Four Japanese Death Haiku: [Commentary]

Hawkins, Anne Hunsaker PhD

Medicine and the Arts

Dr. Hawkins is professor of humanities, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Sometimes, truly, less is more. This is the case with haiku, a brief, unrhymed verse form that became popular in Japan in the 16th century. The haiku on the facing page are representative of a topical genre called jisei, poems written on the occasion of one's own death.

The subject of the classical Japanese haiku is usually the natural world and its transience: such poems are composed around a particular image that is concrete, immediate, and belonging to the present moment. In most haiku there is a “season word” such as cherry blossom, or the cuckoo, or the autumn moon (in death poems, this word refers to the season of the poet's death). Perhaps haiku's most distinctive aspect is the state of mind needed to write and to read such poems. Haiku is composed so that it can be grasped all at once, without discursive, analytic thinking. The state of mind required to write successful haiku (or read it with full understanding) is often referred to as a “haiku moment”—an immediate, epiphanic apprehension of a particular aspect of experience that is felt to be deeply true; a peculiar kind of clarity that some call “ah-ness,” because the experience or poem evokes the response, “Ah, now I see.”

For many haiku poets, the act of composition is a meditative exercise in which one must be exquisitely attentive to the present moment. Such attentiveness is, of course, the basis of empathy: the poet Basho often quoted an aphorism from Zen patriarch Hui-neng, that one should strive to look not “at” but “as” the object or event. Haiku is particularly suited to the needs of medical professionals because it encourages the kind of mindful awareness characteristic of physicians who seem able to understand, at a deep level, essential aspects of the experiences of their patients. Take death, for example, which in nature is as ordinary and commonplace as the change of seasons, but for human beings almost always seems an extraordinary event. Japanese death poems powerfully recreate the position of human life and death within the cyclical movement of the natural world. There is a special melancholy, a pathos, or plaintiveness in these poems. In their focus on an image from nature, they leave the reader with a sense of the beauty as well as the contingency of living things—whether these be clouds, or blossoms, or human beings.

The Japanese view of death, as discussed by Hoffmann in the anthology's introduction, will be of interest to physicians whose cultural background is non-Japanese. For example, I found it helpful to learn that the simple word “death” in Japanese is rarely used of human beings; instead, death is particularized as the lover's death, the warrior's death in battle, death from old age, etc. Dying patients would be well served by a standard of care—both medical and ethical—that recognizes the differences in circumstances surrounding human death.

There are thousands of examples of death haiku still extant: those reproduced here are some of my favorites. Basho's poem, his last, was written for his disciples just before his death. Fuwa's death poem is powerful because of the positioning of human death amidst the burgeoning of the natural world in early spring. Perhaps because of the emphasis on the fragrance of the plum blossom, death is rendered as positive, as a kind of homecoming—unlike Basho's somber poem with its “withered fields” and haunting idea of death as a release of dreams that “wander on.”

Kasenjo's haiku, with its powerful image of the sea, portrays death as bleak, forbidding, and unknowable. Kinko's poem is striking for what he does with the conventional sense of the cyclical patterns of the natural world. The line break setting off dawn from night suggests less the natural cycle (one does not feel that this dawn will be followed by evening and another night) than some more radical and perhaps metaphysical change. If Kasenjo's poem ends in awe and fear, Kinko's seems to end in hope.

The sense of death is very different in each of these four haiku. Precisely because the meaning of each remains intuitive, implicit in the image rather than overtly stated, the poem makes no claims upon our own beliefs or attitudes toward death. As with all death haiku, it is as though the reader comes directly into contact, however briefly, with an individual mind and sensibility poised at the verge of its own dissolution or change.

© 2002 Association of American Medical Colleges