The Nine Appearances of Death.

Kukai is best know for introducing Shingon [Vajrayana] Buddhism into Japan during the Heian period (794-1184). He also had a lasting influence on the religious and spiritual growth of Japan as well as making marks in literature, poetry and engineering. fora lifetime of, sometimes controversial, achievment, Kukai was awarded the posthumous title Kobo Daishi, [Great Master of Buddhism] by Emperor Ninmyo

In the following rough and graphic poem by Kukai, the reader wades through a nine stage meditation on death and decay. Taken literally, we see the decomposition of a corpse but taken as allagory, we walk through a metaphor for the overcoming of desires – a stroll through the rotting world of Samsara. At some point, we all have to face death, and that is rarely a pleasing prospect. When someone states that you are morbid becasue you contemplate this fact with open eyes, be calm; realize that in trying to forget and ignore death, others are attaching to it. Don’t forget it. Look at death and smile. Kukai’s Contemplation of the Nine Appearances presents death as simple change and removes the glamor of saints as well as the dusk of demons; allowing both to morph into clarity.


[photo credt: Japan Dave]

1. The Appearance of the Newly Dead.

The days and months in this world are short.
The months and years after death in Hell are long.
The passing of life in the present world is like a Mayfly,
Alive for a moment it soon comes to death.
In a hurry like the winds and clouds,
Leaving the house of poverty,
Like extinguishing a fire, one leaves the castle of desire.
Life is already completed
One’s name is recorded in the register of death.
The lifespan of all that is living is like mist.
The celestial carpenter is faulty.
But we must pay our account.
Read this verse and grieve.

2. The Appearance of Bloating.

The knoll of a cemetery is wide and in vain.
Human habitation is far away and there are no visitors.
Pure white moonlight passes over a plain.
The gloomy swish of wind flows through autumn leaves.
The burden of sorrow is shown in every direction.
There is only one corpse seen,
Lying prostrate and naked on a pine knoll.
Damaged hair, long evening sleep,
The four marks of existence are merely passing.
The person of half teachings [pratyekabuddhas] was not thrown away.
One who formerly ate in the kitchen of myriad sacrifices,
Now is the meal for all kinds of animals.

3. The Appearance of Blue Extravasated Blood.

One cannot eternally escape the demon.
The grave is deep and bottomless.
You are concealed in the light of the full moon.
The precious mirror transforms and you are rotting.
Already it is like the flame of a lamp blowing in the wind
and the same as a fallen twig of a flower.
With the sun’s passing, there is increasing rotting.
With the coming of every moon, the self is increasingly blackened.
White maggots wiggle under holes.
Above the bones are blue flies.
Greedy thoughts of that formerly loved (i.e., the body)
are all sorrowful, becoming all shameful.

4. The Appearance of Rubbish

 All good things of the four elements go bad.
The reason is the five skandhas [form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness] must be depended upon.
The departure of one’s wind and fire is not far away.
Water and earth become decayed and rotten.
The dawn of black and blueness spreads completely
Pus like bruised and rotting weeds
Flows like sap from the nine orifices.
The entire body is extremely stinking and filthy.
Beasts of prey crouch down beside it.
An ominous bird screeches grasping a piece.
The remaining body, rubbish in this field.
Where does the spirit go in consequence?

5. The Appearance of Disorder.

The bond of created views is a difficult and complex net.
That of discrimination is without permanent reward.
Life is swift like a flying arrow.
The body is empty like morning dew.
Even an imperial face becomes pus and blood.
Fragrant substances are in vain, decomposing and rotting.
Stinking air chases the wind far.
The fat of the abdomen follows a stream as if in a flame.
The remaining clothing furthers his shame.
The elegant pillow no one can see.
Grief extends without limits.
Wipe a tear and return along a different path.

6. The Appearance of a Group of Waxy Bones.

(People are) afraid of the unfamiliar shadow of the other side.
Like a butterfly living in the world of clouds.
Life is short like a flash of lightening.
Soon we are reduced to rubbish and dust beneath a pine.
While alive, it is a city of morning flowers.
Afterwards, now, there are the bleached bones of a person.
The yellow swan does not call your name.
The green willow revives not the field.
Spring flowers compete in their fragrance.
The bright moon shines on the empty mountain.
The calling bird’s screech is eternally sad and lonely.
In the end, the desolate (person) will not know the spring.

7. The Appearance of a Group of Bleached Bones.

There are sparse remains of the desolate person,
Gloomy and scatted distant from the population centers.
Seeing there is a rotten ragged skull,
Instantly it is like being in the middle of a swamp.
The pine and cypress make excellent shade.
Wild briers and reeds sit in the moisture.
The wind and elements constantly bleach out.
The frost and dew also drips.
The sun comes following sun: withering.
The years go after years: whitening.
Even if planting the slender willow root
How can we invite a great doctor?

8. The Appearance of Bleached Bones Separating.

The non-eternal is like an empty dream.
The dusty realm is like a bubble in nature.
This corrupt world is a detestable place.
Our world of samsara is an unpleasant dream.
Flesh and blood are changed in the night moon.
A green willow cannot restore a flower.
Fingernails and hair become dirt and grass.
The skull and neck are scattered east and west
becoming concealed among scattered leaves.
The time of autumn chrysanthemums can be pleasant.
Falling tears cannot be suppressed.
Empty is a person’s act of crying.

9. The Appearance of Becoming Ashes.

Mountains and rives endure thousands of generations.
A person’s affairs are shorter than a hundred year.
One’s skull and knees become exhausted and destroyed.
A casket and vault become like dust.
The spirit and the corpse have no place for dependency.
What is entrusted to the god spirit of the mound?
The monument above bears a temporary name.
Instead, you are at the bottom of the mound.
Suns and moons yellows and whitens the earth.

In the end, the wind returns the blackness to the mountain.
There is only the treasure of the Three Vehicles.
Without cultivation, this person is of the eight pains.
The six consciousnesses, now where are they?
In the four elements a worthless name remains.
In the winter the surrounding moss is green and fertile.
In the summer grass bores into the mound and thrives.
The body is a sack in which provisions still exist.
Beneath the pine, it is like green hair.
Green, green, uniting mound and clouds.
Swish, swish. The voice of the evening pine.