“In Buddhism, the reflection on death is an essential spiritual practice. It is not seen as an ideology to be adopted as protection against death. Rather, it is an opportunity to become more intimate with death as an inevitable part of life. While such reflections may seem morbid to some, I have found the practice of cultivating a wise openness to death to be life affirming. The value of these reflections is that we see how our ideas and beliefs about death are affecting us right here, right now.
Sono lived alone, on the edge, surviving on a meager Social Security check. Now she was living out her final days at the Zen Hospice Project. She was straightforward, no-nonsense woman, and I remember asking Sono a few days after her arrival how she thought it might be living there. She said, “I think it’s going to be all right because in this place, I can die the way I need to die”.
It was clear that Sono had come to us to face death directly. I knew we would get along well.
One day, we were sitting at the kitchen table together. Sono was writing in her journal, and I was reading the book Japanese Death Poems. There’s an old tradition in Japan of Zen monks and others writing short verses in preparation of death. Myth suggests that these poems, composed on the day of one’s death, express an essential truth discovered in one’s life. In general, they are short, intense poems, sometimes profound, sometimes satirical, often expressing an immediate beauty and natural simplicity. They remind us that we are most alive when we are present at the edge of the unknown.
Sono asked me to read her a few. I chose my favorites.
This powerful one is attributed to the founder of the Soto Zen School in Japan, Dogen Zenji, who died in 1253.
Four and fifty years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through…
Another entertaining poem, by Moriya Sen’an, who died in 1838, speculates on afterlife.
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak.
And unflinching poem by Sunao, who died in 1926, expresses the sometimes harsh reality of dying.
clears up reality
and dream alike.
And Kozan Ichikyo, who died in 1360, offered this poem of elegant simplicity.
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going–
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
After hearing these death poems read to her aloud, Sono became inspired to write her own. She asked me about form and length. I suggested that she not concern herself with such matters. I invited her to simply write what she believed to be true.
Sometime later, Sono called me into her room. “I’ve written my own death poem,” she announced.
“I would love to hear it,” I responded.
“I want you to learn it by heart,” she instructed. And then she went on to say, “When I die, I want you to pin it to my clothes. I want to be cremated with my poem.”
“I promise, Sono,” I said, my tears expressing the honor I felt in being given this gift.
Sono’s poem was an invitation to be open-minded and openhearted, even in relationship to the great unknown of death. She read it to me several times. Then she had me recite it over and over, to be certain I had learned every word.
That is where it has lived ever since, in my heart. I’ve never written it down until today. I share it as a beautiful reminder of what is possible when we live fully in the light of death. Sono found her way. It is up to each of us to find ours.”
SONO’S DEATH POEM
Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray,
soon enough the seas will sink your island.
So while there is still the illusion of time,
set out for another shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
Give away all your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don’t be afraid.
Someone know’s you’re coming.
And extra fish as been salted.
–MONA (SONO) SANTACROCE 1928-1995
From the book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski