A Life of Zen: Ryōkan and Teishin, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf


In this essay, Surendra shows with the exquisite poems written by Ryōkan and Teishin a most delicate etheric and intimate love affair between Master and disciple.

Ryokan and Teishin
Ryōkan and Teishin by Yasuda

Of all the luminaries in the Zen lineage, Ryōkan has to be the most outlandish. Anecdotes abound of his eccentric behaviour. He claimed expertise, not in the art of archery, but in bouncing silk balls and loved to share this skill with local children. Still wearing his monk’s robe, he also engaged in grass fights and played hide and seek with them. Ryōkan survived by begging and sometimes donated his popular calligraphy. Although he treasured his aloneness and lived most of his life as a hermit, Ryōkan often participated in local festivals and, in later life, had many friends. Any critical comments were reserved exclusively for the indolence he saw in the monks of his day. For company, Ryōkan mostly chose the families of simple farmers and fishermen.

You all sing to me.
I dance for you.
With the clearest moon shining
In the sky above,
How can we stay in our beds?

Towards the end of his life, collecting water from the brooks, wild vegetables from the fields and firewood from the forests, as well as completing his begging rounds, became altogether too much for Ryōkan. At the age of sixty-nine, he reluctantly accepted an offer to be taken care of in the home of a local merchant and benefactor, Motoemon Kimura. Having lived most of his life in isolated huts, instead of the main house, Ryōkan asked to stay in a more familiar type of dwelling: a large woodshed in the grounds. This was duly prepared for him and became his home for his final five years.

A young Buddhist nun, named Teishin, was an aquaintance of the Kimura family. Also a poet, she had been married at seventeen to a doctor who died five years later. Soon afterwards, Teishin took her vows. In those days, widows had little prospect of remarrying or making an independent life for themselves.

As a master of calligraphy, poetry, and Zen, Ryōkan’s reputation had spread in his lifetime. Upon hearing of Ryōkan’s arrival at the Kimura home, Teishin, now twenty-nine, sent a poem to Ryōkan. This began an intimate connection that continued until he left his form. Although many sought his spiritual guidance, Ryōkan never formally initiated any disciples. However, when Teishin declared him to be her master, Ryōkan raised no objection. Their relationship brought delight to his final years and both clearly cherished their meetings. Later, Teishin published their exchange of verses as Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. Here are some key excerpts.

On hearing about my master’s ball-bouncing, I wrote:

This and no other
Seems to me the rightful way.
You walk along it,
Gleefully bouncing your ball,
This endless road before you.

My master replied:

Try it, if you like,
One, two, three, four, up to ten,
And again it starts.
You, too, can stride along it,
This endless road before you.

On seeing my master for the first time:

Having met you thus,
For the first time in my life,
I still cannot help
Thinking it but a sweet dream
Still glowing in my dark heart.

My master’s reply:

In the dreamy world,
Dreaming, we talk about dreams.
Thus we seldom know
Which is and is not, a dream.
We can only dream as we do.

I wrote:

Your Mind, the bright moon
At the mountain’s summit,
Sheds its clarifying light.
But the thin haze of my doubts
Still lingers below the mountain’s peak.

The master replied:

There are those like you
Who give up their lives
To save the people of the world.
But I am only enjoying
Peace in a thatched hut

I wished to stay longer by his side:

Face to face with you
I would sit for countless days
And for endless years,
Silent like the cloudless moon
I admire with you this night.

My master replied:

Devoted as you are,
Steadfast in your sacred trust;
Long as a creeper,
Endlessly, for days and months,
We shall sit down side by side.

I had promised to visit, and after some days, my master sent me the following poem:

Have you forgotten,
Or the road lost all too soon?
For many days now,
Though I have waited each day,
You have not come to my place.

I was not at my own house when I wrote these poems in reply:

By worldly affairs,
Bound within a certain house,
Itself in the grass,
My feet and heart in discord,
I have not been free to come.

In the sky above,
The moon is glittering bright
As if to guide me,
But near the hilltops beneath,
Gloomy clouds still linger on.

My master’s reply:

Out of their own will,
Many have sacrificed themselves
To their pious cause.
What makes you persist so long
In your dark life at the house?

The glittering moon
Is bright enough to shed light
Upon the whole world,
Reaching its farthest corners
And clearing the darkest minds,
Shining these days, as of old,
Alike on truth and falsehood.

Yet, unless you rise
Clear above those misty clouds
About the mountain-tops,
How can you, my dearest friend,
Hope to see the brightest moon?

I sent my reply as soon as spring came:

Without my plotting,
Winter gloom has spent itself,
And now, spontaneously,
Sunny spring weather has come
To where I have stayed long confined.

My heart awakened,
I find neither light nor dark
Complete in itself,
For the soft moon lightens up
The whole of my dreamlike way.

My master wrote when, at last, I met him:

Nothing in the world,
Whether gold or silver pearls,
Can be of more worth
Than this long-promised visit
From you, early in the spring

Later, my master wrote:

In this empty hut,
I reach out my hand
Without touching a thing.
This, just this,
Is the true way.

I replied:

The deep mountain snow is
Melting in the spring breeze.
But the water of the valley stream
Still waits, frozen between the rocks.

My master’s reply:

If, on mountain-tops,
Snow has started to dissolve,
It will not be long
Before the stream on its bed
Begins to flow with joy.

My reply:

Flowers are silent
When asked about the reason
For the revival of spring,
Yet, when they bloom in the sun,
No songbirds lag behind.

I bid farewell with the following poem:

I must set off now.
Wishing you health and peace,
I shall come again
As soon as the cuckoos come back
Singing loudly from the south.

My master’s reply:

As a homeless man,
I must drift on like seaweed.
I am at a loss
As to where I should meet you,
In summer, when the cuckoos come.

Come and visit me
In autumn, when on the moors
Bush-clovers flower.
If you find me still healthy,
Let us boldly deck ourselves in blossoms.

I visited him earlier than he had told me to come:

Ever on the watch
For bush-clovers on the moor,
Getting impatient,
Stamping on the summer grass,
I sought you at your cottage.

My master’s reply:

It was kind of you
To visit me through the grass,
Wet with summer dew,
Fretting far too much to wait
For the bush-clovers to bloom.

One day, a friend of mine informed me of my master’s unexpected visit to Yoita. I went there at once to meet him, but he was ready to depart the next day. During our conversation, it was suggested that we should all call him “crow”, for he was black not only in his robes but also in the colour of his skin.

My master welcomed the suggestion and, laughing, wrote:

I will fly away
To who knows where,
As someone has made me a crow.

I replied at once:

Oh mountain crow,
If you are flying home,
Please bring along
This young crow with fragile wings.

My master’s reply:

I would like to
Follow your sweet wish,
But what would become of us
If people talk?

My own reply:

A kite is a kite.
Sparrows are sparrows.
Herons are herons.
Should a crow walk with a crow,
What can anyone suspect?

At sunset, I left the following verse and retired to my inn:

My sacred Master,
Good night, till I come again
Seeking after you.
Resting here at this cottage,
May you enjoy sleep and peace.

Surprisingly, the following morning, at break of day, my master came to my inn. I welcomed him with these words:

In writing poems,
In beating our bouncy balls,
In picking flowers,
I will at once yield myself
Wholeheartedly to whatever you wish.

My master’s reply:

In writing poems,
In beating our bouncy balls.
In picking flowers,
I shall enjoy our hours and days,
Doubts still lingering on in me.

My master promised to visit me at my house in autumn, but sickness confined him to his cottage:

Every bush-clover
Has already passed its prime
Upon autumn moors.
Yet, prevented by ill-health,
I cannot keep my promise.

Instead of recovering, my master’s health deteriorated and in winter, he was so ill that, according to my friend, he barred his door against any visitor. I tried to console him with a letter:

In your lonely bed,
Ease yourself a while longer.
At your time of life,
What means it to you, Master,
This brief dream of an illness?

In reply, my master sent me the following poem, unaccompanied by any other words:

Come at once to me,
As soon as spring is with us.
Here at my cottage,
I long to meet you once more,
Though for a twinkle of time.

At the end of the year, my friend wrote to me that my master had suddenly fallen into a critical condition. Shocked, I went to him in haste, but I found him seated on his bed in a state of relative ease.

He welcomed me with:

Every day and hour
I have been waiting for you.
Now that I see you,
Seated at peace near my side,
I have nothing else to wish for.

Not unlike the dews
Fading fast behind the grass
Of Musashino,
We all can stay in the world
No more than a passing dream.

I decided to stay with him and nurse him in his sickness, but he grew weaker and weaker and it was obvious, even to me, that he had only a few more days to live. I wrote:

To life or to death,
I should cast a cloudless eye,
Faithful to our vow.
Yet, at this last leave-taking,
How can I restrain my tears?

By way of reply, my master recited to me the following lines in a quiet voice. They were not of his own making, but he liked them well enough to repeat them from time to time:

Maple leaves scatter:
At one moment gleaming bright,
Darkened at the next.

My master died on 6 January 1831 at the age of seventy-four.

Teishin spent the rest of her long life gathering, promoting and publishing all the available poems by Ryōkan that she could lay her hands on, including this one from his final verses:

Looking back over these seventy years and more
The human world of good and bad
Completely dissolves before my gaze.
A late night snowfall blurs
The footsteps of the last passer-by.
I light a stick of incense
And sit beside my old window.


Surendra TN sSurendra is a regular contributor – surendraphoto.com

All articles by this author on Osho News

John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, Shambala Publications, 2004.

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