Akashi GidayuMostly unheard of in Western culture, where the document most commonly associated with death is a will—a binding legal document descriptive of property but little poetry, jisei, or death poetry, is a poem completed near the time of death; a profound, personal epitaph for a once in a lifetime event—suitably fitting farewell to one’s life.

While death as a theme in poetry is not uncommon; witness death as one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson:

More than the Grave is closed to me
More than the Grave is closed to me —
The Grave and that Eternity
To which the Grave adheres —
I cling to nowhere till I fall —
The Crash of nothing, yet of all —
How similar appears —

Emily Dickinson

or as sublime meditation on the nature of reality:

I and Death
My body saw death
Without fear.
My heart conquered death
With love.
My soul embraced death
With compassion.
I employ death
With no hesitation.

Sri Chinmoy

—a poem written to mark one’s own death, or more accurately, to uniquely commemorate a life lived, is a practise that reached its eventual refinement in Japan, in Zen Buddhism in particular. It was also common in China until the twentieth century.

Jisei by convention are written in a graceful, natural manner, and never mention death explicitly, using instead metaphoric references to nature, often in the form of sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossoms:

When autumn winds blow
not one leaf remains
the way it was.

Togyu

As elsewhere in Japanese art, feelings of bitter-sweetness and impermanence dominate, a feature of the Zen Buddhist informed aesthetic mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), a conception of beauty virtually part of the national character.

While the popular image of jisei is as a part of ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), death poems were also written by Zen monks, haiku poets, and from ancient times literate people on their deathbed.

Poems were not always composed the moment before death; respected poets would sometimes be consulted well in advance for their assistance, and even after death one’s poem could be polished or even rewritten by others—a deed never mentioned lest the deceased’s legacy be tarnished.

Had I not known
that I was dead
already
I would have mourned
the loss of my life.

Ota Dokan

Yukio MishimaNormally highly poetic and somewhat oblique, jisei could also contain elements of a traditional will; not the mundane affairs of an estate to be settled, but for example reconciling differences between estranged relatives.

Prominent exponents of jisei include the famous haiku poet Basho; Asano Naganori, the daimyo (fuedal leader) whose forced suicide was avenged by the forty-seven ronin—now almost a national myth; and Yukio Mishima, prominent Japanese writer of the mid-twentieth century who inexplicably committed traditional seppuku in 1970:

Yukio Mishima’s Death Poem
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate

Yukio Mishima

Charlie Wilson's War: Story of the Zen master and the little boy

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) by Mike Nichols

CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Listen, not for nothing, but do you know the story about the Zen master and the little boy?

Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Oh is this something from Nitsa the Greek witch of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania?1

Gust: Yeah as a matter of fact it is.

There’s a little boy. Now on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful the boy got a horse,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.”

Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says “How terrible,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.”

Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful”…

Charlie: Now the Zen master says “We’ll see.”

Gust: So you get it?

Charlie: No. No, cause I’m stupid…

Gust: You’re not stupid, you’re just in Congress.

Shimura’s “Cherry Blossom Storm” (1953)Impermanence is at the heart of Japanese culture, and the Zen tradition with which it is intrinsically bound. In Japan, appreciation of art and life itself is informed with an implicit understanding of the true impermanence of reality, that we each are here today, gone tomorrow—we and everything else in this world.

Such an appreciation of impermanence sees a half clouded moon as more beautiful than one full, fallen cherry blossoms upon the ground more so than spring’s first bloom. As symbols, the clouded moon and decaying cherry blossoms both capture the truth at reality’s heart, and truth is infinitely more beautiful in Zen—and spirituality in general for that matter—than illusion or untruth.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819

John KeatsIt is a pre-modern take on the Law of Entropy informed by millennia of inward reflection, no less valid because empirically verified by the experience of heart and soul. We don’t need a particle reactor to know that everything in this universe comes to an end.

“All men think all men mortal, but themselves.”
Edward Young

In the context of Charlie Wilson’s War, this parable of the fleeting nature of reality is used to illustrate that today’s victory may be tomorrow’s loss, today’s loss tomorrow’s victory. It is 1989, and real life congressman Charlie Wilson has just seen has seen himself vindicated, his policy of arming the Afghani Mudjahadeen paying off spectacularly in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet army, a pivotal turning point in the Cold War. Yes it is a victory says CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, but where will today’s success take us tomorrow?

Spirituality sees success and failure as obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, the coin of human experience which leads gradually, steadily and unerringly to the experience of true reality—the experience of truth with a capital ‘T’—the infinity, immortality and eternity of the human soul.

If I stoop
Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time;
I press God’s lamp
Close to my breast;
its splendor soon or late
Will pierce the gloom;
I shall emerge one day.
Robert Browning

Poet Robert BrowningFrom a spiritual point of view to live only for success is as mistaken as to avoid failure at all costs; both represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of reality.

Understanding life from a deeper perspective, a perspective grounded upon truth requires a longer, broader point of view than the present moment alone, with its ups and downs, victories and losses, happiness and sadness, for success and failure all are equally valid, greater and lesser steps towards the self-same goal—realisation of the ultimate truth.

No Failure
No failure, no failure.
Failure is the shadow
Of success.

No failure, no failure.
Failure is the changing body
Of success.

No failure, no failure.
Failure is the fast approaching train
Of the greatest success.
Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, Part 13, Agni Press, 1973.

With parables by meditation teachers in film rarer than actual masters of meditation in real life, the quoting of a Zen koan in Charlie Wilson’s War alone makes it eligible as a “Beautiful Moment in Film”—whatever the quality (and it is by no means inconsequential) of the cinematography, acting or directing. How often are the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow? How often do we even make the distinction?

All too frequently the sayings of celebrity, beauty and power are writ larger in this world than their words alone justify; not frequently enough the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow.

One day the words of wise people may actually be worth more than the wisdom of ‘fools.’ I can’t wait to see the films made when that day arrives.

“Human life is limited, but I want to live for ever.”
Yukio Mishima, final written words.

Related links

Footnote

  1. “After Gust Avrakotos’s outburst against the head of the Clandestine Services, he was unemployable in the CIA. Stung, Gust went home to Aliquippa and asked a family friend (the town witch) to create a curse against his boss Graver. Had any of the teams in the CIA found out about the curse, they would have sent Gust away for psychiatric evaluation, but the curse was a private affair.”
    Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile.

Rollercoaster monks

It seems meditation isn’t the only way to get up into the air, although one can’t rule out that these Buddhist monks aren’t actually—heavily disguised as fun park patrons—practicing their asanas:

“The postures that a Buddhist deity assumes in a sculpture or painting are known as asanas.”
Mudras in Buddhism, Rev. Jnana, Zen Dharma Teacher

Whatever the intent there seems little doubt they are having a jolly good time.

Super-sized fun even, albeit probably not hair-raising…

A surreal visit to a Chinese coffee shop, made less believable by a brochure gained…

Experience Mocha“Experience Mocha!” it commands, and obeisance is mine, weak-willed and supine in the face of advertorial imperative, a surrendered slave to caffeine’s seductive call, writ large as headline on front-of-counter brochure. So experience I do, like there was ever a possibility that I would not, tourist hardly accidental in a franchised coffee shop, Qingdao, China, where an extra-large mocha is served with time and care disproportionate to the value purchased, by staff in Santa hats, seasonal cheer worn yet fitting not here in the decidedly secular People’s Republic.

I have lost my will and gained much blood sugar, but have a semblance of increasingly agitated wits still; my attention hyperactive turns in circles to the written instigator of my downfall—counter-side brochure with hypnotic headline I am still chanting inside:

“Experience Mocha… experience mocha…”

* * *

Statue or me?Written in English but thought in Chinese, the brochure is so absurd as to, koan-like, transcend absurdity and become good again, almost as though you had dug a hole so deep it was no longer a hole, but rather a tunnel to… China. Although unintentionally good, because to write like this on purpose—with irony and innocent sincerity mixed frothier than steamed milk—really would be an act of genius, and genius is difficult to ascertain when it’s lustre may just as well be malapropism from the original Chinese.

Whether intentional or otherwise, to me at least the brochure had an innocent sincerity, a quality now rare here in the West. Can you even imagine a major franchise, or pretty much anything or anyone else for that matter, writing a first person account of a man surreptitiously eavesdropping on a coffee shop conversation that wouldn’t contain a hint of innuendo or allusion? To me this is more refreshing than even a “cup of sweet melancholy and expectations.”

Like the brochure said: No full-stop in SPR coffee…

Experience Mocha

Like most people to and from work everyday. I want neither to stay in the office nor go home at times Then I always walk over to a coffee house named SPR, pretending I’m a drifting cloud.

The coffee house sits at the crossroad. The bar area is just in front of the left-side wall. Tables and chairs are arranged along the windows facing the street. It can only accommodate 30 guests.

It is not big yet elegantly furnished. The nostalgic tiles, western styled wail paintings, glass windows and curtains with U shaped small brown flower patterns contribute to its elegance.

After coffee snack, it is quiet again and I always come at this time. Then, the barista, perhaps a young couple, would readjust the jazz music to much lower volume. I would order a cup of Mocha, take out my paper and start writing a short essay.

I’m about to pick up my pen when my attention is distracted by the talk of the two girls. Fashionable, modern and young, they look like college students. They talk in a low voice, but I can still hear them and I can sense the anxiety, loneliness and expectations behind their laughter and talk the sweet melancholy of the young.

On a winter afternoon, a man snatching a little leisure is sipping the cup of sweet melancholy and expectations…

Mocha…..Mocha…..Mocha…..Mocha…..

Coffee drenched links

  • engrish.com: Engrish can be simply defined as the humorous English mistakes that appear in Japanese advertising and product design.” It can be found in other places also (like China), but engrish.com insist that the Japanese variety is usually superior
  • Hanzi Smatter: dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in western culture
  • SPR Coffee: Experience mocha at the source

Jack KerouacFinding one’s voice as a writer is the difficult but necessary first task facing every new author—spelling and grammar perhaps excepted. While there is no better or other way to become an authentic, original writer than to write, and write, and write… the practise of making perfect, of being true to yourself by finding your own true voice can be aided and abetted in a number of ways.

7 ideas to discover your true writer’s voice

1. Avoid over-analysis and intellectualisation
Inspiration is like a sky rocket, a fast moving, suddenly lit firework; ride it heavenwards while the flame burns bright; ride it without care for length of journey or name of destination.

If inspiration is a sky rocket, excessive intellectualism is surely a fire extinguisher; suspend the dampening effect of critical thought by putting aside the intellectual mind, and its tendency to doubt, limit and measure—listen instead to the voice of inspiration within. The more you let it take its own form and course, to speak unhindered, the more fruitful and authentic your writing will be.

2. Seek inspiration in silence
Jack KerouacInspiration can also be sought in silence and in depth, just as in the practise of meditation. Some writers talk of the process of learning to write as “finding their voice,” an experience analogous to the subtle, instructive inner voice sought in meditative discipline. In a contemplative, instructive vein, Jack Kerouac advised “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.”

You can find your true writer’s voice, and in fact the source of creativity itself in stillness of thought. With patience, wait for the ripples upon the mind’s surface to subside; there you will see inspiration and creativity staring back at you. Listen always to their whisper.

3. Form and technique are destructive, not constructive
Don’t get distracted by technique in the beginning; the pen should be the instrument of your inner voice—not the other way around. On a computer, ignore layout, font-size and line-spacing; just let words pour forth. Form can be addressed at a later date, and often more constructively from a suitable distance. When starting out, stay up close and focused, one word at a time.

4. Writing is a conversation
View writing as a conversation. If you imagine yourself as writing for an audience, which really is the point of writing—having something worth saying to somebody worth saying it to—writing becomes not a solitary act but a communication, talking in silence with potentially the entire world. Imagine and then feel a conversation with another as though they were actually present, like a best friend, close inside your heart; then the words naturally will come. This technique is one to way find your true writer’s voice—you give it expression in the act of talking to an imagined other.

This method is also used in television and in radio, where the reality of being in front of millions of people can produce fearful paralysis. Also for actors, who use their imagination to aid a more natural performance, to ‘just be themselves’ in front of a lifeless camera. It is no different writing at a computer—not always in truth an environment conducive to natural, expressive conversation.

When done well, writing is a conversation, but with you as listener, dictating a voice that speaks from within.

5. Be courageous
Be courageous, even if you have to lie to yourself; convince yourself that you are brilliant! You are a writer—imagination is your chosen weapon, so use it to your advantage. A blank page can be daunting, a failure of ideas discouraging; if imagining yourself as a great writer gives you the necessary courage and self-belief to be able to write, then do so.

As meditation teacher, poet and writer Sri Chinmoy explains, “Insecurity goes away when we acquire the capacity of identification.” If you can identify with the capacity to write well you are half-way to actually doing it. Repeat bravely with Jack Kerouac “You’re a Genius all the time,” for almost anything goes when you have an empty page to fill.

6. Be your best critic, not your worst
If a word or idea refuses to come you, a sentence denies completion, and ‘next’ remains an unanswered question, the worst sin is to get caught up over it. Negativity, worry and self-doubt are an anathema to creativity; anything that stops you moving, progressing forward should be shunned. Remember this as a maxim: “keep moving, keep moving.”

Like Jack Kerouac again, who would imagine himself heroically as author-athlete, his writing an act of physical and mental athleticism. Arguably his best novel, On the Road was written in a single three week sitting, a Herculean effort of endurance which required an unbroken ream of typewriter paper 120 feet in length. Obviously this is somewhat extreme, and to continue the sporting analogy, it is suggested that his performance was illegally ‘enhanced,’ but the analogy is good; like an athlete keep moving, keep writing—skip a paragraph, write back to front if necessary or in order of thought; even move on to a completely different project—writers often have scores of works on the go simultaneously, awaiting the muse of inspiration for their completion.

7. First-thought, best-thought
Allen GinsbergThe “first-thought, best-thought” aesthetic of Zen Buddhism is one well-practiced technique used to find the authentic writing voice, a technique borrowed from meditation to bypass the filter of intellectual mind, appropriated but not invented in the modern era by the Beat poets and writers—Allen Ginsberg most famously. First thought here is considered to be ‘true’ thought: perception unmediated by the distorting lens of intellect or the surface personality. It is another way of describing intuition, and is the basis of the saying “First impressions don’t lie.”

Formalised as “spontaneous prose” by Kerouac; and by Ginsberg, “spontaneous, fearless telling of the truth of naked, authentic experience” to paraphrase, developing spontaneity and intuition in your writing will work miracles for your creativity, not to mention sense of authenticity and authorial power. Discarding rationality and reason is a hotline to your heart as a writer, and getting your heart, your authentic voice and self on the page is the only way to move and inspire your readers.

The final word goes to Allen Ginsberg:

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.”

In its capacity to convey truth and feeling, prose written from the heart may just save the world as well.