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Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
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Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  1,556 ratings  ·  128 reviews
"A wonderful introduction the Japanese tradition of jisei, this volume is crammed with exquisite, spontaneous verse and pity, often hilarious, descriptions of the eccentric and committed monastics who wrote the poems." —Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Although the consciousness of death is, in most cultures, very much a part of life, this is perhaps nowhere more true than in
Paperback, 368 pages
Published April 15th 1998 by Tuttle Publishing (first published 1985)
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Japanese Death Poems by Yoel HoffmannThe Essential Haiku by Robert HassThe Haiku Anthology by Cor van den HeuvelBook of Haikus by Jack KerouacHaiku, Volume 1 by R.H. Blyth
Introduction to Haiku
30 books — 17 voters
Taboo by P BaylissThe Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo BashōJapanese Death Poems by Yoel HoffmannHaiku is the Spice of Life by Ginny Tata-PhillipsThe Year of My Life by Kobayashi Issa
110 books — 33 voters

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E. G.
Aug 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Introduction, by Yoel Hoffmann
Note on the Poems

--Death Poems by Zen Monks
--Death Poems by Haiku Poets

Bibliographical Notes
Index of Poetic Terms
General Index
Yakuo Tokuken wrote, "The words of a man before he dies are no small matter. This is a barrier that all must pass through." Ryuho also said that Only a man's years can teach him the art of detachment and ultimate departure.
Apt words. Apt words indeed. I think that's the main idea of this book, detachment and the enlightenment of 'ultimate departure.' So much dread and despair and uncertainty hangs around the notion of death that it's paralyzing. This book demystifies death, it's a journey. Are t
Jun 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In my line of work I meet a lot of people who are close to death. In some cases, they have been in a state of declining health for years, yet in all that time they have not confronted the reality of the end of life, either within themselves or with their loved ones. In an antidote to the American habit of denying death, Yoel Hoffman has compiled a collection of Japanese poetry written by monks and haiku artists at the end of their lives, a reflection of a non-Western culture in which death is ac ...more
Jonathan Peto
Feb 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
I bought this collection of poems a few years ago but had not got around to reading it yet. My grandmother passed away at 95 years old on December 19th. She lived a long time and remained at her home, by herself, since my grandfather’s passing almost twenty years ago. Her death was not a surprise, even, it seemed, to her. She spent her last day with some cousins and my mother, finished her lunch at a restaurant and payed for it (a birthday gift for my mother). As usual, she waved from the door o ...more
Robert Bickers
Nov 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
(This is my favorite poetry collection, eclipsing even Uncle Shelby. Yes, they are different in style and purpose, but the vessel is the same.)

More than a book of tanka, Hoffman's collection informs the reader about both the writers of the poems and the philosophical world they inhabit. (Since they are overwhelmingly Zen, I'll stick with the present tense.) JDP begins with an overview of the wide variety of Zen poetry and the Zen understanding of enlightenment. This includes examples from both f
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This is really a beautiful book. Jisei, the tradition of writing a death poem, is a surprisingly soft tradition. The majority of death rituals serve a mixture of psychological, social and cultural purposes- and are undertaken at the event of death (sometimes shortly preceding death in the throes of dying) and are in part for the dead, but are also largely for the living left behind. I'm not sure if jisei entirely counts as a death ritual, but it's distinctly part of the realm. While death ritual ...more
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poetry
I've been reading this book since August, and have found a lot of solace, insight and beauty within its pages. People keep making fun of me for reading a book of Death Poems before bed, but it's honestly been a huge comfort to me.

This book consists of three sections: a long introduction, discussing the history and practice of writing death poems, and what such poems meant to the people who wrote them. Then there is a section of death poems written by Zen monks, which are usually five- or six-li
All last words should be poetry...
Jonathan Mckay
Aug 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it
My coming, my going
Two simple happenings
That got entangled

For each of us, the last day is coming, like the terminus of a transcontinental railroad trip. It’s far enough away to put out of mind, but we all know the end is coming. If the afterlife is unknowable, at least we can learn from others what pulling into the station feels like. Japanese death poems collects the final poems spoken or written before death over a period of hundreds of year
Rhys Parry
Jan 26, 2014 rated it liked it
I feel as if I should explain why I gave this book a 3/5 rather than a 4 or 5. Hoffmann's 90 something page introduction is somewhat dense but really goes a long way in giving the reader an understanding how death is perceived in Japanese culture. He even does justice to the philosophy of Zen teachings concerned with death and explains the history of the jisei.

With that in mind [most] of the poems failed to resonate with me. This is probably a failing on my part. I was brimming with frustration
Mridul Singhai
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The poems are translated, yet they are great – I wonder how much was lost in translation, and just how great reading the original content might have felt. Here are a few that I enjoyed (in no order):

Returning thanks
for life, I turn back and bow

Nights grow short:
a dream of fifty years
breaks off before it ends.

O young folk–
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once,
you won't die again.

My hour draws near and I am still alive
Drawn by the chains of death
I take my leave.
The King of Hades has
Apr 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful collection and, as far as I can tell, likewise beautiful translations that seem to capture the overall tone very well.

Reading this gave me some comfort in my grief. My grandfather died this cherry blossom season, and he also left us a death poem. I would have loved to show him this collection. Some poems really hit home.
Calvin Campbell
Feb 17, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a gift.
What the hell?
I'm very much alive.
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2019
'Over the fields of
last night's snow -
plum fragrance.'

- Okano Kin'emon Kanehide, died in 1703, at the age of 24.

This is a beautiful collection of poetry that encapsulates the Japanese spirit concerning death.
Although not my favourite, the poem above is remarkable as it was written by one of the 47 Ronin before committing ritual suicide.
If you don't know who the 47 Ronin are, I don't know what to tell you...
Victoria Ray
Oct 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolute delight for anyone who loves Japan, haiku (poetry), tanka, interested in Buddhism & Zen. The book shares the earliest known examples of Japanese poetry (from 712 A.D. to XIX century) - truly great collection! Loved it ...more
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
I have had this on my to-read list for years. The rapid dying process and death of my (Japanese) grandmother over the course of the last two weeks finally forced the issue of reading it. It was the best timing really to enter, if however briefly, each of these people's finally crafted thoughts.
Jan 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Enjoyed the death poems written by zen monks better than haiku poets. Overall a good read if you’re a fan of poetry/haiku or interested in learning more about the japanese poetry and “philosophy”.
Sep 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
'The moon leaks out
from sleeves of cloud
and scatters shadows'
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ku
I wonder where
the winds of
drive the

Farhan Khalid
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, japanese, zen
O young folk — if you fear death
Die now!
Having died once, you won't die again

Death in itself is nothing; but we fear. To be we know not what, we know not where — DRYDEN

Death may indeed be nothing in itself, yet the consciousness of death is in most cultures very much a part of life

The earliest known examples of Japanese lyric poetry celebrate the beauty of nature, love and longing, and loyalty to the sovereign in what seem like bursts of spontaneous expression

The poems in the Man'yoshu are of t
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, of-substance
I feel like this book is absolutely essential to my poetry collection!

I particularly enjoyed
"Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak." -Moriya Sen'an
Because this idea appeals to me on many levels! Duh.

And this poem really spoke to me on a deep level:
"Clear sky-
the way I came by once
I now go back by." - Gitoku
Feb 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry-and-plays
I love poetry but haiku poems I never really enjoyed. Though this book sounded interesting the fact I would be reading over 300 pages of haiku poems did make wonder if it would be worth it. Well it was worth it. The introduction helped explained the poetry and the history while also discussing Japanese history, beliefs, customs, and death rites. Then there was the chapter on haiku poems by Zen monks and on many he discusses the life and death of the monk and what the poem means. My favorite sect ...more
Breslin White
Oct 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I remember reading this in, it must have been, 2014. I saw it at a bookstore and I purchased it. For a poetry book, it helps to read just a couple of the poems to discover whether the book interests you, and that is what I did, since the book title can only give limited information and a single poem may be very different from the rest. When I showed this book to family I got the reaction that it was macabre, so I don't know if it's for everybody, but it is a collection of haiku written by esteem ...more
May 03, 2019 added it
Zen monks through the years and haiku poets would leave a short verse at the end of their lives. This became part of Japanese culture. These poems reflect a way of seeing death without suffering. Often nature images were used to describe their experience; as man is part of nature not separate.

I was surprised by the diversity of the poems and what was shared. I was also surprised at how I felt such peace reading some of them. It’s a lovely collection.


Although the autumn moon
Has set, its
Lenora Good
Dec 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am a very informal "student" of Japan, and dearly love the poetry I've read. I know that composing a poem on one's deathbed is "expected" and that many of the poems are quite beautiful.

Although most of the poems are short, this is not a book to hurry through. It is a book to read, contemplate on what you read and what the poet meant, then read more and repeat the process.

These poems give insight into a culture different than mine, and are, as one reviewer said, "profoundly moving."

I hope, whe
Jan 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
First read this a couple years ago, and since then I regularly pick it up. The history of Death Poetry is fascinating--do not skip the Introduction! The tanka form, for me, is particularly addictive.
Jul 07, 2008 rated it liked it
The leaves turned red
And the wind blew them

Sep 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
4/5 Stars (%79/100)

The book is split into three main parts; the introduction, death poems by zen monks and finally death poems by haiku writers which is definitely my favourite. I advise you not to skip the introduction because you learn a great deal about the place of poetry in Japan and a lot of technical information about haikus and death poems. Though zen monks' poems were interesting, I found haiku writers' poems much powerful and beautiful. I've always liked haikus and tried to write a cou
Mark Robison
Dec 18, 2017 rated it liked it
I like contemplating death, I love Zen, and I really love haiku. That said, this book was one I admired — the research it took is impressive — but didn’t enjoy. This opinion was unexpected because I also quite enjoyed the poems’ translations, and the short explanations behind many of them were fascinating, such as the handful by samurai who committed ritual suicide. So if you’re a fan of Zen or haiku, you likely won't be able to avoid picking this book up. You should, though. Most of the poems a ...more
Deryka Tso
May 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.”


This isn’t just a book of poems; it’s more like a book of the history and culture of the poems as well as insight on their imagery and chronological context. The poems are beautiful, obviously, but I think I’m a lot more educated in Japanese cultural relevance, too.

Basically this book will make you feel peaceful about dying and also make you want to die sitting up.
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