Among Zen Buddhists, there is a tradition of composing a final work of art or poetry upon one’s death bed.

As a teenager, freshly embarked upon my Zen training in a Buddhist temple in Hawai’i, I came across this poem that has stuck like a koan in my memory ever since:

All my life I have prepared for this moment,
Sharpening my blade.

Now, my time has come.
And I draw it forth.

Alas! My blade is broken!

“This is not good news,” I had thought, appalled. How could someone train for decades and find, at one’s moment of greatest need, all the effort to be worthless?

Over time, I have come to savor this final communiqué from an anonymous monk in the recesses of a medieval Japanese monastery. The Heart Sutra teaches us that all things are essentially empty, including all the layers of the self that lead us to the delusion of a permanent, solid ego. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, and like clouds in an empty sky, we coalesque and dissolve as well. This realization is the great liberation transmitted by the Buddha. Our blades are, indeed, broken. Good thing, too.

Yet, the anguished lament of this monk echoes still in the marrow of my bones:

Alas! My blade is broken!