Death Poem #1 plus Life Haiku

Ikkyo Sojun Death Poem 1481

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.

(From Japanese Death Poems compiled by Yoel Hoffman)


First, this blog may well be featuring more of these Death Haiku from time to time. The above one comes from a section dedicated to poems written by Zen monks shortly – sometimes literally minutes – before dying, most of them in haiku form which in Japan involves making them exactly seventeen syllables, the duration of one outbreath.

Linking this with the Three Marks of Existence, we can understand why he told his students and peers to ‘bury him without ceremony’ and so on. It’s because of nowness. Because in nowness there is no past or future therefore there are no beginnings or endings nor therefore any births or deaths. If you insist on birth and death then you must concede that in nowness every moment is birth but equally every moment is death making both notions meaningless.

With all that word salad out of the way let’s get onto the main course which – appropriately for haiku and death poems – is short and sweet. Since there is no birth or death there is no reason to make a fuss about one’s own or anyone else’s death. Just stay present.

You might argue: we can stay present cutting vegetables, cooking them, eating them, shitting them out later (having first walked mindfully to the outhouse) therefore surely also we can stay present whilst attending a funeral ceremony of a loved one?

Of course we can. But the Zen Master – literally with his dying breath – was teaching his students. That’s what great teachers do: every moment of their life is dedicated to holding up a mirror of nowness to the heart-minds of their students. So by not making a fuss when he died they were being taught how to rest in nowness without holding onto anything because holding onto things is how we stray from nowness.

This holding on is referred to in the poem as ‘entangled’ and what entangles them is the word ‘my’ for in life the process of attaching ‘me,’ ‘myself’ or ‘I’ to all experience is what creates suffering in the Three Marks of Existence.

We can never get away from these Three Marks; indeed, they comprise the subject matter of all haikus ever uttered and all teachings relating to wakefulness, awareness, enlightenment and so on – not to mention any truly great Art.

To end, a spontaneously composed haiku. Not a death haiku but a life haiku:


The constantly humming refrigerator

Knows no future

Birdsong is heart breaking

#14 06/11/2021

Published by The Baron

Retired non-profit administrator.

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