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Celebrating life at death’s door, part 1

Whether it’s for gems to share with readers or to light the way in my personal quests, I am always searching for nuggets of wisdom. Sometimes I strike it big and they are revelations that seem like they should be accompanied by a shaft of light.

When I found a book of haiku written by monks and poets on their deathbeds called “Japanese Death Poems,” (edited by Yoel Hoffman), I snatched it up. I was hopeful. If any book had the potential to part the clouds, this one would be a good bet—a font of knowledge collected over lifetimes, the last ideas committed to print of people whose lives were dedicated to decoding life’s truths.

Apparently, it’s a centuries-old Japanese custom to compose a poem before you go. I couldn’t wait to read the messages they left behind. Goku Kyonen died on Oct. 8, 1272. He was 56. Here is his death poem:

The truth embodied in the Buddhas
Of the future, present, past;
The teaching we received from the
Fathers of our faith
Can be found at the tip of my stick.


When Goku felt his death was near, he ordered all his disciples to gather around him. He sat at the pulpit, raised his stick, gave the floor a single tap with it, and said the poem above. I love the flair, the drama. Seems like a stylish way to go.

I also appreciate that he took on such a big topic. Where many resign themselves to more manageable concepts, Goku Kyonen had none of it. He tackled time, religion and truth. But what did he come up with?

The tip of his stick. He leaves us looking at it with baited breath. Was the stick resting on the floor? Pointing to the pillow on his deathbed? Resting in an empty shoe? Or was it pointed out the window to blowing trees? There is no way to know. These specifics are left out.

This definitive statement—passed down the line to the rest of mankind—is focused on a detail. It just doesn’t matter which detail.

My interpretation: Concern yourselves with noble pursuits because what you focus on becomes the point of your life. But in the end, the need for an ultimate conclusion is just a crutch.

According to, when he finished, he raised the stick again, tapped the floor once more, and cried, “See! See!” Then, sitting upright, he died.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Yes!!! This is a fantastic book and remains one of my all time favorites to this day! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with it. I recommend it as top-shelf reading for everyone. ~don

  2. What a coincidence! I have a haiga that will be published on HaigaOnLine coming soon that will be a further perspective to the quote above.

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