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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

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  1,315 ratings  ·  103 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
25 books — 15 voters
Taboo by P BaylissJapanese Death Poems by Yoel HoffmannHaiku Is the Spice of Life by Ginny Tata-PhillipsThe Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo BashōA Net of Fireflies by Harold Stewart
109 books — 32 voters

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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
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
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
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
I wish to die
in spring, beneath
the cherry blossoms,
while the springtime moon
is full.
~ Saigon

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

Earth and metal...
although my breathing ceases
time and tide go on.

Child of the way,
I leave at last—
a willow on the other shore.

It lights up
as lightly as it fades:
a firefly.

A fawn frolics
All last words should be poetry...
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
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
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”.
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ku
I wonder where
the winds of
drive the

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
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: of-substance, poetry
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
May 03, 2019 rated it really liked 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.
Calvin Campbell
Feb 17, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a gift.
What the hell?
I'm very much alive.
Jul 07, 2008 rated it liked it
The leaves turned red
And the wind blew them

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
Nathan Albright
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: challenge2017
From childhood I have written and enjoyed reading sort Japanese poems like the haiku and tanka, of which this collection is chiefly composed.  In contrast to many Western poems, the focus is not on either rhyme or meter but rather on counting syllables, a haiku being composed of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and a tanka having a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, allowing for a slightly more expansive treatment of material.  This particular collection of poems, a diverse one in terms of the approac ...more
Apr 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful collection of haiku poems from the tradition of jisei, or "death poetry". Below is one of my favorites, written by Ichimu:

A broken dream -
where do they go
the butterflies?

Feb 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating read with a very interesting and informative introduction. Did you know that "jisei" is a Japanese tradition to write farewell poems right before they die in preparation of their death? I'd never heard of it before! The introduction to the poems that follow (death poems by Zen Buddhist Monks and an anthology of Haiku written by 300 Japanese poets on the verge of death) is almost over 80 pages and it's such a good read!! And the poems themselves evoke an array of emotions ranging fr ...more
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
These are some of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read. I felt peaceful reading these, since they convey how death, despite its sad connotation, is another aspect of life, a changing of the seasons, if you will (a common motif in this collection). Of course, there are humorous and crude poems, as well as those expressing regret, and those not ready to go. Still, all in all, a beautiful collection.
Jul 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
A wonderful glimpse into lives (deaths) of the past. Many of these poems are quite beautiful, and I love the notes associated with the poems reflecting on the monks' lives and the translator's word choice and translation decisions. Also curious seeing the themes and commonalities in the poems, reflecting either their secluded and almost mono-thought culture or maybe just a similarity in personality.
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch
Mar 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: verse

Where did that dog
that used to be here go?
I thought about him
once again tonight
before I went to bed.

Shimaki Akahiko
(1876 - 1926)

Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Japanese know how to die. That might seem an odd compliment to pay, but it's a sincere one. I'm a longtime admirer of (traditional) Japanese culture; and one of the facets of Japanese culture I admire most is their attitude to death—the restraint, equanimity and, compared to the West, lack of useless striving and pointless melodrama with which they approach the end of life. Nothing illustrates this attitude so well as the Japanese tradition of jisei.

As soon as I read this book, it became my
Jun 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry, death
Yes, the title is accurate: this is an anthology of jisei: poems written by poets whose deaths were imminent. The book has three sections: an introduction to Japanese poetry and the tradition of writing death poems, Chinese death poems written by Zen monks, and Japanese death poems written by haiku poets. I thought the introduction was useful. I've read several haiku anthologies, but none of them had covered death poems, much less Japanese views on death, so the introduction helped orient me to ...more
May 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
The japanese have a long standing tradition of writing a poem as you are about to die. This is a collection of some of those, from zen monks to haiku poets to samurais to suicidal lovers. And it is fantastic.

With typical japanese elegance, they provide different views of death, and an array of emotions attached to it. Safe to say their views on death differ from what we get from the christian tradition. It is often portrayed here as a change of clothes, or a leaf drifting in the wind. Another ph
Apr 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Fittingly, the final book of 2017, finished at 10:15 PM on New Year's eve.

My girlfriend spotted this book at a library book sale in Hayward and announced, "I've just found a book with the most intimidating title ever". It naturally followed that I should purchase it.

The book is divided into three sections. The first third or so is a history lesson covering Japanese attitudes toward death and suicide and the custom of writing death poetry. The second section consists of death poetry by Buddhist m
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