良寛大愚 Ryōkan Taigu (1758–1831)
The Complete Haiku in 5 languages
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“Ryōkan” by Yasuda Yukihiko
“Ryōkan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko
The Japanese painter Yasuda Yukihiko (安田 靫彦 1884–1978) perceived Ryōkan’s character through his calligraphy.
Gogō-an, the cottage where Ryōkan lived from 1804 to 1816 (reconstructed in 1914)
A Japanese monk of the Sôtô school of zen during the Edo period. After receiving a Confucian education (see Confucianism) in his youth, he turned aside from the path of governmental work laid out by his father and entered the Sôtô order at 18. This was a period in which, under the influence of Chinese Ts'ao-tung monks, the Sôtô school was undergoing a wave of reform, and many were advocating strict regimens of meditation and the study of Sôtô founder Dôgen's works. Ryôkan fell in with this reformist programme, and studied with several strict and uncompromising masters. In 1792, he received word that his father had travelled to Kyoto to present a work to the government denouncing political intrigue and corruption, and had then committed suicide, apparently to call attention to his protest. Ryôkan arranged the funeral and subsequent memorial services, and then set out on religious pilgrimage for several years. Only in 1804 did he settle down on Mt. Kugami, where he stayed for twelve years. He is remembered for the depth of his enlightenment that manifested in the spirit of acceptance and equality that he showed to all, from officials to prostitutes. He played with children, composed poetry in praise of nature, was renowned for his calligraphy, lived in extreme simplicity, and showed love for all living things to the extent of placing lice under his robes to keep them warm, allowing thieves to take freely from his possessions, and letting one leg protrude from his mosquito net at night to give the mosquitos food.
PDF: The Zen Poems of Ryokan. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton University Press, 1981. 218 p
PDF: Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, by Ryuichi Abe (with Peter Haskel), 1996
One Robe, One Bowl; The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, translated and introduced by John Stevens. 1977
Three Zen Masters: Ikkyū, Hakuin, Ryōkan (Kodansha Biographies), by John Stevens. 1993
The Zen Fool: Ryōkan, by Misao Kodama and Hikosaku Yanagashima. 2000
Ryokan: Selected Tanka and Haiku, translated from the Japanese by Sanford Goldstein, Shigeo Mizoguchi and Fujisato Kitajima (Kokodo, 2000, pp. 218)
Ryokan's Calligraphy, by Kiichi Kato; translated by Sanford Goldstein and Fujisato Kitajima (Kokodo, 1997)
(1758-1831), Haiku tr. by Michael Haldane
autumn wind -
first winter-rain -
a nameless mountain
in the begging-bowl
tomorrow’s rice -
*yūsuzumi: cooling oneself in the evening after work and the heat of the Japanese summer day.
of closing autumn, whom
wants to sleep -
*gyōgyōshi’: ‘exaggerated’. It refers to the sound made by the yoshikiri (reed-warbler).
from Mt. Shumi,
eventide wild geese
*Mt. Shumi: at the centre of the Buddhist paradise. Ryōkan is requesting the migrating wild geese to return from the West with news of his father.
* * *
Ryokan was born in 1758, the first son in a noble family in Izumozaki in the Echigo District. He entered the priesthood at the age of 18 and was given the Buddhist name "Ryokan" when he was 22 years old. He kept searching for the ultimate truths through his life. Leaning the Chinese classics and poetry at Entsu Temple of the Soto Sect in Tamashima in the Bichu District, he practiced hard asceticism under Priest Kokusen for 20 years. After this, he traveled all over the country on foot and returned to his home village just before the age of 40. He lived at the Gogoan hut in Kokujyo Temple on Mt. Kugami, and then moved down to a thatched hut in Otoko Shrine at the foot of the Mountain. It is said that he enjoyed writing traditional Japanese poetry, Chinese poetry and calligraphy all through his simple, carefree and unselfish life. He was also called "Temari-Shonin (The Priest who Plays with a Temari ball)" and was much loved by children, since he often played with a Temari ball (Japanese cotton-wound ball), Ohajiki (small glass counters for playing games) together with children in the mountain village. Much of his poetry and letters which still remain, all of which are full of his sympathy and affection for children, describe his joyful times with children and also reveal his high personal qualities as a man who devoted his life to meditation. Ryokan was a Zen priest, but he never established his own temple, and lived by alms. Instead of preaching, he enjoyed companionship and conversation with many ordinary people. In 1831, he ended his 74-year life as an honest priest respected and loved by all he knew.
* * *
is a man who has many stories told about him.He is famous for spending his days
playing “hide and seek” and traditional Japanese ball games
(“temari”) with children.
One day a bamboo shoot sprouted from below the floor of his hermitage and grew up to the ceiling. As Ryokan used a candle to burn a hole in the ceiling for the bamboo shoot to grow out, he accidentally burned the hut to the ground.
Ryokan also composed poems and songs, and was skilled in calligraphy. People tried to get him to write poems when they happened to find him, but Ryokan would never write anything for them. This is why the writings that still exist are so popular and expensive. I have heard that almost all of the writings with Ryokan`s signature which appear on the market are actually counterfeit.
story about Ryokan is also well known. In Ryokan's last years, a beautiful
young nun visited his hermitage frequently and they composed and exchanged love
poems with each other. When an
earthquake occurred at Echigo-Sanjo, he sent a strange letter that said
“It is good to suffer a misfortune when suffering a misfortune.”
Another famous story has to do with Ryokan as a child. He was scolded by his father, who told him “If you make a funny face you will turn into a flounder.” Ryokan was very worried about being able to make it to the sea in time when he turned into the fish, so he waited on a rock on the seashore for a long time.
(1758-1831) lived in the same age as the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi (born in
1763), through the reigns of Bunka to Bunsei, at the end of the
The day after my life at Eihei temple ended I left for
『Kanjinjikibun』is a sentence where Rokan's beliefs are pointed out
clearly. It means “A priest must
fulfill their duty by religious austerities.”
“Religious austerities” means that a priest chants a sutra called “kadozuke” from house to house and does an act of charity. In turn, the house contributes a small amount of something in the house, such as rice or grain. Both parties treasure the spirit of mutual aid that results from giving to each other. This has been a traditional form of Buddhism since Buddhism was created. It is an important precept of Buddhism that religious austerities must be done indiscriminately, to both rich and poor houses. 「乞食 Kotsujiki」in Buddhism and 「乞食 kojiki」use the same Chinese characters, but the meanings are as different as Heaven and Earth. We call this lifestyle “Jomyoshoku”（the innocent food of a priest）.
manifested the meaning of Buddhist precepts in his life, and not only in his
words. Because of this, everyone who
came into contact with him was educated in Buddhist ways, without even speaking
to him. A curious story about Ryokan
says that even though he did not preach or recommend good conduct when he
stayed as a guest in someone's house, the atmosphere naturally became peaceful
and the family happy. The house was also
enveloped in a sweet smell for a few days after Ryokan left.
The Way of the Holy Fool
What a monk can teach us about living, laughing, and child's play
Larry Smith Parabola
At the crossroads this year, after
begging all day
I lingered at the village temple.
Children gather round me and
'The crazy monk has come back
Taigu Ryokan lives on as one of Japan’s best-loved poets, the wise fool who wrote of his humble life with directness. Born in 1758, he is part of a tradition of radical Zen poets, or 'great fools,' that includes China’s Han-shan and P’ang Yun (Layman P’ang) and Japan’s Ikkyu Sojun and Hakuin Ekaku.
The eldest of seven children, Ryokan grew up near Mount Kugami in the town of Izumozaki, a community for artists and writers. His father, a scholar of Japanese literature and a renowned haiku poet, was the town’s ineffectual mayor. His mother was a quiet woman who eventually had to deal with her husband’s abandoning his position and his family and then drowning himself in the river Katsura.
In his youth, Ryokan trained under a Confucian scholar and began to study Chinese literature in the original. At 16, he had already flirted with a life of gambling and women, then surprised everyone by taking up the study of Soto Zen at the nearby Koshoji temple. (Soto and Rinzai comprise the two main schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism.) He shaved his head and took his robes and vows. At 21, he moved to the Entsuji temple in Bitchu, but eventually became disillusioned and outraged at the corrupt practices of vain and greedy temple priests and left to make his mountain hermitage.
Ryokan had no disciples and ran no temple; in the eyes of the world he was a penniless monk who spent his life in the snow country of Mount Kugami. He admired most of the teachings of Dogen, the 13th century monk who first brought Soto Zen to Japan. He was also drawn to the unconventional life and poetry of the Zen mountain poet Han-shan, who lived in China sometime during the T’ang Dynasty (618 to 907). He repeatedly refused to be honored or confined as a 'professional,' either as a Buddhist priest or as a poet. He wrote:
Who says my poems are poems?
These poems are not poems.
When you can understand this,
then we can begin to speak of poetry.
Ryokan never published a collection of verse while he was alive. His practice consisted of sitting in zazen meditation, walking in the woods, playing with children, making his daily begging rounds, reading and writing poetry, doing calligraphy, and on occasion drinking wine with friends.
Ryokan later dubbed himself Taigu, or 'Great Fool,' but this title had a special meaning. A Zen master who taught the young Ryokan described him this way: 'Ryokan looks like a fool, but his way of life is an entirely emancipated one. He lives on playing, so to say, with his destiny, liberating himself from every kind of fetter.' He went on to describe his disciple’s simple life: 'In the morning he wanders out of his hut and goes God knows where and in the evening loiters around somewhere. For fame he cares nothing. Men’s cunning ways he puts out of the question.' His freewheeling spirit had much in common with the American writer Henry David Thoreau’s. Ryokan’s life was an affirmation of alternate values and a rebuke to the hypocrisy and rigid values found in Japanese Zen monasteries and in society at large.
His 'foolishness' belongs in a Taoist-Buddhist context as an inversion of social norms. Ryokan declares the Way of the Fool in his poem 'No Mind':
With no mind, flowers lure the
With no mind, the butterfly visits
Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly
When the butterfly comes, the
'No mind,' or mushin, means not to cling or to strive, and when it is joined with mujo, or acceptance of life’s impermanence, we have the greatness of the fool.
To achieve this original or beginner’s mind, Ryokan sought the company of children, kept his humble begging rounds, accepted his everyday life, and recorded it all in his authentic poems. Dropping whatever he was doing, he would turn to join the children’s games of tag and blindman’s buff, hide-and-seek, and 'grass fights.' He was once caught playing marbles with a geisha and is said never to have refused a game of Go. He relished playing dead for the children, who would bury him in leaves, and he would spend the day picking flowers with them, forgetting his begging rounds.
The stories of Ryokan’s playfulness are legendary. Here’s one,
preserved after his death in
'Ryokan was playing hide-and-seek, and when it came his turn to hide, he looked around for a spot where the children wouldn’t find him. Noticing a tall haystack, he crawled inside, concealing himself completely in the hay. No matter how hard they searched, the children couldn’t find him. Soon they grew tired of playing, the sun began to set, and when they saw the smoke rising from the dinner fires, they deserted Ryokan and returned to their homes. Unaware of this, Ryokan imagined the children were still searching for him. Thinking, ‘Here they come to look for me! Now they’re going to find me,’ he waited and waited. He waited all night and was still waiting when dawn arrived. In farmhouses, in the morning the kitchen hearth is lit by burning bundles of hay, and when the farmer’s daughter came to fetch some of these, she was startled to find Ryokan hiding in the haystack. ‘Ryokan! What in the world are you doing here?’ she cried. ‘Shh!’ Ryokan warned her, ‘The children will find me.’ '
His tendency to misplace things—his walking stick, his begging bowl, books, even his underwear—was well known. Among the stories of his chronic forgetfulness is one of a visit by the famous scholar Kameda Bosai. When Bosai found Ryokan sitting zazen on the porch of his hut, he waited—several hours—for the monk to finish, and then Bosai and Ryokan happily talked poetry, philosophy, and writing until evening, when Ryokan rose to fetch them some sake from town.
Again Bosai waited several hours, then grew concerned and began to walk toward the village. When he found his host a hundred yards away, sitting under a pine tree, he exclaimed, 'Ryokan! Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for hours and was afraid something had happened to you.' Ryokan looked up. 'Bosai, you have just come in time. Look, isn’t the moon splendid tonight?' When Bosai asked about the sake, Ryokan replied, 'Oh, yes, the sake. I forgot all about it,' and headed off to town. To be distracted by life’s moments is indeed a Zen virtue, though it is often a trial for friends.
Ryokan often wrote in the Kanshi form—poems composed in classical Chinese. Taken together, his Kanshi poems are best seen as an undated journal, a record of a humble life spent living in the moment without thoughts of fame and power. In recording his experience of play, begging, observing people and nature, and accepting life’s bounty, Ryokan becomes the self-deprecating great fool in order to mentor us in an authentic life of simplicity, trust, humility, and finding the true way in everyday life.