Zen Philosophy in Japanese Death Poems:
Dealing With Death
Each and every culture follows a certain set of distinct practices that are distinct and specific to each individual culture. The common Western perception of Japan's ambiguous practices stems from the extreme difference in views correlated with the widespread lack of knowledge concerning the ancient culture steeped in tradition. Japan's widely Buddhist population is known for their calm acceptance of death as a part of life. One particular, perplexing cultural practice is the tradition of writing jisei, or "death poetry" when on the verge of death. A thorough understanding of Japanese Death Poems provides an explicitly accurate depiction of the Japanese attitude towards death and the Zen Buddhist philosophy that helped form this attitude.
Buddhism stresses the importance of "seeing things in their suchness" and realizing that everything is subject to change. The basic doctrines of Buddhism are governed by "the four noble truths": the belief that existence is suffering, suffering is caused by physical attachment or worldliness, nirvana is the end to all suffering, which is attained by an "eightfold path" of views describing life in terms of process and relation, not speculation (Yahoo! Encyclopedia). Japanese poets constantly relate the human experience to the natural world; such as when seasons of the year represent stages in one's life. This representation explicates the transience of human nature, whish is the essence of this world according to Buddhist doctrine (Hoffmann 105). Autumn, the season right before the "death" of many living organisms, is often the period in ones life prior to death, which is often depicted as winter. Enryo's death poem: "Autumn waters/of this world/wake me from my drunkenness," (Hoffman 160) not only shows autumn as the metaphorical stage before death but also the purifying capabilities of death to the Japanese. Enryo implies that it is through death that he obtains clarity and sobriety, the illusions of the physical realm are too intoxicating to the Zen mind but it is only by exiting this world that one can is granted true, boundless mental freedom.
Buddhism teaches the impermanence and actual simplicity of the physical world; suffering comes from speculation and longing. The poet Ben'en states: "He who sees not things as they are will never know Zen" (Hoffmann 96); this quote shows the stressed importance of seeing things as they are. Buddhist philosophy considers life and death as mere opposites in the cycle of life, both are unavoidable and necessary. The repetitive cycle of incarnation that constitutes ones rebirth after death is represented in many pieces of poetry by water in some form. Water goes through many different physical cycles and its impermanence is evident. Dew is a recurring image in Japanese poetry that represents the simple beauty and extreme brevity of ones life on earth. Banzan writes: ...