Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Within this serene snowfall
one billion worlds
in each,
flurries come floating down.


In these few words, a fool, Zen master, philosopher, artist and child paints his world view. Ryokan is considered one of the giants of Zen, but he led no school, nor left an heir to pass on his style. His poetry is up there with Issa, Buson & Basho as was his calligraphy and yet he gave it away to children, even the title of this collection came from something he wrote on a child's kite. This was a man who disassociated himself from all religious institutions, yet came to be seen as one of the greatest figures in the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan. A Poet who wrote:


Who calls my poems, poems
My poems are not poems
Only when you know my poems are not poems
can we together speak about poems.


Yet this collection contains around 140 poems. Ryokan may seemed to be a mass of contradictions - or just a whole man, who recognised the many worlds he inhabited.
My life may appear melancholy,
But travelling through this world
I have entrusted myself to Heaven.
In my sack, three sho of rice;
by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say.......wealth and honour are nothing but dust,
As the evening rain falls I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer.

Ryōkan was born as Eizō Yamamoto (山本栄蔵 Yamamoto Eizō) to the headman of the village of Izumozaki in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture), Japan. At an early age he renounced the world, to train at the nearby Sōtō Zen temple Kōshō-ji, refusing to meet with or accept charity from his family. The Zen master Kokusen visited the temple, he so deeply impressed Ryōkan with his demeanour that he solicited permission to become Kokusen's disciple. Kokusen accepted, and the two returned to Entsū-ji monastery in Tamashima (now Okayama Prefecture).
It was at Entsū-ji that Ryōkan attained satori* and was presented with an Inka* by Kokusen. Kokusen died the following year, and Ryōkan left Entsū-ji to embark on a long pilgrimage. He chose to live his life as a hermit, and did not return to monastic life. This decision to leave Entsū-ji may have been partially influenced by Gentō Sokuchū, the abbot of the temple, who at this time was aggressively reforming the Sōtō school, with the aim of removing perceived 'foreign' elements, including kōan* +.

He was originally ordained as Ryōkan Taigu. Ryō means "good", Kan means "broad", and Taigu means "great fool"; Ryōkan Taigu would thus translate as "broad-hearted generous fool", referring to qualities that Ryōkan's work and life embodies.

Where beauty is, then there is ugliness;
where right is, also there is wrong.
Knowledge and ignorance are interdependent;
delusion and enlightenment condition each other.
Since olden times it has been so.
How could it be otherwise now?
Wanting to get rid of one and grab the other
is merely realizing a scene of stupidity.
Even if you speak of the wonder of it all,
how do you deal with each thing changing?

Ryōkan spent his time writing poetry, practising calligraphy, and communing with nature. His poetry is often very simple and inspired by nature. He loved children, and sometimes forgot to beg for food because he was playing with the children of the nearby village. Ryōkan refused to accept any position as a priest or even as a "poet". In 1826 Ryōkan became ill and unable to continue living as a hermit. He moved into the house of one of his patrons, Kimura Motouemon, and was cared for by a young nun called Teishin, whose care of him led to a close relationship & this affection shared by both parties brightened his final years, also colouring the poetry written at this time. The two of them exchanged a series of haiku. The poems they exchanged are both lively and tender. Ryōkan died from his illness on the sixth day of the New Year 1831. "Teishin records that Ryōkan, seated in meditation posture, died 'just as if he were falling asleep (Wikipedia).

My legacy --
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
the cuckoo in summer,
and the crimson maples
of autumn...


Ryōkan never headed up a monastery or temple, never played the game, was considered a drop-out from most aspects of his society spending his time as a hermit & beggar and yet is considered along with Dogen and Hakuin as one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. He preferred children to those who could be considered his peers, he had no dharma heir* and yet he was sought out by people from all walks of life, even his poetry and art were popular during his lifetime, in fact his art was so sought after that people would try and trick him into doing art for them and there are lots of hilarious stories about how he frustrated their attempts. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa, this collection contains more than 140 of his poems, along with a selection of his art, and some very funny anecdotes about him.

Yes, I'm truly a dunce 
living among trees and plants.
Please don't question me about illusion and enlightenment --
This old fellow just likes to smile to himself.
I wade across streams with bony legs,
and carry a bag about in fine spring weather.
That's my life,
and the world owes me nothing.


*Satori is considered a "first step" or embarkation toward nirvana:

Inka Shōmei (Korean: Inga) literally means "the legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof". In Rinzai tradition a master gives a calligraphy of Inka-certificate to disciple as a proof of authorization. Needless to say authorization must be backed up by the fact that the disciple spent many years in Zen training under the master earnestly and continuously.

* Kōan is a storydialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

+  the scholar Michel Mohr suggests Ryōkan may have been in disagreement with Gentō's efforts.

* Dharma heir In Zen-BuddhismDharma transmission is a custom in which a person is established as a "successor in an unbroken lineage of teachers and disciples, a spiritual 'bloodline' (kechimyaku) theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself." The dharma lineage reflects the importance of family-structures in ancient China, and forms a symbolic and ritual recreation of this system for the monastical "family".

Shambhala publications

Zen Sampler

Poems of Ryōkan

All poetry


Brian Joseph said...

I very much want to read Zen Master Ryoken. I have read some basic Buddhist writings and find them to be fascinating.

Poetry from such a point of view seems like it would be rewarding.

I really like the verse that you posted.

@parridhlantern said...

This was not just a great read from a poetic or Buddhist perspective, but Ryokan was a very humorous individual who chose his own path

Bellezza said...

Oh, this is beautiful! Your newly decorated and re-arranged site takes my breath with its organization and theme. I could sit for hours exploring the wealth of information you have to share.

As for the poems in this post, I particularly like "Where beauty is..." and all the lines which follow. That conundrum often entangles me, that two opposites can exist so readily together.

Love all that you do, Parrish.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Bellezza, the change has come about because of time constraints I need to simplify what I do on the blog, so for the most part I'm taking it in the poetry direction, although I will still write about books that I really like/love. From this came the idea of overhauling the blog to give it a new simple look, by pure coincidence the first post suited the new ethos here. I loved that poem to, also if you check the links there other wonderful ones such as


in this dream world
we doze
and talk of dreams --
dream, dream on,
as much as you wish