gave sanctuary in his temple to two women, mistresses of a daimyo from whom they had escaped. This act added to already existing rumors about Daigu's relationships with women, but Daigu gave them no heed. Because of the bad name such behavior gave him, his rise in the religious hierarchy was delayed, but Daigu himself did not care for power and authority. When an honorable post was at last offered him, he refused it on the grounds that he would be dismissed anyway because of his peculiar character.

The name Daigu, which the monk chose for himself, means "great fool." To his self- portrait he added these words: "This monk is bound in chains of ignorance and lust. He is not able to follow the way of the Buddha. As his name is, so is he-- a great fool."

Lying on his deathbed, Daigu wrote the following:

Needles pierce my ailing body, and my pain grows greater. This life of mine, which has been like a disease-- what is its meaning? In all the world I haven't a single friend to whom I can unburden my soul. Truly all that appears to the eye is only a flower that blooms in a day.

Three days before his death Daigu wrote a short poem praising himself as "unique in his generation." At the end of the poem he put the words "three days before." Did he regret having boasted and wish to write a different poem? The following day he requested that his attendant bring him writing paper, and as the latter was about to hand it to his master, Daigu hit him. A day later Daigu died.


Died on the twenty-seventh day of the first month, 1568 at the age of eighty-nine

My whole life long I've sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo--
The blade is broken--


Died on the sixth day of the tenth mouth, 1721 at the age of eighty

Here in the shadow of death it is hard
To titter the final word.
I'll only say, then,
"Without saying."
Nothing more,
Nothing more.

Dokyo, also known as Shoju Ronin, lived most of his life in a hut and refused to join the large monasteries. He saw in zazen , Zen meditation, the essence of the Zen way and used to deal harshly with believers who sought him out to hear so- called Zen doctrine. He would occasionally even draw his sword on them and drive them away, in keeping perhaps with his samurai origin. He is said to have once pushed the Zen master Hakuin from the pulpit when the latter rose to speak, whereupon Hakuin fainted from the force of the blow. For as long as Hakuin dwelt with him, Dokyo showed him no preference, and made him beg from door to door for his portion of rice like the other monks.

Dokyo wrote his last words while seated in the upright Zen position. Then he put down his brush, hummed "an ancient song" to himself, suddenly laughed out loud, and died.


Died on the fifth day of the second month, 1256 at the age of fifty-six

In all my six and fifty years
No miracles occurred.
For the Buddhas and the Great Ones of the Faith,
I have questions in my heart.
And if I say,
"Today, this hour
I leave the world,"
There's nothing in it. Day after day,
Does not the sun rise in the east?


Died on the seventeenth day of the tenth month, 1280 at the age of seventy-nine

All my life I taught Zen to the people--
Nine and seventy years.
He who sees not things as they are
Will never know Zen.

The sources say that Enni became ill at the beginning of the summer. On the fifteenth day of the tenth month he announced to his followers that he was about to die. They did not believe him. On the day of his death he ordered that the drum be beaten and his imminent death proclaimed. He sat down in his chair and wrote his last words. After adding the date and his signature, he wrote "Farewell" and died.

Enni was also known as Shoichi Kasho and, after his death, was called Shoichi Kokushi. Kokushi, "teacher of the nation," was a title given to a very revered priest. Enni was the first person to receive this title.


Died on the tenth day of the first month, 1696 at the age of seventy-nine

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight--
Thus I return to the source.

In the writings of the Taoist philosopher Lieh- tzu (fourth cent. B. C.), we find mention of two master archers whose arrows hit each other in midair. In the poem by Gesshu, the arrows do not fall back to the ground, but continue in a directionless flight through empty space. This image indicates a state of consciousness in which the concepts of the ordinary mind forming one's outlook on the world have vanished, and polarities (good- bad, life- death, etc.) are embraced in enlightened being.


Died on the twelfth day of the tenth month, 1333 at the age of eighty-one

All doctrines split asunder
Zen teaching cast away--
Fourscore years and one.
The sky now cracks and falls
The earth cleaves open--
In the heart of the fire
Lies a hidden spring.


Died on the twenty-eighth day of March, 1878 at the age of seventy-seven

I was born into this world
I leave it at my death.
Into a thousand towns
My legs have carried me,
And countless homes--
What are all these?
A moon reflected in the water
A flower floating in the sky

"Ho!" is a translation of the word totsu, a kind of challenging cry uttered at the moment of enlightenment.


Died on the eighth day of the tenth month, 1272 at the age of fifty-six

The truth embodied in the Buddhas
Of the future, present, past;
The teaching we received from the
Fathers of our faith
Can all be found at the tip of my stick.

When Goku felt his death was near, he ordered all his monk- disciples to gather around him. He sat at the pulpit, raised his stick, gave the floor a single tap with it, and said the poem above. When he finished he raised the stick again, tapped the floor once more and cried, "See! See!" Then, sitting upright, he died.


Died on the first day of the tenth month, 1661 at the age of eighty-five

Gudo was raised in a Zen monastery from the age of eight. When he was nineteen, he left to wander up and down Japan in search of the truth. Thus he later wrote, "I laugh at myself. After ten years of journeys and pilgrimages, here I am knocking on the gates of Zen, my walking stick cracked and my umbrella torn. The Buddha's teaching is basically a simple matter: if you are hungry, eat rice; if you are thirsty, drink tea; when it is cold, wrap yourself in a gown."

Gudo became a central figure in the Zen world of his time. He was honored with the most illustrious title possible coming from secular authorities-- Kokushi, "teacher of the nation," a distinction generally reserved for the emperor's Zen teacher. When past the age of eighty, he was still wandering throughout Japan, seeing to the upkeep of temples and speaking to believers.

It is said that at the age of eighty- two, Gudo was invited by the emperor's father to speak before him. Midway through his talk Gudo became sleepy; he stretched out on the floor and began snoring loudly away. The father of the emperor sat calmly by, looking at Gudo's aged face and waiting for him to reawaken.

On the day of his death Gudo wrote, "I have finished my task. It is now up to my followers to work for mankind." He then put down his brush, yawned loudly, and died.


Thirteenth century

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

Hosshin, also called Hosshimbo and Shosai, was a Japanese monk who sailed to China in the thirteenth century to study Zen. Since he could neither read nor write, his Chinese teacher drew a circle around the symbol 死 and ordered the monk to meditate on that. Hosshin sat and reflected until "his rear became rotten and maggots bred there." This did not deter him from meditating, and he would see in everything the symbol. Only when the sign disappeared from his consciousness did he gain enlightenment.

A week before his death he declared, "I will die in seven days." No one heeded him, but on the seventh day following he spoke his last words as given above. When one of the monks requested that he add another phrase, Hosshin rebuked him with a sharp cry of " Katsu !" (a word signifying the attainment of enlightenment) and died.


Died on the twenty-first day of the eleventh month, 1481 at the age of eighty-eight

In all the kingdom southward
From the center of the earth
Where is he who understands my Zen?
Should the master Kido himself appear
He wouldn't be worth a worn-out cent.

Few children in Japan grow up ignorant of Ikkyu and the stories told about him. He was a monk, an author, and a poet, and his paintings, many of birds, are quite moving. Near the end of Ikkyu's life, the emperor put him in charge of Daitokuji in Kyoto, the chief temple of Rinzai Zen. More than either his literary and artistic talents or his religious message, however, his eccentric character was what made him the most famous of Japan's Zen masters. Ikkyu treated high and low, aristocrats and peasants, alike, and children loved him. He detested "intellectual Zen," and it is said that he once burned all the manuscripts in his possession. He avoided neither taverns nor brothels, and he never held his tongue.

The kingdom described in Ikkyu's poem is the continent southward from Mount Shumi (Skt., Sumeru), a mythical peak which, according to ancient Indian tradition, stands at the center of the world. The four kingdoms extending from the mountain's four sides are supposed to contain all of humanity. The Southern continent includes India, China, and Japan, the countries where Buddha's doctrine had been spread. The question "Where is he who understands my Zen?" is not to be taken as a boast. Where Zen ceases to be a doctrine and becomes reality, each individual stands alone, and no one can take his place. This being so, even the Chinese Zen master Kido Chigu (Hsü-tang Chih-yü, 1185-1269), whom Ikkyu considered his spiritual father, could neither add to nor detract from what Ikkyu was at that moment-- an old man of eighty- eight years about to die.

Many of Ikkyu's writings deal with death. One of them ends with the following words: "And now, at the hour of my death, my bowels move-- an offering raised to the Lord of Worlds." The frankness of the statement is characteristic of his style, but it ought not to be taken as profane. The image of a dying man who can no longer control his body and who defecates in his bed is no less "sacred" than that of a believer who brings flowers as an offering to his god; all is accepted with equanimity by the Lord of Worlds, the god Bonten (Skt., Brahmadeva).


Died on the twenty-first day of the eighth month, 1281 at the age of seventy-two

Three and seventy years
I've drawn pure water from the fire--
Now I become a tiny bug.
With a touch of my body
I shatter all worlds.


Died an the third day of the fourth month, 1582

In 1582 the samurai leader Oda Nobunaga ( 1534- 82) captured a company of over one hundred Buddhist monks who were allies of his enemy. He ordered his men to pile dry branches around the prisoners and set fire to them all. Among the monks thus burned alive was Kaisen Shoki. According to one of the versions relating the last moments of this Zen master, one of his students asked him, "We cannot escape the passing away of all things in this world. Where now shall we turn in our search for the everlasting?" Kaisen replied, "Here it is before your eyes, in this very place." The monk pressed further, "What place is this before my eyes?" With flames licking upward at his body, Kaisen responded, "If you have vanquished your selfhood, coolness will rise even from the fire."


Died on the twenty-seventh day of the sixth month, 1428 at the age of seventy-seven

A drop of water freezes instantly--
My seven years and seventy.
All changes at a blow
Springs of water welling from the fire.

Kaso was the teacher of Ikkyu (p. 102 ) and Yoso (p. 127 ). His comparison of his seventy- seven- year- long life to "a drop of water [that] freezes instantly" symbolizes transience, the essence of this world of senses according to Buddhist doctrine. The "blow" that changes all refers to enlightenment: a thing no longer contradicts its opposite, and time and space are no longer perceived through the concepts of the ordinary mind. Life may seem to flee in a moment, but when the mind is freed of the veil of ignorance and illusion that comes between the mind and the truth, life and death are only opposite sides of the same coin--" water welling from the fire."


Died on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, 1548 at the age of eighty-four

My final words are these:
As I fall I throw all on a high mountain peak--
Lo! All creation shatters; thus it is
That I destroy Zen doctrine.


Died on the first day of the tenth month, 1643 at the age of seventy

Katsu !
Katsu !
Katsu !
Katsu !

The word katsu cannot really be translated conceptually. It is a sharp cry used by the Zen teacher and pupil at the moment of enlightenment. The cry appears in many Chinese and Japanese Zen writings and can be heard even today within monastery walls.


Died on the twentieth day of the tenth month, 1316 at the age of seventy-six

To depart while seated or standing is all one.
All I shall leave behind me
Is a heap of bones.
In empty space I twist and soar
And come down with the roar of thunder
To the sea.

Death in a Zen sitting position or death standing up was considered worthy of an enlightened person.


Died on the seventeenth day of the first month, 1597 at the age of sixty-six

For over sixty years
I often cried Katsu ! to no avail.
And now, while dying,
Once more to cry Katsu !
Won't change a thing.

On the second day of the eighth month, 1596, the sixty-five-year-old Kokei took ill. Certain he would die soon, he composed his death poem. When he had finished reciting it, he "died." After six hours, however, he revived and began preaching to the monks who had gathered around his bed. Kokei abandoned the world for good about five months later.


Died on the twelfth day of the second month, 1360 at the age of seventy-seven

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

A few days before his death, Kozan called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, and forbade them to hold services in his memory. He wrote this poem on the morning of his death, laid down his brush, and died sitting upright.


Died on the twenty-second day of the third month, 1390 at the age of sixty-eight

Life is an ever- rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.

* * * *

Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You'll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.

These are two separate poems. They were spoken, apparently one after the other, just before Mumon's death.


Died on the fifteenth day of the fifth month, 1306 at the age of seventy-three

When it comes-- just so!
When it goes-- just so!
Both coming and going occur each day.
The words I am speaking now-- just so!

The sources tell us that on the day of his death, Musho summoned the other monks, arranged for his burial service, said his last words, and died sitting upright.

"Just so!" or "Thus!" (nyoze) is a cry used by the Zen master to direct his pupil's attention to "things as they are" or to indicate that the student sees things clearly.


Died on the thirtieth day of the ninth month, 1351 at the age of seventy-seven

Thus have I rolled my life throughout
Inside and out, reclined, upright.
What is all this?
A beating drum
A trumpet's blare
No more.


Died on the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth month, 1309 at the age of seventy-four

In 1307, exactly a year before his death, Nampo wrote:

This year, the twenty- ninth of the twelfth
No longer has a place to come to.

The twenty- ninth of the twelfth next year
Already has no place to go.

These words were taken, after his death, as proof that Nampo knew he would die in a year. And so it was: on the twenty- ninth day of the twelfth month, 1308, Nampo took up his brush, wrote the following poem, and died.

To hell with the wind!
Confound the rain!
I recognize no Buddha.
A blow like the stroke of lightning--
A world turns on its hinge.


Died in 1278 at the age of sixty-six

Thirty years and more
I worked to nullify myself
Now I leap the leap of death.
The ground churns up
The skies spin round.


Died on the twenty- first day of the eleventh month, 1661 at the age of seventy- four

Joy of living,
Living joy. . . .
Zen doctrine is null.
Before I die,
Here is the secret of my teaching--
My staff nods in agreement.

To these words Seigan added the date of his death, pressed his seal, and ended with "Farewell."


Died on the twenty- eighth day of the sixth month, 1820 at the age of seventy- six

My hour draws near and I am still alive.
Drawn by the chains of death
I take my leave.
The King of Hades has decreed
Tomorrow I shall be his slave.

According to ancient tradition in India, "the King of Hades," Emma- o (Skt., Yamaraja), is the underground ruler of the dead.


Died on the seventh day of the tenth month, 1837 at the age of eighty-eight

He who comes knows only his coming
He who goes knows only his end.
To be saved from the chasm
Why cling to the cliff?
Clouds floating low
Never know where the breezes will blow them.

Sengai is one of the most colorful figures in Japanese history-- a Zen monk, a painter, and a poet. His drawings and writings, both done with a flourish, vibrate with Zen insight and humor.

Sengai gives one to understand, in many of his poems and sketches, that a "lifeless" life is not worth living. He once presented to a newlywed a marriage present, a senryu written in her honor and urging her thus:

Young bride
Be alive till they say to you
Die! Die!

In one of his sketches, a bent and bald old man is vying to outwit death. Above the picture Sengai wrote:

If you say, "Come back later,"
He will speedily come to snatch you away.
Say rather, "I shall not be in till I'm ninety-nine."


Died on the fourteenth day of the first month, 1496 at the age of eighty-eight

My sword leans against the sky.
With its polished blade I'll behead
The Buddha and all of his saints.
Let the lightning strike where it will.

It is said that after reciting this poem, Shumpo gave a single "laugh of derision" and died. To "behead / The Buddha" suggests spiritual independence and an awareness freed from the manner of thought dictated by religious tradition. According to Buddhist belief, a man who sins against religion and morality is liable to die by a stroke of lightning.

Several years before his death, as the disease which caused it worsened, Shumpo took leave of his disciples and followers with the following words:

At times I supported the sky, at times the earth; at times I turned into a dragon, at times to a snake. I wandered at will through the cycles of life and of death. All the fathers of our faith I took into my mouth. I give as I will and I take as I will. I slash the leopard with my teeth; my spirit smashes mountains.

After saying these words he let out a sharp cry of " Katsu! "

Shumpo directed his disciples to burn his corpse and bury the ashes in the ground, forbidding them to erect a burial stone in his memory. He ended his will with the following poem:

No single bone in my body is holy--
It is but an ash heap of stinking bones.
Dig a deep hole and there bury these remains
Thus, not a grain of dust will stain
The green mountains.


Died on the ninth day of the second month, 1611 at the age of eighty-three

Adrift between the earth and sky
I call to the east and change it to west.
I flourish my staff and return once again
To my source.

It is written that on the day of his death Shunoku sensed that his end was near. He requested his attendant to hold his brush and dictated his death poem to him. Then he himself took the brush, wrote the date, signed his name and wrote "Farewell." He breathed his last a short while afterward.


Died on the twenty- fifth day of the sixth month, 1655 at the age of seventy-seven

Shosan was born into a samurai family, and he fought in his master's service until his forty- second year. While still a warrior, he visited Zen masters to ask about "the matter of life and death." In 1620 he abandoned the way of the warrior and became a monk. He hated sectarianism and felt repulsed by an institutional framework. He thus never joined any one monastery, but chose instead to wander from one monastery to another, speaking to people and writing on Buddhist doctrine in a simple style that was understood by all. He often criticized organized religion and warned believers against the pursuit of honor and riches. Buddhism, he wrote, is not an abstract doctrine, but a way of life: for the warrior, the warrior's way; for the peasant, the peasant's way; for the artisan, the artisan's way; and for the merchant, the merchant's way. A person may choose whatever sect and manner of praying that suits him, provided he stays in the way with all his heart. As befit a man of samurai status, Shosan emphasized that the most important thing is to "look straight at death. To know death-- that is the entire doctrine."

In the spring of 1655 Shosan became ill. When told that his illness was a grave one, he stated that it meant nothing, since he had already died more than thirty years before (when he became a monk?). As his condition became critical his followers gathered around his deathbed. One of them asked him to say "his final words." Shosan looked sharply at the monk and scolded him: "What are you saying? You only show that you don't understand what I've been saying for more than thirty years. Like this, I simply die."


Died on the tenth day of the intercalary month, 1555 at the age of sixty

I raise the mirror of my life
Up to my face: sixty years.
With a swing I smash the reflection--
The world as usual
All in its place.


Died on the eleventh day of the twelfth month, 1645 at the age of seventy-three

Takuan's personality was extraordinary. He was a scholar, a painter, and a poet, close to the court, and admired by rulers and common people alike, although he refused to regard anyone as his disciple, for he did not consider himself a teacher. At the age of thirty- seven he was appointed head monk of Daitokuji temple in Kyoto. Takuan, who hated having power and authority, abandoned the temple after three days. He turned down honorary titles, and when he was invited by the shogun to serve under him, he refused. He once disobeyed the shogun and was exiled to the distant hills. When his banishment was lifted and he was ordered to return to the city, Takuan replied that he preferred the mountains and had no desire to return to the "filthy and crowded" Edo.

Lying on his deathbed, Takuan at first refused to write a death poem. At last he gave in to the entreaties of those surrounding him, took up his brush, and drew the character for "dream," shown above. When he finished, he threw the brush down and died. Takuan had requested beforehand that his body be burned on a mountain, that no burial service be held, and that no tombstone be put up for him.


Died on the twenty-second day of the third month, 1682 at the age of fifty-three

Full of great changes
My three and fifty years have been.
I commented on the holy writ-- a heavy sin
That echoes to the skies.
Now I will sail on the lake of lotus blooms
And break into the skies within the water.

Tetsugen is known as a scholar who edited, wrote commentaries on, and published many Zen writings. Such an undertaking might be considered praiseworthy in some religions, but many Zen Buddhists believe that Zen must be taught "not by means of the written word, but by a pointed finger." Tetsugen did not, however, let words stand between him and life.

In 1682 there was a famine in Japan. Tetsugen used his entire fortune, which had been dedicated to the printing of Buddhist texts, to distribute food to the hungry. "To feed the poor we must sell the temples and holy writings," he said. It is said that in giving aid to the starving he knew no fatigue, and that through contact with them "fleas stuck to his gown." His efforts saved about ten thousand people.

In the same year, Tetsugen's strength gave out, and he became ill and died. His funeral was attended by approximately one hundred thousand people, many of whom he had saved from famine, and "the sound of the mourners' weeping shook the fields and the forests."

Buddhist tradition envisions paradise as a lake covered with lotus plants.


Died on the fifteenth day of the fifth month, 1369 at the age of seventy-five

I look now at the very moment
Even the Buddha is dumbfounded.
All turns with a swing.
I land on the plain of nothingness.

Tetto wrote his death poem on the last day of his life. Several days before his death, he had given a sealed message to his followers, forbidding them to read it while he was alive. After he died they read the following words:

The truth is never taken
From another.
One carries it always
By oneself


Died on the nineteenth day of the ninth month, 1683 past the age of seventy

Seventy years and more
I have tasted life to its utmost.
The stench of urine sticks to my bones.
What matter all these?
Ho! Where is the place I return to?
Above the peak the moonlight whitens
A clear wind blows.

Tosui, who was called by all "the holy beggar," entered a monastery at the age of seven. As an adolescent he often fasted and secluded himself. He refused to join any one sect and never stayed long in one place. In one of the monasteries where he spent several years, he found himself-- against his will-- teaching Zen. At the height of the teaching season he wrote the following words on the monastery gate before abandoning the place:

Today is the end of religion's work--
Go back, all of you, to your homes.
I leave before you,
Eastward or westward,
Wherever the wind might carry me.

After wandering throughout Japan, Tosui joined the beggars of Kyoto and lived among them. One day one of his former pupils found him there. Tosui was dressed in rags, his hair growing wildly, and he carried a straw mat on his back. The pupil asked to join him, but Tosui rebuked him and tried to send him away. In spite of this the young monk put on begging clothes and followed his master. Tosui spoke not a word to him. In the town of Katata near Lake Biwa the two of them found the corpse of a beggar and buried it. When the pupil exclaimed, "Poor man," Tosui turned to him and scolded him: "Why pity the man? The most honored of men and the most wretched of beggars share a single fate- death." Tosui then sat to eat the rice porridge that the beggar had left, murmuring as he ate it, "Mm, good." Suddenly he turned to his pupil and ordered him, "Eat this!" As he had no choice but to obey, the pupil placed a small portion of the porridge in his mouth, but he was unable to swallow it and gagged it up again. "I warned you not to follow me," Tosui reproached him, and sent him away.

Thus it was that Tosui wandered from place to place, supporting himself by weaving straw boots to cover the legs of horses in winter and by carrying people on his back. For a while he lived in the city of Otsu (Shiga Prefecture) under a straw roof stretched over the space between two storehouses. At the same time, a certain stable hand, who considered Tosui a holy man, brought him a portrait of the Buddha Amida. On the picture Tosui wrote the following verse:

Though my dwelling be small
I take you in, Lord Amida--
But don't think for a minute
I need you for life after death.

Tosui spent the last years of his life in Kyoto, living at first under a bridge and later in a half- demolished shack in the outskirts of the city. He died, sitting upright in a Zen position, his death poem lying beside his body.


Died on the twenty-fourth day of the eighth month, 1504 at the age of seventy-seven

All four pillars of enlightenment
Crumble at once--
See! See!
Moonlight wreathing coral branches--
What does it mean?
Now all grows as dark
As the palace of hell in
The grasp of Satan

Toyo wrote these words while sitting upright; he then put down his brush and died.

The "four pillars of enlightenment" are four qualities ascribed to nirvana by Buddhist scriptures: everlastingness, contentment, truth (liberation from the illusions of self), and purity. Nirvana is described as a state beyond life and death, but while dying Toyo looks straight at death and sees in it the naked truth of absolute destruction. For a moment he considers the image of perfection and harmony (the moon lighting the corals in the water), but this vision gives way to a darker one of death. The final " Katsu!" wipes out the several images and brings the poem back to the here and now at the moment of death.


Died on the fifth day of the fifth month, 1391 at the age of seventy

From the day of my coming hither
Full seventy years have passed.
Now, setting out on my final path
My two legs trample the sky.


Died on the eighth day of the eighth month, 1659 at the age of seventy-seven

I came into the world after Buddha.
I leave the world before Miroku.
Between the Buddha of the beginning
and the Buddha of the end
I am not born, I do not die.

On the first day of the eighth month, 1659, Ungo shut himself up in his room and prepared for the end. On the eighth day he emerged and gave a sealed envelope to the monk who attended him. He then called his pupils together and preached to them one final time. In the middle of his sermon, exactly at noon, he died. When his pupils opened the envelope they found his last words.

The historical Buddha is Gautama Siddhartha ( sixth to fifth cents. B. C.), also called Shakyamuni, "the sage from the Shakya clan," the founder of Buddhism. Miroku (Skt., Maitreya) is the name of a mythical Buddha who is seated in the heavens and who will in the last days (5 billion 670 minion years after Shakyamuni's death) inherit the place how occupied by the historical Buddha. These two personages mark the beginning and end of historical time. Ungo does not deny his own existence in time as a person who was born, who lived in a certain period, and who died. By "I am not born, I do not die," he indicates the level at which his consciousness dwells. On this level, life and death are nothing but illusions of the imagination.


Died on the nineteenth day of the fifth month, 1320 at the age of seventy-six

My six and seventy years are through.
I was not born, I am not dead.
Clouds floating on the high wide skies
The moon curves through its million- mile course.

Two days before his death, Yakuo called his fellow monks together and said, "The words of a man before he dies are no small matter. This is a barrier that all must pass through. Tell me each of you what you think about that." The monks answered in various ways, and Yakuo neither approved nor disapproved. The next day he ordered his pupils to burn his body and forbade them to hold an elaborate burial ceremony. "Tomorrow morning," he said, "I shall eat the rice porridge with you for breakfast, and at noon I shall go." The following day at noon he wrote his final words, threw the brush from his hand, and died sitting upright.


Died on the twenty-seventh day of the sixth month, 1458 at the age of eighty-three

On the death bed-- Katsu!
Let he who has eyes see!
Katsu! Katsu! Katsu!
And once again, Katsu!

Yoso was a pupil of Kaso's (p. 105 ). When Kaso died, Yoso, then fifty- three years old, pledged to himself that he would leave the world on the same day of the same month as his master. And so it was that thirty years to the day after Kaso's death, this vow was fulfilled.

Yoso asked his attendant to hold his brush and to write his death poem during his very last moments. Whatever the meaning hidden in Yoso's " Katsu !" may be, there is certainly an appeal to look straight at an eighty- three- year- old man about to die.


Died on the fifth day of the fifth month, 1309 at the age of seventy-six

You must play
The tune of non- being yourself--
Nine summits collapse
Eight oceans go dry.

The "tune of non- being" does not refer to death, but to a state wherein the enlightened awareness is no longer bound by such polarities as life and death. "Nine summits" separated by "eight oceans" represent the world as pictured in Indian myth. The tallest mountain, Mount Shumi, stands in the center, surrounded by the eight other peaks. Death is here described as a cosmic event, together with the consciousness that the world and all within it disappears.


Died on the fifth day of the sixth month, 1276 at the age of eighty- four

I pondered Buddha's teaching
A full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now locked about me.
No one was ever here--
Who then is he about to die,
And why lament for nothing?
The night is clear,
The moon shines calmly,
The wind in the pines
Is like a lyre's song.
With no I and no other
Who hears the sound?