A life of Zen: Ryōkan, the great fool


Surendra’s portrait of the inspiring rebel monk who totally abandoned the rigid Zen organisation of his day, interspersed with delightful poems Ryōkan wrote along on his path.

Ryokan self portrait
It is not that I avoid mixing with the world, but I do better playing alone.
(Ryōkan, self-portrait)

Everyone eats rice
Yet no one knows why.
When I say this now
People laugh at me.
If they laugh, that’s just fine.
Laughing is something I like, too!
Laughing and laughing, we won’t stop.
We’ll welcome Maitreya right here and now

In Zen, Ryōkan (1758-1831) is a relatively recent addition to the lineage. Deeply committed to the Buddhist tradition in his youth, he moved further and further away into a religionless religion. Refusing to head a temple and never initiating disciples, he was the ultimate rebel who totally abandoned the rigid Zen organisation of his day. Instead of many discourses, Ryōkan produced nearly two thousand known verses in masterful brushed calligraphy (shōdo). Many of these poems illuminate the core of Zen with the immediacy and surprise of flashes of lightning in a dark forest. Wherever he lived, his walls soon became covered with scrolls and many locals happily received, even demanded, his treasures.

Shaving my head, becoming a monk,
I spent years on the road pushing aside wild grasses peering hard into the wind.
Now, everywhere I go people just hand me paper and brush:
‘Do some calligraphy!’ ‘Write me a poem!’

When Ryōkan felt like it, he obliged. But he was not one to be pressured and often responded: “After I practise and get better, I will write something for you.”

Born in the prosperous seaside town of Izumozaki, in the prefecture of Niigata, central Japan, even as a young child, Ryōkan was a little eccentric. Prone to staring, his father told him if he continued this habit, he would turn into a fish. Ryōkan ran off and his mother eventually found him on the beach where she convinced him that his father’s pronouncement was not true. Presumably, Ryōkan had decided to get close to the sea in case it was.

An unusually silent boy, Ryōkan buried himself in literature, reading by candlelight into the early hours. His father had a passion for haiku and wrote accomplished verses in the tradition of Basho. Ryōkan went on to write in many different forms and styles: from long prose poems to the briefest haiku.

Blossoms in bloom are also
Falling blossoms.

He wrote as prolifically in Chinese as Japanese. In his own lifetime, the quality of his unrestrained, freeflowing brushwork became famous in Edo (Tokyo) and money was even being made from forgeries. Sometimes adding the day and month, Ryōkan never included the year. Numerous colourful anecdotes have been recounted by others but the flesh and bones of Ryōkan’s life story are in his own vivid verses. Because of the absence of any certain chronology, some might appear startlingly contradictory as they seem to represent different phases of his life.

From the early years –

Icy winter streams,
Frozen stiff down to their beds,
Will finally thaw.
Yet, the hearts of men
Stay frozen solid all the time.

To his maturity –

In a merry group,
Seated all night round a fire,
We drank cloudy wine,
Breaking and burning dry twigs.
Ah, the great, great joy of it!

Some poems witness moods –

On rainy days,
The monk Ryōkan
Feels sorry for himself.

Others attest the clarity of his enlightenment –

Traveling and traveling,
I arrived at the mountain of treasures,
Only to realize it was none other than
My own temporary dwelling.

Ryōkan makes it abundantly clear that life, for him, is beyond dichotomies.

Where you have beauty you have ugliness, too.
Where you have right you will also have wrong.
Knowledge and ignorance are each other’s cause.
Delusion and enlightenment produce one another.
It’s always been so,
It didn’t start now.
You get rid of this, then grab hold of that.
Don’t you see how stupid it is!
If you’re determined to find the innermost truth,
Why trouble about the changing face of things?

From the age of sixteen, Ryōkan, was being trained to follow his father as the mayor of Izumozaki. Soon this position lost its appeal for Ryōkan and at seventeen, he dropped out and became a novice monk at a local Buddhist temple. Zazen was at one point humorously described:

Though I think not
To think about it,
I do think about it
And shed tears
Thinking about it.

Ryōkan made an impression on a prestigious Zen Master, Kokusen, who visited the Niigata area. Once, when asked about his principles, Kokusen replied, “I prize rolling stones and carrying dirt more than any principles!” Ryōkan joined him and traveled over six hundred kilometers on foot, to the west of Japan, to become part of his temple in Ookayama.

Since I began to seek discipline at the temple, Entsuji,
Many winters and springs have I known in wretched destitution.
In front of the gate stands a town of a thousand houses
Where I have not a relative, nor a friend, to assist me.
I wash with my own hands clothes covered with dirt,
And allay my hunger, begging for alms from door to door.
All this because I read in a chronicle of old saints
That poverty was once prized by the buddhas more than anything else.

After ten years of rigorous training in Soto Zen, a tradition with long periods of sitting, established by Dogen, Ryōkan graduated as a priest. As was customary at the time, he was given a certificate by Kokusen in the form of a very insightful poem:

“How nice to be like a fool, for then one’s
Way is broad beyond measure.
Free and easy, letting things take their course – who can fathom it?
I therefore entrust to you this staff of wild wisteria.
Wherever you lean it, against any wall,
You will feel the peace of the temple.”

Soon after, Ryōkan took off as a wandering monk.

One day, by a stroke of luck,
I penetrated my master’s path.
Suddenly I took a giant leap, and that was good-bye to temple life.
Enough of their rice!
No more numbing routine!
Ah! How happy I feel!
The twenty-eight Indian and six Chinese patriarchs –
They’re all of them here, right at my side.

That was Ryōkan in delight. Sometimes he was deeply challenged.

This rank absurdity of mine, when can I throw it away?
This abject poverty I shall take to the grave with me.
After dark, along the dirt road of a decaying village,
I carry home my begging bowl, weathered and empty.

On another occasion:

Forced by the heavy rain, I sought an overnight shelter,
In despair, here by a faltering lamp in a broken temple.
What use is it now to dry my wet clothes for travelling?
Better to lie down and ease myself with chanting.
The rain beating in my tired ears all through the night,
I remained awake, my pillow forsaken, till another dawn.

His wanderings covered long distances around western and central Japan. One account from another poet, Banjō, places him on the island of Shikoku:

“I saw a shabby-looking hut at the foot of a mountain and went there to ask for lodging. A monk with a thin, pale face welcomed but said he had no food or bedding. After speaking a few words, this monk kept silent: not meditating, sleeping or chanting. When I spoke to him, he only smiled. Thinking he had a mental problem, I lay down at the fireplace. When I awoke, he was sleeping next to me, using an arm as a pillow.”

Eventually, reconciled to his chosen way of life, Ryōkan wrote:

Since becoming a wandering monk,
I’ve passed the days letting things naturally take their course.
Yesterday I was in the green mountains,
Today I’m strolling around town.
My robe is a sorry patchwork.
My bowl a veteran of countless years.
Clear, quiet nights I lean on my staff and recite poetry.
In the daytime I spread my straw mat for a nap.
People may say, ‘He’s a useless fellow.’
Well, this is how I am.

Having completed that phase of his life, after long arduous years on the road, Ryōkan returned to his homeland in Niigata.

You go there and come back again,
Yet everything remains the same.
Clouds covering the mountain’s summit,
Streams flowing by at your feet.

Ryōkan did not inform his family. When they eventually heard of his arrival, he refused their offers of support. He chose instead to continue begging from local villagers. Getting permission to stay temporarily in a series of empty huts, he settled in a cottage halfway up the densely wooded hills of Mt Kugami. Remaining there for twelve years, for the time being, Ryōkan was in his element.

At an overgrown cottage I found the restful life of a recluse.
I have since lived alone, turning to songbirds for music,
And for my friends I have white clouds rising in the sky.
Beneath a massive rock, a spring swells in a fair stream,
Its clear water washes the dust from my black garments.
Near the ridges, tall pines and oaks rise towards heaven;
Their branches and leaves give me warmth in cold weather.
With nothing to worry me, not a care to disturb my peace,
I live happily from day to day, until the day dawns no more for me.

The winter months are long in Niigata and with restricted movement, Ryōkan could pour his energy into his calligraphy.

I am confined to my cottage among the solitary hills
And contemplate the wet snow driving outside my window.
The cries of black monkeys are echoed by rocky summits.
The icy stream runs hushed at the bottom of the valley.
The flaming light by the window is chilled to its core,
And frost-dry is the ink slab I have placed on my desk.
The night has thus prevented me from falling asleep.
I employ my brush, often warming it with my own breath.

Encountering any group of local children, he could spend the whole day playing as one of them. Asked why he enjoyed this so much, he replied, “I love their innocence, their lack of pretense.”

At the crossroads this year, after begging all day
I linger at the village temple.
Children gather round me and whisper,
‘That crazy monk has come back to play!’

Silk balls were not only for the amusement of the children but part of Ryōkan’s Zen practice.

The silk ball in my sleeve pocket is worth a bar of gold.
Its best bouncer is none other than myself.
Should anyone question me on the secret of the art,
My reply: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”

For the rest of his life, Ryōkan survived solely by begging. But he gradually moved away from being an ascetic hermit by accepting luxuries, even money, and becoming more convivial. Always in need of paper and ink for his artistic endeavours, he also relished tobacco and sake.

Amid frogs singing,
We will pluck on the hillside
Fresh yellow roses,
And, floating them in our cups,
Let us drink endless toasts.

In a biography written soon after Ryōkan’s death, Yoshishige Kera states:

“The Master never displayed excessive joy or anger. One never heard him speaking in a hurried manner, and in all his daily activities, in the way he would eat and drink, rise and retire, his movements were slow and easy, almost as if he were a fool….

Master Ryōkan stayed with us for a couple of days. A peaceful atmosphere filled our house and everyone became harmonious. This ambience remained for some time after he left. As soon as I started talking with him, I felt my heart open. He did not explain Zen or other Buddhist scriptures, nor did he encourage worthy actions. He would take care of the fire in the kitchen or sit in meditation in our living room. He did not talk about literature or ethics. He was indescribably relaxed. He taught others only by his presence….”

A wealthy merchant wanted to build a temple for Ryōkan and install him as the abbot. In silence, Ryōkan wrote these lines:

The wind gives me
Enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Respectfully, the merchant bowed and withdrew.

In 1816, Ryōkan moved to a cottage at the foot of Mt Kugami in the grounds of the Otogo shrine. He was already in his late fifties and probably found it easier to relinquish the colder winters higher up the forested slope. Closer to the farmers and fishermen who now cherished him, although still begging, Ryōkan remained staunchly independent.

Yes, I’m truly a fool
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.

By then, he was also extending invitations.

If it takes your fancy,
Come and witness at my home,
In the plum bushes,
Spring warblers hopping giddily:
Spraying blossoms everywhere.

Although others frequently referred to him as such, Ryōkan never considered himself a Zen master. In recent years, in a land still dominated by conformity, Ryōkan has risen in popular Japanese culture as the paradigm of a truly liberated being. A master of poetry and calligraphy, his verses exquisitely celebrate the totality of his life, often with shocking simplicity:

My legacy,
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
Of autumn…

Ryuichi Abe & Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan, Poems, Letters and Other Writings, University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Kazuaki Tanahashi, Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryōkan, Shambhala Publications, 2012.
Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Zen Poems of Ryōkan, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Surendra TN sSurendra is a regular contributor – surendraphoto.com

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