Spring Death Poems (Haru no jisei)

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and happiness. But death is an inescapable part of life. The existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that it is the finality of life that gives it meaning, and in this respect he certainly mirrored a Japanese sentiment of impermanence that is centuries old.

I shared a number of Jisei, or death poems before. As I said then, I will not share my own, mainly because I am not dying, and therefore do not have my own jisei (There was a time in the late 1600’s when I thought I was dying, and I contemplated whether or not I should compose a death poem, but time passed and I never really needed to…)

These poems come from the book, Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and I have kept his translation, unless I felt it could be improved upon.

I will start with the poet, Bako, who died on May 1st, 1751. His jisei is about the hototogisu, a species of cuckoo that is appreciated for its beautiful voice. But it is also considered a messenger of death.  It is actually a summer word, but as I mentioned before, jisei do not always follow the season they were written in:



tani no to mo nashi



Looking back at the valley

no more dwellings, only

the cuckoo cries


The hototogisu does not make its own nest, but instead takes over the nest of the Nightingale, and pushes the nightingale’s eggs out of the nest, to lay its own.

Another one about this bird was composed by, Chosui, who died on April 4th, 1769 (my translations):


koki usuki

kumo o machiete



dark clouds, white clouds passing

I wait



Or this could also be translated in view of the Buddhist tradition that clouds appear in the West when one dies. The post-particle ‘o‘ in this haiku indicates that Chosui is waiting for the clouds, rather than simply waiting as clouds pass:


Thick ones, thin ones,

I await the clouds

the hototogisu cries


Hoyu died at the end of the 17th Century:


namu ya sora

tada ariake no



Praise to the skies

alone in moonlit early dawn

a  cuckoo cries


Namu actually stands for Namu Amida Butsu, a prayer to Amida Buddha. I could therefore translate this as,



Alone in the sky’s early dawn light

A hototogisu


There is an anonymous poem that was supposedly composed by a prisoner right before his execution. I don’t remember Hoffman including this in his book. But I always liked it:


sono ato wa

meido de kikan




I will hear the rest of the song

in the land of the dead


Chine was the sister of Kyorai, a famous poet.  She died May 15th, 1688:



mata kieyasuki

hotaru kana


It lights up

as easily as it fades

the firefly!


(Hoffman did not include the exclamation point, but that is what ‘kana‘ implies) After her death, Kyorai composed the following (my translation):


te no ue ni

kanashiku kiyuru

hotaru kana


In my hand,

sadly,  it fades

the firefly!


Chora died May 5th, 1776 (my translation):


gokuraku to

iute neburu ya

kaya no uchi



I murmur in my sleep!

in the mosquito netting


After his death, his wife responded with:


ka no koe mo

kanashiki kaya no

atari kana


the drone of the mosquitoes

round the netting, too,

is sad


The famous artist, Hokusai, who made the beautiful woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji, died on April 12th 1849 (my translation):



yuku kisan ja

natsu no hara


As a ghost

I will wander

the summer fields


As spring unfolded, he clearly longed for the green beauty of summer, when the fields have grown and the undergrowth is thick.

Here is one last one—-Kinu died on March 2nd, 1817:


yururi saku

kotoshi no hana no

kakugo kana


How leisurely the cherry

blossoms bloom this year, unhurried,

by their doom!


As I have mentioned before, the cherry blossoms are always a strong symbol of the temporal nature of life. This is Heidegger’s existentialism–the beauty of the cherry blossom, which the Japanese wait a whole year for, yet it lasts for only a short time, before raining down, petal by petal, in one last final show of beauty before the blossoms decay back into nature.  Heidegger would add that, to be truly human, one must break free from the conformity of the collective consciousness, and to stand out and shine as does the cherry blossom. But in this haiku by the poet, now facing the  certainty of death, the sakura shine on, as if oblivious to their own finality. As they begin to blossom they have their whole life as a blossom ahead of them…

(I added the last comma and the appropriate exclamation point, because the emphasis of the Japanese ‘kana‘ is on the final line).



About a year ago I found a book on Chinese poetry. I don’t buy too many books on Chinese poetry because, of the ones that are out there, many of them leave out the original Chinese. And Chinese is very open to interpretation especially in translating poetry into English. If I buy a book on Chinese poetry, I want to see the original Chinese with it—so I can better understand the Chinese poem. Fortunately this book had that.

Anyway, within the book there was a poem that I found to be similar to the last one in my previous post. Chinese poetry reflects a lot of Buddhist sentiment as well, but it is also heavily influenced by the animistic beliefs of Taoism. This poem is by Wang Wei who lived about 700 A.D. This is my own translation,


The empty mountain, no one can be seen
but voices are heard
The sun’s reflection reaches deep into the forest
and shines upon the green moss.


I left out the word human, or person or people in the second verse, which appears in the original Chinese. Afterall, disembodied voices echoing from an empty mountain, may not necessarily be people—they could after all be gods, spirits, fairies, ghosts…

The last one of my own haiku in my previous post:




Oku eh, oku eh to
Fuyu mori ni
gekko ga…


Deeper, deeper
into the winter forest–
the moonlight…


In my animistic world, if it is moving to the center, it is moving to that universal center, the axis mundi: the World Tree, or World Cave, or perhaps the shaman’s fire (of Mongolian or Ural Altaic Shamanic traditions) or even just the center of the forest, which is sacred in the animistic traditions of Bali, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other corners of South East Asia. The Sun, of course, is always sacred, just like the moon.

Here is another of mine referencing the moon from 2009:




Michi wakarazu ni
yuki no tsuki mo


Lost, and
even the snowy moon
is lonely


The word, ‘lost,’ does not refer to the moon, but to an individual, either in the first person, second person, or however you experience it. The Japanese, michi wakarazu, literally means to not understand the path, road, or way. But nature, from our perspective, often reflects our own sentiments. When we are happy, we see a happy moon, even if we do not always consciously catch it as such. But an angry person may look at that same moon and see an angry one.


Let’s revisit this same haiku from the past two posts:


谷神  [グシエン]





rousoku kiete

kawa oto kiezu


Gushen (The Valley Spirit)


A Fall night

the candle dies out

but the sound of the river doesn’t


The Japanese, without knowing the experience I wrote this haiku for, would have a completely different immediate take on it—another fall night event that is traditional in parts of Japan. (I say immediate, because haiku should be mulled over—and can have different subjective experiences come out of it, different levels of understanding, different aesthetic images).

First of all they would not get the title—in Japanese it reads tanigami (Valley God), though it would have furigana—a little phonetic alphabet written next to the Kanji so they would see that it actually reads, gushen, and they would immediately know that it is Chinese.

But there is no Taoism in Japan. Taoism has heavy influence through Buddhism, but there are no Taoist temples, or monks or priests and the Tao Te Ching is not on everyone’s Too Read list. They don’t need it. They have their own spirituality handed down from an ancestral Ural-Altaic shamanism: Shintoism. In fact Shintoism means Way of the Gods, and the ~to is the same character as Tao. In its own way it has a lot of similarities to Taoism.

But the haiku itself speaks to another fall-night tradition, which would come to mind of most Japanese. It comes at the end of O-bon. O-bon happens in the fall, and is most obviously celebrated by festivals all over Japan. Traditionally the fields have been harvested and everyone was celebrating—so there is the thanksgiving aspect to O-bon. Communities come together in community dance to the traditional music of the taiko drums, cymbals and some of the wind instruments common to Shinto. There is a lot of drinking and eating, playing games… A festival is like a county fair in the US.

But O-bon is also a time when the spirits of the dead come back to visit the family. It is a good time, if just after the harvests, to see how well their families are doing. One friend of mine told me that after the death of his grandfather, for years his dad would sprinkle ash in the genkan (the entry way of the house where you take off and leave your shoes) the night before the O-bon season begins just as everyone was going to bed. More than once they woke up to see footprints leading into the house from the door.

In some parts of Japan, at the end of the O-bon season, they go to a river to send off their ancestors. The Japanese, you see, have their own concept of the River Styx, which is a very old axis mundi motif. From Africa, clear around the world to South America you have traditions of rivers carrying one to the land of the dead. In the case of the Japanese, they put a lit candle in a boat folded out of paper, and, saying goodbye to their beloved ancestors, set it adrift and watch it float down the river—their deceased loved ones returning to the land of the dead.

The verb kieru (as in rosouku kiete), can mean to go out, as in the candle goes out, or to disappear. So the haiku could refer to the candle going out, or simply disappearing down the river into the distance.

But the river goes on without stop—forever flowing. Your grandparents said goodbye to their ancestors. Today you will be saying goodbye to your ancestors. But one day, on a fall night, just like tonight, your descendents will be saying goodbye to you, as you too float downstream…

Therefore one could read it as:

A fall night
The candle disappears
the sound of the river doesn’t


In the mountains Northeast of Kyoto there is a small mountain temple called Amida-ji (AmidaTemple). It is a temple to the very popular and benevolent Amida Buddha. To get to it you hike up a narrow trail through bamboo groves and forests of thick foliage till you reach some old stone stairs, crumbling, and largely moss covered. When I visited one afternoon there were no priests or anyone around, and being a small mountain temple, I am fairly certain that for the most part it is probably empty. Inside the temple was a long banner, maybe two on both sides of the altar of the buddha—I forget. But what I do remember is that a small breeze would blow the banner which would ring a small bell hanging off the bottom of the banner. I just sat and listened to the bell. It was incredibly peaceful.

For some reason I was fascinated with the thought that, after I leave, that bell will continue to ring—even with no one around to hear, it will ring. Through hot and cold weather, sometimes witnessed by a visitor but the rest of the time, with no one to hear, yet it will always ring, with a slight breeze, or a heavy wind at an approaching storm…

I have written several haiku on that experience. The first one, written in December 1999, I titled, Kyoto no Amidaji (Kyoto’s AmidaTemple)—-yes you can add titles to haiku too:





Kyoto no Amidaji

rin rin to

naru suzu ni

furi furi to yuki


Ting… ting… sounds the bell

and the snow

falling… falling…




rin rin to

suzu naru amidaji

yuki furi


Ting… ting…

sounds the bell of Amidaji

the snow fall




Yuki furi ya

Amidaji ni doko ka

suzu nari


The snow falls!

and somewhere in Amida-ji

a small bell sounds


Speaking of which, here is a Chinese poem—The Temple Bell—–by Yuan Mei (1716 – 1798). This is my translation:


AncientTemple, monks all gone

the Buddha’s image fallen


The single bell

hangs high in evening’s glow


Sad, so full of music…

Ah, just one little tap!

But no one dares.


There is something very peaceful about these temples and their bells–especially for me—those ones that are remote and empty, or abandoned and falling apart. Left to the elements these bells still stand, and at some point, probably through the forces of nature, ring again…

While on the subject of Chinese poems—I should mention my favorite. A few may  recognize it as a title for one of Alan Watt’s books—he likes the poem too. It is titled Searching for the Hermit, by Chia Tao (779-843):


Beneath the pines I asked the boy.

The master’s gone in search of herbs…

He’s up in the mountains

Cloud hidden,

whereabouts unknown.


The Chinese I translate into herbs, is literally medicine—he went to gather medicine.

There was another spiritual moment that stuck with me from Kyoto (well there are numerous ones really)—from what is probably one of the most spiritual places I know—Fushimi Inari Taisha—the Great Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine covers the whole side of a whole mountain all the way up and over the peak. It is a fox shrine to the goddess of abundance and fertility. The fox is actually her emissary and spirit animal if you will. There are large shrines, small shrines, and graveyards, and little shops that sell odd trinkets and even books on how to make good-luck charms and curses–and all of these are connected by paths that are lined by torii gates posted one against the other. Google Images has an abundance of photos of this very beautiful shrine.

As you walk up the trails you pass through forests where you hear animal sounds, and there are always crows around calling out. The whole place has a very special feel. I’ve been there mornings, afternoons, nights—it is really a special place. I have one favorite little corner of the shrine—it is towards the back and on a side trail that takes you down to a little gulley. A small waterfall falls into it, and the water runs off as a stream. In the side of the gulley a small altar has been carved out, and inside is a lone statue of a goddess—maybe Inari herself, or maybe just the Yamahime (Mountain Goddess) of the mountain, I don’t know. The first time I found that I was with a good friend from New York. It was a late afternoon in the fall. There was a burning candle placed in front of it, and another candle laying on the ground. We were so amazed by the sacred feeling of this little spot that we lit the other candle, placed it by the little statue, and silently watched as they both burned down and quietly went out. We had no idea how late it had gotten–night had already fallen, and it was quite dark. We both felt something special had happened, but couldn’t quite say what—we mostly walked back in silence—but feeling very good about our lives, and the world, and life…

In January 2000 I wrote a haiku about this experience, titled, Gushen—Gushen is Chinese and means Spirit of the Valley. It is a female spirit and is mentioned in Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching (Chapter 6):


谷神  [グシエン]






rousoku kiete

kawa oto kiezu


Gushen (The Valley Spirit)

A Fall night

the candle dies out

but the sound of the river doesn’t



There is a local photographer whose photos from the mountains of Colorado were made into some very beautiful cards sold here (Not the photo I inserted here–I just found that one). There is one of a snowy river winding through a mountain meadow, there are some pine trees near the shore, some of them fairly scraggly. Mountains rise up into the mist in the background. The sky is a typical misty overcast winter sky you often see in the mountains. It seems like a place I have been; in fact I’d almost place it somewhere in Coal Creek Canyon. I took the photo off the card, and framed it with a haiku written in Japanese below it. (I actually did this with a number of these cards–some are winter, some fall, some summer–but this was the first one I saw and I immediately knew I had the perfect haiku for it).

The haiku is one I composed back in about ’97 or ’98. We were staying in my parent’s condo up in Breckenridge Colorado. It was October, but they had already gotten some good snow that year. The condo—is actually a two-story townhouse, and was a great place to escape the city for a while. There was a cozy fireplace, a hot tub on the porch–everything you needed. The forecast called for more snow that afternoon, and I decided to go out and walk around a bit. Heavy snow clouds hung over the small ski town obscuring the peaks. As I walked, I came across a good sized crow sitting atop a pine tree, looking around, and calling out. The haiku immediately came to me:


kangarasu demo

matsu ka

omoi yukigumo

Even the cold crow


heavy snow clouds

After cutting the photo off of the card, matting it, writing the haiku with some fancy calligraphy below the photo (I cheated—I have studied Japanese calligraphy with a brush in Japan, but I am not good by any means, so I carefully drew it in pencil first and then went over it with a black felt pen) and framing it, I realized that it just happened to be near my Aunt’s birthday. So I put the haiku in another card with the same photo, and then wrote about how I came across it, and then a bit about the inevitability of nature—how both myself and the already cold crow knew the storm was coming, but there was nothing to stop it, all we could do was to gaman suru–grin and bear it, a very typical Japanese concept

I was so pleased with myself that I quickly ran down to the Post Office and popped it in the mail. Only on the way back home did I realize, that I had just sent this to my aunt who was very educated, had travelled around the world, enjoyed world cultures like myself, and had also spent some significant time in the Orient–she was about to have a birthday in her early 70’s. Yes—-if anyone, my beloved aunt, one of the few in the family who I could walk through an art museum with carrying on in deep conversations about the meaning of the art we were experiencing, she would pick up on some of the other meanings implied by the haiku. Meanings that I didn’t think to explore before sending it to her—-meanings such as the inevitability of death, and the fact that we know it is coming, but there is little we can do. A fall haiku could be one referring to one’s elderly age—but winter—–that is really old! …and it wasn’t even a joyous winter haiku at that…

I quickly sent off another card, with a happy spring haiku—and an explanation that I realized too late some of the other implications of the haiku…

The framed photo, and haiku, still hangs in my basement.