Death & disposition

Death poems and disposition after death often reveal the writer or speaker more than any other writing or saying. Sometimes these words are too polished to be other than apocryphal, but the words and sentiments do intend to capture the style of the one to whom the words are ascribed.

While the practice is or was widespread in the East, it has an occasional counterpart in the West. But perhaps Westerners need to reflect more upon death in order not only to write a last poem or saying but in order to write more worthily along the way.

A poet’s death poem should not be the epitome of his or her writing but sometimes is taken that way. Perhaps because of our insistent curiosity or our insatiable desire to witness a grand finale, death poems or statements about disposition of one’s body fascinate us or give us vicarious pleasure as something we hope we can have the courage enough to write or say so forthrightly.

Today, when death is a drawn-out process of enormous expense, bureaucracy, and distraction, the tranquility and equanimity needed to reflect and sum up is cheated from the dying. Perhaps the living should start summing up even as they live, day by day.

A favorite death statement is ascribed to Nyogen Senzaki, the Japanese teacher of Zen who came to live in the United States and died in 1958. He is well known for his wonderful anthologies of Zen sayings: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, The Iron Flute and Like A Dream, Like a Fantasy. Instead of writing a death poem, he had apparently made a tape recording that was played at the funeral — after arrangements had been made and mourners crowded in. They had already filled the place where his body lay amongst flowers and chanting led by twelve monks and much ado when unexpectedly the tape began playing. Nyogen Senzaki told them:

These are my last words to you.The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sutras may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. … Remember me as a monk and nothing else. I don’t belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of that sort. I want to be free of such nonsense and die happily.

As to the disposition of his ashes, Nyogen Senzake stipulated that some should be sent to his old friend Soen Nakagawa in Japan. The rest should be buried “in some unknown, uncultivated field.” As to that field:

Do not erect a tombstone. The California poppy is tombstone enough. … I would like to be like the mushroom in the deep mountains — no flowers, no branches, no root. I wish to rot most inconspicuously.

These wishes of death and disposition are hard to match in their pithiness and their value in putting things into perspective. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. We ought to think such arrangements through while we are able to shape them, though the living will always insist on its perogative of celebration and ritual.

But Senzake’s words, especially about disposition, remind us of a Western equivalent, the poem “Solitude” by the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, especially the last stanza:

How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breathes his native air,
In his own grounds.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide swift away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most doth please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unheard, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Hermit vs. recluse

How to distinguish between the genuine hermit and the mere recluse? “Mere” in the sense that reclusion is not necessarily eremitism and is only motivated by part of eremitism. Reclusion is a hiding away for mixed motives ranging toward the negative: misanthropy, worldly failure, mental illness, anti-social behavior, the psychological burdens of involuntary solitude.

Even historical cultures sympathetic to hermits have their aberrant personalities like hikkimori in Japan or vagabond thieves in India or medieval Europe. Not to mention those cultures antagonistic to hermits, as in a 1876 news item about a man who was obviously mentally handicapped but who was labeled a “hermit” by The New York Times.

The negative sense of the recluse is represented by the person not predisposed to ideals of eremitism nor motivated by philosophy, religion, spirituality or personality. Such a person may be engaged for a time with success in social circles, be involved for a time in intimate or decision-making interactions with others. They may have always shown signs of eccentricity or irregular personality but it did not affect them. Then, perhaps gradually or suddenly, they become reclusive. Among such eccentrics are celebrities such as Howard Hughes, J. D. Salinger, and the Beales of Grey Gardens. With such recluses there is no question of excluding them from a roster of hermits.

A vocational aspect of eremitism does not preclude eccentricity bordering on what others would consider irrational. Elements of austerity, asceticism, aesthetics, and personality strongly influence average people judging others. Such values are so anti-modern that people cannot but dismiss those who hold them as eccentric or worse.

Add physical reclusion to this mix and most people will conflate the hermit and the recluse. All of these traits are alien to the goings-on of the world, where power, beauty, cleverness, and social pleasures are the chief virtues.

Etymology shows a further means of distinguishing the hermit and the recluse. The word for hermit or eremite derives from “desert,” thus connoting the context as well as the disposition of solitude. Recluse only means “hidden away,” and suggests a furtiveness and fear that is not admirable. Note how these terms did not originally intersect with specific religious or institutional etymologies.

The progress of psychology in identifying multiple intelligences, patterns of learning and consciousness, and how the individual responds to rearing, environment, and genetics suggests a map or profile of the hermit, even a methodology or morphology of eremitism.

If certain emotional factors are today isolated by popular psychology in order to identify their parts (for example, happiness), the same characteristics of solitaries can be compiled in relation to those factors. Thus, while happiness consists of the perception of positive events and the sense of empowerment to make such events come about — with the concomitant attitude that successfully copes with one’s environment — such a discussion is focusing on an emotional state that is accessible to everyone, regardless of personality, beliefs, or philosophy of life. Regardless of solitary or gregarious styles or any in between. We miss the big picture if we just focus on sets of characteristics available to all but do not pursue characteristics that the individual taps, refines, and extracts insight from according to their philosophy and style of life.

The temptation of the hermits of the early centuries of the modern era was acedia, a sense of futility and boredom brought about by social and psychological isolation. This may have been a response to sudden isolation found difficult to handle, or it may have resulted from the human tendency to rely on a mind full of thoughts, busyness, and occupation. Acedia has been called depression, but it is not simply that insofar as it was considered “vocational” and corresponded to a stage, not something inevitable. The image of the depressive recluse is probably the image of the individual who does not or cannot resolve depression, even “vocational” depression. Such a factor in the life of solitaries may have to do with changes of material or social circumstances, or with having one of the intelligences that lacks intra-personal skill.

Rather than acedia, Nietzsche described the modern bane of solitaries to be resentment. A subconscious resentment at the ability of others to function smoothly in social circles and garner worldly success contrasted to oneself trapped in isolation or alienation can certainly lead to resentment. To Nietzsche, of course, this was a cultural phenomenon as much as a personal one. Resentment can grow into anger and misanthropy — yielding the classic recluse, who knows nothing of the vocational aspects of eremitism, silence, and solitude. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra recognizes and conquers resentment through disengagement.

Indeed, disengagement, the only remedy for resentment, is also a homeopathic one. Disengagement is not indifference to the pain of depression, alienation, or angst but is rather a disengagement from what should not function as genuine and an engagement with what does. Small doses of disengagement, for the novice of solitude, brings large and rapid gains to the self-esteem.

Self-esteem is still quite necessary for the potential hermit in the world, but disengagement allows that self-esteem to not grow into ego but, in fact, to shrink in proportion to one’s true place in the world. In this process, humility mingles with insight, power and will redefine themselves in terms of understanding and freedom. This process also allows the world to shrink to its true place in us.

As successful disengagement breaks down the dependence on the world and its feedback, it does so without exacerbating our emotional or psychological weaknesses, without leaving us vulnerable to the strange and dysfunctional profile of what the world thinks of disparagingly as the recluse.

Bentham’s calculus

The utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham proposed a “hedonic calculus” to synthesize or rationalize the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. His criteria was: 1) intensity, 2) duration, 3) certainty, 4) remoteness, 5) fecundity, and 6) purity. That is, each factor was to be applied to a pleasure in order to determine whether it was a pleasure worth cultivating.

The problem, of course, is that pleasure is not mathematical or even rational. While commutativity exists in algebra, it does not exist in real life. The sum is not the whole of the parts but a circumstance that can be reproduced somewhat but not absolutely. Just as we can argue that for every effect there are causes that can be pursued and identified, it is not the case that we can always or even sometimes reproduce them. Thus we are largely satisfied if we can get close. That is the grand compromise with life that largely undermines a consistently Epicurean solution. In other words, common sense rather than a calculus are sufficient for everyday life.

The historical Epicureans were not debauchees as such but refined aesthetes pursuing the pleasure of conversation, of the gourmand and the art collector, for example. There is an air of decadence, and it could be maintained that it does not represent an ethical or social threat. But that is more likely because the behavior is secondary to the person who has already acquired power and control, and now merely seeks to enjoy the fruit of gains acquired whether ruthlessly or out of cleverness. The dust of worldliness still clings to the dry calculus.

Freud is most closely identified with the “pleasure principle,” which essentially restates the premise of the hedonic calculus. But Freud tempered the principle with the reality principle (which makes the pursuit and exercise of pleasure more dependent on environment, circumstances, and feedback). He further tempered it by the idea that pleasure, after all, is nothing more than the avoidance of pain. This unmasks epicurean aesthetics but also acknowledges that nothing will every really satisfy Bentham’s fantasy.

Stasis may better define the momentum of sentient beings, not in the sense of stagnation or immobility but equilibrium. Freud was in this regard rightly concerned with behavior not philosophy. Equilibrium seems the innate goal of beings because it sets their growth, motility, etc. in harmony with their environment. While this ability to maintain equilibrium seems to be the operating behavior of nature, it is a learned behavior in human beings, or rather a behavior that must be learned the hard way. Everything in modern society and culture advocates mobility and change, power and control — while nature and our minds strive instead for equilibrium. The world is “nasty, brutish, and short” according to Hobbes, but primarily because others always seem to want it that way.

The far ends of the pleasure spectrum abandon the calculus: the infantile and the mystical. Both seek not only equilibrium but union, union with the source or Source of their being. Both abandon the content of logic and reason for experience, leaving the calculus behind. The infantile desire for the equilibrium of the womb, the “oceanic” feeling described by both Freud and Jung, has its counterpart at the other end of the spectrum with the mystic’s union, with samadhi. The place of equilibrium is a circumstance, a construction of our mind and time. Like pleasure, union is a variable, not the sum of the parts. It decays, dissolves, and returns the myystic reluctantly back to that dull state of ordinary sentience. The remains are a memory, a sensation that cannot be reproduced.

But the sense of union cannot be reduced to a calculus because it cannot be measured. Like subatomic particles, the experience of union changes when we train our tools of observation or discourse upon it. Classical literature from the biblical Song of Songs to Rumi have tried the sexual analogy, which appeals to common readers, but that only drags it down to the calculus. The fallacy is in intensifying engagement with the impermanent.

The calculus fails because it is a search for the ephemeral projected into the future, bound forever by desire. By disengagement from the ephemeral, the mind is strengthened, attracted by what it can create of its own mental environment, ineluctable, not dependent on the chase for measures of quantity or quality. In this subjective but authentic environment, the equilibrium we need can be quietly constructed. As Shantideva puts it:

In solitude, the mind and body
Are not troubled by distraction
Therefore, leave this worldly life
And completely abandon mental wandering. (8.2)

And abandon with it the calculus.

Romanticism and solitude

Romanticism objects to Enlightenment reason not for what reason does but for what it does not. What reason does not do is to take into account the emotions, sentiments, subjectivity, imagination, and insight.

In the tenuous medieval synthesis of reason and revelation, reason was not the robust empiricism of the Enlightenment but a simple logic inspired by Aristotle and fit to function as the handmaid of theology. Revelation as the content of theory defined the parameters of reason and provided objects of emotion and devotion in a neatly closed system.

For early modern thinkers, this too comfortable relationship would not do given the discovery of science and the economic and political changes sweeping Europe. What shattered the medieval synthesis was reason as empiricism, no longer the docile tool of theology. Except that at the same time it was emptied of the human element for the cerebral and the political, docile now in a different way — to power and authority.

The Romantics sought to reinstate the subjective element previously addressed by Revelation and to direct it to more “reasonable” objects, namely those that transcended empiricism. This transcendence would shun the aura of authority and control previously projected by Revelation and its institutional guardians: Church and State. Thus, a new revelation.

For the Romantics, the most urgent issue facing the self — especially with the demise of faith — is Death. To resolve the stark meaning of Death’s presence was far more pressing than the empirical status of scientific or technological objects. The social pace of the ascendancy of scientific and technological interests in society was only wrecking the self, and Romanticism was acutely aware of social forces. The reconfiguration of these material forces allied against the individual but now bereft of faith accentuated the pall of Death. Keats writes:

When I have fears that I may cease to be …


My spirit is too weak — mortality
weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die …

Further, Shelley, burdened by the world (“the sphere of our sorrow”) is tempted to speculate “how wonderful is Death” because it liberates.

The perception of Death is the beginning of solitude. Solitude is the renunciation of what is now perceived as impermanent and injurious. Solitude is the true condition of each consciousness, each individual.

The search that follows insight is a search for what endures, for what abides, not for any given entity. Thus Keats speaks of the nightingale (in “Ode to a Nightingale”) as “not born for death.” Ultimately, nature itself, unencumbered by contrivance and the intervention of human beings, is the source of revealed values or principles, a universal of Romantic thinking.

But more intriguing, perhaps, is how solitude is part of the Romantic pattern. Part of this pattern is the manifestations of solitude in nature, the solitary places of nature: forest, seas, remotenesses. This characteristic solitude of places extends to objects in those places: flowers, rivers, shores, storms, stars — all partake of solitude by their stolid presence, their deep silence, their quiet conformity to an ineffable pattern.

Human emotions evoke the characteristics of natural objects and nature’s patterns when they are authentic, meaning that they conform to nature. They are more true than whatever reason evokes. Solitude is a key element in this panoply of feelings and emotions and lends them strength and virtue. They are not the products of the social world, which is manipulated and made false. They can tap the soul’s depths because they well up from solitude, as do the objects of nature.

Thus in his last sonnet, Keats identifies the “bright Star” as “Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,” an image of solitude embracing principles of nature. In his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Lord Byron draws out these themes in a magnificent summary familiar to many readers (stanza 178):

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can never express, yet cannot all conceal.

Here is a Romantic credo best understood from the perspective of solitude, shutting away society, cold empiricism, and mythic revelation to perceive as the deepest sentiment perceives. Solitude is the naturalness of perception — attentive, conscious, fully engaged in what is real, not contrived.

Yet it is Byron’s preceding stanza of the poem that encapsulates the convergence of insight into what he makes to be a “Spirit.” The stanza is weaker because it projects an artifice in this “Spirit,” but it is rightly placed before stanza 178 above as the progression from the desire to concretize Nature to the recognition of the purity of full emotion. Here is stanza 177, which precedes the above stanza quoted.

Oh! that the Desert were my dwelling place,
With one fair Spirit for my minister,
That I might all forget the human race,
And, hating no one, love but only her!
Ye Elements! — in whose ennobling stir
I feel myself exalted — can ye not
Accord me such a being? Do I err
In deeming such inhabit many a spot?
Though with them to converse can rarely be our lot.

The impulse to seek solitude arises from the sorrow of human society. The Spirit is not the old socially and culturally biased god but a refreshing, inspiring and benevolent guardian of eremitism. Note how the “Elements,” the confluence of nature, are charged to create this “Spirit.”

Yet even this wonderful being is but a summary projection, a useful, consoling poetic artifice. The emotions and the intuition sense that nature is an intelligent whole, a benevolent guardian of what is true — that the “Elements” ought to comprise Nature as parts would a whole.

The Romantic poets (and only a few English poets are mentioned here) are the first to perceive that our work, a solitary work, is to pursue our insight into the ineffable, to align our sentiments with nature’s, to “mingle with the Universe, and feel what I can never express, yet cannot all conceal.”


Whether we think of life as rehearsal for death or as a trajectory towards death, we are using metaphors because we cannot grasp meaning without having useful filters to which we can attach emotion as much as intellect. Ultimately, as deconstructionists tell us, language itself is a set of signs that points to what we may experience or may try to incorporate as knowledge, but it does not guarantee meaning.

A friend of Hermitary sends along an excerpt from an article about Heidegger’s description of death. Heidegger is always difficult because he knows that he is grasping after the ineffable but nevertheless goes on crafting a language or vocabulary that will capture the weight of emotion and sensibility in his terms. Perhaps, as the influence of German mystics in Heidegger’s later work shows, one must reach a certain level of intuitive capability before the richest “language” can be understood. That level altogether eludes those who do not seek.

Lao-tzu openly tells us that the Tao is unnameable. Yet he goes on to give us senses and intimations, presenting images cosmic to small: everyday images of nature, and simple images of human effort. Like all good sages, he speaks in parables.

There is a simplicity that allows for the essence of things to enter more clearly into one’s sentiments. Noise, controversy, rapidity of life, artificiality of language, music, appliances, food, technology, and rigid habits kill the spirit even while flattering the self. Thus is the social self manufactured, groomed, presented to the world as adept, clever, glib, ready for teamwork and cooperation with the modes of modern culture.

Cacophony interferes with the clarity of insight that we say we want but which most people will easily trade for a little noise and pleasure because noise and pleasure drown out the pattern of reality.

From this scenario of worldly-wise functionality, Death must be made remote from complexity and contrivance. Death is too final, too insistent, and undermines the pleasure of vanity, the meaningfulness of daily life and culture. In noise and contrivance, meaning is made part of experience because they cannot exist outside of attributes. Death does not suffer attributes. Death is hard enough to contemplate as it is, let alone by ignoring it.

I lived in a large city at one time and rode buses. One day two women sat a couple of seats in front of me, and an old man sat alone behind them. The women were chatting loudly and at length about where they were going to travel this season, and just couldn’t settle on where they wanted to go. It happened that the bus was passing a familiar city landmark: a cemetery. The old man, who had put up with their chatter for some time, leaned forward, politely tapped a shoulder, and said, pointing out the window: “There, madam, is where we all go in the end.” It was a wonderful moment of what I’d call peasant wisdom.

The peasant has the reputation of telling it as it is when provoked to speak or of just keeping quiet. St. Ambrose said that it is more difficult to know how to keep silent than to know how to speak. Further, Lao-tzu says that the wise do not speak and that to keep silence is to conform to nature. One cannot observe if one is busy talking, and it is always best to consider oneself dull and ignorant in the face of the world which boasts of cleverness and novelty. One subject about which the world has little more than platitudes to offer is death, so we need to ignore wishful thinking and contrived socializations of death and go straight to the sages — and peasants.

If death is dissolution, then we are like water — the favorite image of both Taoism and Buddhism. The form of dissolution, whatever we expect or hope, whatever is retained or not, whatever speck of consciousness remains in a universe of consciousness, should not matter. We defer to the universe not because we have no choice but because we need to cooperate and not contrive our own way. In that paradoxical manner do things become ours, yet without contrivance. Not one speck of dust on the mirror.

Water finds its own way by not contriving. Water finds its natural place, and does so eventually, with patience, with a molecular confidence, a defiance of annihilation that is not defiance but hope.

And that is what we need in reflecting on death — except that we will always be dealing with anthropomorphisms and metaphors — such as water and slippery concepts and the prospect of never quite touching the face of things.