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Zen poet Ryokan was born in 1758 in the remote and snowy province of Echigo,
located in northern Honshu, bordering the Sea of Japan. His father was the
village headman and a haiku poet of some note, and Ryokan received a thorough
education in the classics of China and Japan. Shy and studious as a boy, Ryokan
was the local Don Juan for a brief period in his youth. Following a spiritual
crisis around the age of twenty, however, he renounced his patrimony and
entered a Zen monastery.
1780 Ryokan became the disciple of Kokusen, the top Soto Zen
the period, and accompanied that master to Entsu-ji in Tamashima. Ryokan
trained diligently at that lovely little monastery until Kokusen's death in
1791. Even though he had received formal sanction as Kokusen's Dharma heir,
Ryokan spurned all invitations to head up his own temple and embarked instead
on a long pilgrimage, wandering all over Japan during the next decade.
his early forties, Ryokan drifted back to his native place, and he remained
there the rest of his days, living quietly in mountain hermitages. He supported
himself by begging, sharing his food with birds and beasts, and spent his time
doing Zen meditation, gazing at the moon, playing games with the local children
and geisha, visiting friends, drinking rice wine with farmers, dancing at
festivals, and composing poems brushed in exquisite calligraphy.
friend wrote this about Ryokan:
Ryokan visits it is as if spring had come on a dark winter's day. His character
is pure and he is free of duplicity and guile. Ryokan resembles one of the
immortals of ancient literature and religion. He radiates warmth and
compassion. He never gets angry, and will not listen to criticism of others.
Mere contact with him brings out the best in people.
a relative of Ryokan's asked him to speak to his delinquent son. Ryokan came to
visit the family home but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He
stayed the night and prepared to leave the following morning. As the wayward
boy was helping tie Ryokan's straw sandals, he felt a warm drop of water on his
shoulder. Glancing up, the boy saw Ryokan, with eyes full of tears, looking
down at him. Ryokan departed silently, but the boy soon mended his ways.
samurai lord of the local domain heard of Ryokan's reputation as a worthy Zen
monk and wanted to construct a temple and install Ryokan as abbot. The lord
went to visit the monk at Gogo-an, Ryokan's hermitage on Mount Kugami, but he
was out gathering flowers, and the party waited patiently until Ryôkan
returned with a bowl full of fragrant blossoms. The lord made his request, but
Ryokan remained silent, Then he brushed a haiku on a piece of paper and handed
it to the lord:
wind gives me
To make a fire
lord nodded in acknowledgment and returned to his castle.
after the long winter confinement, Ryokan visited the village barber to have
his shaggy head of hair shaved off. The barber cut one side but then demanded a
ransom to finish the job: a sample of Ryokan's calligraphy. Ryokan brushed the
name of a Shinto god, a kind of calligraphy that served as a good-luck charm.
Pleased that he had outwitted the monk, the barber had the calligraphy mounted
and displayed it in his alcove.
visitor remarked to the barber one day, "You
there is a character missing from the god's name."
an omission negates the calligraphy's effect as a talisman, and the barber
confronted Ryokan. Ryokan scolded him good-naturedly for his greed: "You
short-changed me, so I short-changed you. That kind old lady down the road
always gives me extra bean cake, so the calligraphy I gave her has an extra
character in it!"
and infirm, Ryokan was finally obliged to leave his mountain hut and spent his
final days at the home of one of his patrons in the village. Near the end of
his life, he fell in love with the beautiful young nun Teishin. She was at
Ryokan's side when he passed away on January 6, 1831, at age seventy-three.
wrote thousands of poems and poem-letters, both Chinese and Japanese style, and
scattered them about. These were treasured by the local folk and later lovingly
studied and collected by scholars. The first edition of Ryokan's poems, titled
on a Lotus Leaf") and compiled by Teishin, appeared in 1835. Expanded
collections of Ryokan's work have continued to be published over the years, and
he is likely Japan's most popular and beloved Zen poet. As mentioned in the
tale above, Ryokan's delightful brushwork, totally unaffected and free-flowing,
is also highly esteemed, and Ryokan is venerated as one of the greatest
calligraphers of all time in East Asia.
practice of Zen and the appreciation of Zen art is now universal, and Ryokan's
life and spirit speak to lovers of poetry, religion, and beauty everywhere. The
selection of poems presented here reflects the range and depth of Ryokan's Zen
vision. He focused on "things deep inside the heart," and his poems
cover the spectrum of human experience: joy and sadness, pleasure and pain,
enlightenment and illusion, love and loneliness, man and nature. Like those of
his counterpart Cold Mountain (Han-shan), the legendary Zen poet of T'ang
China, Ryokan's poems reveal the full, rich texture of Zen.
friends and excellent teachers—Stick close to them!
and power are fleeting dreams
wise words perfume the world for ages.