Kūkai's poem "The Nine Appearances of Death"

translated by Ronald S. Green
Coastal Carolina University

The Nine Appearances of Death. [40]

1. The Appearance of the Newly Dead.

The days and months in this world are short.

The months and years after death in Yomi [41] 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. [42]

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 [43] are merely passing.

The person of the half teachings [44] 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 [45] 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 (, J. tamashī) go in consequence?

5. The Appearance of Disorder.

The bond of created views (見縛, J. kenpaku. S. d¨· i-k¨ta-bandhana) [46] is a difficult and complex net.

That of discrimination (分段, J. buntan) 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. [47]

The green willow [48] 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 Bian Que (扁鵲)? [49]

8. The Appearance of Bleached Bones Separating.

The non-eternal (永無  J. yōmu) is like an empty dream.

The dusty realm is like a bubble in nature.

This corrupt world is a detestable place.

Jambudvīpa (閻浮提 J. Enbudai) [50] 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 (, J. tamashi) and the corpse have no place for dependency.

What is entrusted to the god spirit (神魄) of the mound?

The monument above bears a temporary name.

Instead, you are at the bottom of the mound.

Suns and moons (i.e., time) yellows and whitens (i.e., weathers) 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 (八苦, J. hakku).

The six consciousnesses (六識, J. rokushiki), 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 [51] uniting mound and clouds.

Shh, shh, [52] the voice of the evening pine.

A description similar to that in “The Nine Appearances of Death” can be found in what is considered Kūkai’s earliest writing, the Rōko-shiiki (Indications of the Refuge for the Deaf and the Blind). Researchers believe Kūkai wrote the Rōko-shiiki as the draft for Sangyō-shiiki shortly after leaving the National University around 793. Both are fictionalized accounts considered closely autobiographical. Likely related to the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances of a corpse, Kūkai had the following to say in the Rōko-shiiki.

The grave-yard where pine-trees and hisagi trees grow is the place where we stay for the longest time. Wife, children and brothers who lived amicably cannot be seen again in the silent grave. No one can chat with intimate friends in the waste cemetery. You will be ruined alone in the shade of the high pine-trees and will sink in grass amid twittering birds. Many grubs come out wriggling from the eyes and mouth. Dogs fighting each other showing their teeth bite the face as well as legs and other parts of the body. Wife and children who look at the spectacle are disgusted and go away covering their noses. Relatives and strangers flee hiding their faces. What a painful sight it is? The body of a beautiful and graceful lady who took plenty of delicious food has now become dung of dogs and birds. The form of fair and beautiful lady is now burnt vainly by a cremation fire…The demon that deprives you of your life accompanies a noble man as well as a humble man…A corpse corrupts and is mutilated among grass and the soul of the deceased is boiled in a boiler of the hell… (Yamamoto 1983:13).

            In the description above we find many of the same descriptive elements Kūkai uses again in his poem “Contemplation of the Nine Appearances.” In addition, his depiction in the Rōko-shiiki and “Contemplation of the Nine Appearances” follow the narrative arrangement in the sūtras and theses. The meditation is described in the Dasheng yizhang (大乘義章, Essays on the Meaning of Mahāyāna) [53] by Huiyuan (慧遠, 334-416). A biography of Huiyuan appears in Biographies of Eminent Buddhist Monks by Huijiao (died 554). Huiyuan is famous for being “the founder of the Chinese Pure Land tradition and the first Chinese monk to create a Buddhist community in China” (Fung, II:241, f. 2). Pure Land tradition in China and Japan advocate Contemplation on Nine Appearances of a corpse. Much like Kūkai, early in life Huiyuan studied Confucianism and Daoism, turning to Buddhism after reading the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. His description of the Contemplation on Nine Appearances of a corpse is as follows.

Why contemplate the nine appearances? Because in the deceased are aspects of the ascetic. Because desires are refuted and sexual desire is a thief.

Start by contemplating aspects of the deceased, looking at the person at the time of death. The word expresses breath exiting and not returning. This is death. This is the sentiment I should feel in order to rebuke defilements.

Second is the contemplation of bloating. I see the corpse as a bag like myself, having the same original form. This is the sentiment I should feel in order to refute covetousness.

Third is the contemplation of sediment. To see the corpse, wind blown, exposed to sun, turning into blue/green sediment, spoiling from the original color. This is the sentiment I should feel.

Fourth is the contemplation of oozing. To see the corpse as blue/green sediment, as explain before, does not last long. The bad smell is detestable. This is the sentiment I should feel.

Fifth is the contemplation of spoiling. Contemplating the corpse transformed by wind and sun, seriously damaged on the earth, pus and blood flowing out. This is the sentiment I should feel.

Sixth is the contemplation of blood discharge. The corpse is spoiling, as explained. Flesh and blood spread uncontrolled. This is the sentiment I should feel.

Seventh is the contemplation of food of insects. Contemplating the corpse not burnt, not buried, thrown away in the wilds. Many hunting insects are lured to this food. Seeing the relationship to my own body, this is the sentiment I should feel.

Eighth is the contemplation of the group of bones. Its flesh being exhausted, I only see a group of bones like a group of beams.

Ninth is the contemplation of scattered parts. The remaining sinews are eliminated. The group of bones separated. For this comes the name contemplation of scattered parts.

In the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa-śāstra [54] there is the contemplation of burning a corpse. To see the bones in fire burnt completely to ashes. Thinking about oneself in this way is the sentiment you should feel, it says. Why does this thesis speak of death? It is the new shapes and forms of evolving. It is like obtaining purification together. It is because this is not explained. It is to understand the essence of the sequence, it says. These are nine appearances of your own nature and means of repentance by means of the aspects of the deceased (T. 44 n. 1851 p. 735b28-c18.).

The Contemplation of the Nine Appearances of a corpse is mentioned prominently by Zhiyi (智顗, 538-597) the Chinese patriarch who systematized (or founded) the Tiantai tradition. As mentioned earlier, Zhiyi’s writings were extremely important to Saichō. Zhiyi’s opus magnum, the Moh zhiguan (摩訶止觀, translated into English by Thomas Cleary as Stopping and Seeing) [55] describes the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances in terms close to those used by Huiyuan (translated above) and by Kūkai in his poem. Zhiyi also refers to the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances of a corpse in the following writings: The Zhiguan fuxing zhuan hongjue (止觀輔行傳弘決), [56] The Shichan boluomi cidi famen (釋禪波羅蜜次第法門) [57] and his important book Account of the Phrases of the Sūtra of Golden Light (金光明經文句記). [58] Zhiyi’s teacher Huisi (慧思 , J. Eshi, 515-577) mentions the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances in his Dharma Teaching of All Dharmas Without Dispute Samaya (諸法無諍三昧法門, C. Zhufawuzhengsanmeimen). [59]

The Visuddhimagga gives several descriptions of meditation on the moon disk that sound close to the Shingon Ajikan meditation. In chapter three of the Visuddhimagga, forty subjects of meditation are listed. Among these the Visuddhimagga speaks of the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances of a corpse. “The ten impurities are: a bloated corpse, a purple corpse, a putrid corpse, a hacked-to-pieces corpse, a gnawed-to-pieces corpse, a scattered-in-pieces corpse, a beaten-and-scattered-in-pieces corpse, a bloody corpse, a worm-infested corpse, a skeleton-corpse” (Buddhaghosa 104).

The Contemplation of the Nine Appearances is also mentioned in the Daśabhūmika-sūtra. This is a sūtra, which, together with the ten stages found in the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, was likely to have been important to Kūkai in writing his Ten Stages of Mind. The Daśabhūmika-sūtra explains of the ten stages (bhūmi) of a bodhisattva's progress. [60]

The Contemplation of the Nine Appearances is also mentioned in The Great Collection of Scriptures for Wise Protection (大方等大集經賢護分). This is a version of the Mahāsamnipāta-sūtra (大方等大集經Dafangdeng daji jing) [61] made by Jñānagupta and others in A.D. 594. The sūtra is said to be a collection of teachings given by the Buddha “from the age of 45 to 49 ...to Buddhas and bodhisattvas assembled from every region, by a great staircase made between the world of desire and that of form” (Soothill). Other Buddhist canonical scriptures mentioning the Contemplation of the Nine Appearances include the Dharma of Contemplation the Mystery of Desires Sūtra (禪祕要法經), [62] the Five Teachings of Concentration Sūtra Dharma Used for Desires (五門禪經要用法), [63] the Sūtra on the Twelve Disciplines (十二頭陀經) [64] and the Account of The Yogācāra-bhūmi (瑜伽論記, C. Yuqielun ji), a collection of commentaries on the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra in 48 fascicles by Dunlun (遁倫). [65]

[40] KZ 10:173-76.

[41] Yomi is the realm after death.

[42] A note in the KKZ says this refers to the office of Enma (閻魔), the magistrate of the realm after death (KKZ 6:725 f. 10).

[43] Birth, existence, change, death.

[44] The KKZ says this refers to Sessen Doji (KKZ 6:725 f. 22). Sessen Doji was Śākyamuni Buddha in a previous lifetime, practicing austerities in the Snow Mountains (Japanese, Sessen). The story appears in the seventh or Shogyo (Sacred Behavior) chapter of Dharmak·ema's Chinese version of the Nirvāöa Sūtra. Sessen Doji had mastered the Brāhmaöas and other non-Buddhist teachings but had not yet heard of Buddhism. The deity Taishaku decides to test his resolve and appears before Sessen Doji in the form of a hungry demon. The deity recites half a verse from a Buddhist teaching: "All is changeable, nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death." Hearing this, Sessen Doji begged the demon to tell him the second half. The demon agreed but demanded his flesh and blood in payment. Sessen Doji gladly consented and the demon taught him the latter half of the verse: "Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters the joy of Nirvāöa." Sessen Doji scrawled this teaching on the rocks and trees for the sake of others who might pass by, and then jumped from a tall tree into the demon's mouth. Just at that moment the demon changed back into Taishaku and caught him before he fell. He praised Sessen Doji's willingness to give his life for the Law and predicted that he would certainly attain Buddhahood.

[45] 五陰, J. go’on: form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.

[46] This term appears in the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra.

[47] This is a reference of being resurrected.

[48] The willow is the tree of spring. It is a symbol of life, supple, renewed, and alive.

[49] A famous Chinese physician of the Warring States period (fifth century CE). His biography is found in the Shi Ji (Historical Records) wherein he is said to have revived a prince from a coma.

[50] Our world.

[51] In Japanese aoi can be green or blue.

[52] Kūkai uses onomatopoetic words for the sound of wind (瑟瑟, C. se se, J. shichi shichi).

[53] T. 1851 n. 44:465a-875c.

[54] 大智度論, C. Dazhi du lun, J. Daichidoron, S.Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra is a commentary on the Mahāprajñāparamitā-sūtra in 100 fascicles attributed to Nāgārjuna. The Chinese translation by Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什, 350-409) is T. 25 n. 1509.

[55] T. 46 n. 1911. This writing records a series of lectures given on meditation by Zhiyi. It was compiled by his follower Guanding (灌頂) and was completed in 594. This is a major text for the Chinese Tiantai and Japanese Tendai traditions. The relevant passage is p. 122 b07-b09.

[56] T. 46. 1912 pp.141a-446c. See T. 46 n. 1912 p. 416c20-22.

[57] T. 46 n. 1916 pp. 475c-548c. See T. 46 n. 1916 p. 502c16-c20; p. 535c15-c17; p. 537a13- b06.

[58] T. 39 n. 1786. The relevant passage is T. 39 n. 1786 p. 0131b26- p. 131c02.

[59] See T. 46 n. 1923 p. 632c19.

[60] C. Foshuo shidi jing (佛說十地經). T. 287 n. 10 p. 535a-573. The relevant passage begins at T.10 n 287 p. 559b18.

[61] T. 397.13.1a-407a. For relevant passages see T. 13 n. 416 p. 875a24(04)- a26(07).

[62] Translation by Kumārajīva is T. 15 n. 613. For relevant passages see T15n0613_p0259a21-a22.

[63] T. 15 n 619  by 佛陀蜜多 (Buddhamitrā). For relevant passages see T. 15 n. 619 p. 327c25-p. 328a10.

[64] Translated into Chinese by Gunabhadra 求那跋陀羅, T. 17 n. 783. For relevant section see T. 17 n. 783 p. 721 b16-b18.

[65] T 42, n. 1828..  For relevant passage see p 862a19- a22 and b27- c01.