Death Poem

My father emailed me bunch of his favorite poems by both Ryokan and Tokuhon Shonin as I introduced their short poems in English. I never sent my thank-you yet but I was so glad to know so many amazing poems related to our Nenbutsu. I think I could enjoy translation of more poems in the future for longer time. One of great poems I was attracted this morning was Ryokan’s Tanka which is considered to be his another death poem or “Jisei no Ku.”


・良寛に 辞世あるかと 人問はば 南無阿弥陀仏と 言ふと答えよ


What if Ryokan has
Death poem leaving for us
(a death poem in his mind)
When one asks you
“Namu Amida Butsu”
Tell my simple answer


This is the poem which embodies Ryokan’s life style of non-attachment which he kept practicing throughout the priest life. His life, although he was born as a child of rich family, was almost free from desires to be rich nor to be famous. He lived in a humble house, wearing poor ragged robe and satisfied food whatever he received as offering. It is well-known that he sometimes forgot to beg for food offering as he devoted himself playing with children. So he must have kept living in the present moment and he seemed to have no regrets in the past and no worries in the future.


Therefore, he seemed to consider his last words as just “Namu Amida Butsu” and then he made this poem…..if somebody ask you about Ryokan’s death poem or last words, you should answer (Ryokan’s death poem was ) just “Namu Amida Butsu.”


I’m not sure but I think this death poem was made between conversations with Ryokan and Teishin who took care of sick Ryokan in his final years of life. Teishin was a young nun who felt very cloes to Ryokan. And between Teishin and Ryokan, there exist many poems including a famous “maple leaf poem.”


Although I got my own idea and new translation for the poem, I chose to use Rev. Kubose’s translation because I couldn’t remove the first impression of the simplest translation for more than two decades.


Showing front,
showing back.
Maple leaves fall.
By Ryokan (1758-1831)

(Translated by Rev. Gyomay Kubose


My another understanding of this song is based on the fact Ryokan practiced both Zen meditation and Nenbutsu chanting. From many of his poems, it was obvious he believed in the original vow of Amida Buddha and practiced Nenbutsu until the moment of death.


Therefore I understood font and back as “Nenbutsu” and “Meditation.” This was the way Ryokan walked on the both paths and died. "Teishin recorded how he passed away. Ryōkan, seated in meditation posture, died 'just as if he were falling asleep.....


When I get a chance to go back to my hometown, I think I should explore to Ryokan’s memorial sites since they are not so far from our home. I hadn’t interested in him but got more interested in the great priest from our Niigata prefecture.