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Last Poem of Hoshin

December 14, 2012

by Stephen Damon

The Zen master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”

The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.

On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave you tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”

The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”

“Can you?” someone asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”

None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin next called them together.

“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither poet nor calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”

His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.

“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.

“Yes, sir,” replied the writer.

Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brilliancy.
And return to brilliancy.
What is this?

The poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”

Hoshin, with the roar of a conquoring lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

Reading Hoshin’s death poem, I remembered something I had asked my rabbi when I was in high school.  I told him that “before I was born, there was nothing that distinguished me from the Andromeda galaxy and after I die there will be nothing to distinguish me from it.”  I continued, “But now there is something that separates us, but I don’t really know what it is.” I waved my arms around me and asked, “What is this?”  He smiled but could not, or would not, respond to my question.  I felt disappointed as it was the first time I had tried to give voice to a very “private” question I had had since I was quite young. 

My childhood bedroom had built- in bookcases so it also functioned as the family library.  To be honest, most of the books didn’t interest me very much—novels and incidental works of non-fiction—but I was drawn to the works of the great western philosophers.  When I read Socrates’ statement that philosophy was the preparation for death, I knew that I wanted to be a philosopher when I grew up.  I had rummaged through most of the works of Western philosophy by the time I graduated from high school and then majored in it in college and Grad school.  And yet, I have to say that all the books I studied from Plato and Aristotle to Wittgenstein did not prepare me to face the “great question” of life and death.

All that changed when I started my Zen practice.  After settling into a daily home practice and attending monthly one-day sittings for a while I began to sense that the great question of life and death was my question.  The question became my “center of gravity” around which the rest of my life—in the Zendo and out in the streets—revolved.  Most important, I felt an urgency, not to find an answer but to become more intimate with question, until I became the question.  In a very deep sense, I was no longer “Stephen” or “Korin” or a Buddhist, I was the question of what is life and death.  Over the years this question has deepened and broadened to include everything.  And every time I take my seat at home or in a zendo and every time I pick up a sutra or any book on Zen I am that question.

If a book does not offer a response to the question I file it away, but if it does offer something, or if it does open me up to a place in myself that can respond to the question I keep it close by to come back to often.  I will keep Hoshin’s poem in my mind and heart always. While the three lines are powerful, what is even more powerful is the emptiness of the fourth line.  Every Buddhist teaching is incomplete and must be completed in oneself.  Hoshin’s poem, while eloquent in its succinctness was incomplete until he yelled  “KAA!”  Perhaps, a death poem should be only three lines to be completed by an expression of a person’s last moment.  Some may yell out something, and some may gently and peacefully breathe out one last breath and watch it blend with the air around him or her—into the Great Silence behind everything. 




From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. This is a beautiful passage and your commentary is touching. Thank you for sharing and I wish you well on your path~

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