Monday, December 30, 2013
Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan
Book Review: Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan by Kazuaki Tanahashi (Shambhala 2012 – Kindle edition)
Ryokan is definitely my favorite of the Zen poets, perhaps of all poets. His simple poetry seems to have the strange ability to cut through and paint barren yet accurate pictures of reality but also often seems to manage to purvey a sense of contentment with simplicity. There is often sadness yet with a sense of slightly cheerful acceptance, without mincing words. Indeed his poetry can have the strange ability to invoke sadness and happiness at the same time. For me it is a great delight to read. This book is a biography as well as a collection of his poetry and several pieces of his unique calligraphy. There are also some fun anecdotal stories. The author/translator Tanahashi is also an accomplished calligrapher and a Zen practitioner. So in this collection, a detailed analysis of Ryokan’s calligraphy complements the text.
Ryokan (1758-1831) was also called Daigu, Great Fool. He lived alone most often in a small hut in the mountains rather than in a monastery. He was a beggar and pilgrim much of the time, had few belongings, and practiced frugality. He preferred to spend much of his time playing games with children. He also seemed to have a robust sense of humor. Tanahashi sees Ryokan, Dogen, and Hakuin as the three greatest figures of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Dogen (1200-1253) composed rules for monastic life and meditation training and founded the Soto Zen tradition. Hakuin (1685-1768) popularized Zen and systematized training based on koans (paradoxical questions) and is considered a restorer of the Rinzai Zen school. Ryokan spent 10 years in monastic training but then left for solitary practice. He did not found or restore a school and did not produce a dharma heir. Even so, his poems and the anecdotes of his simple hermetic life have inspired others, even during his lifetime.
“His poems eloquently reflect his experience of the seasonal manifestations of nature and the fragility of human life, as well as the joy of seeing friends and playing with children.”
He was honest about his loneliness and longing for human contact yet he acknowledged his preference for solitude:
It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
He was said to be tall, wore tattered clothes, rarely showed strong emotions, yet was a lofty spirit.
He studied calligraphy much and was said to practice sometimes with his finger in the air for at times he had no brush or paper. He would use twigs too. He was often asked to do calligraphy but would not always do so. He would most often do so for children. Once a child asked him to write on his paper. He asked the child what he would do with the paper. He said he would make a kite and fly it and needed words to call the wind. Ryokan wrote – “Sky above, great wind.”
Ryokan favored spontaneity and heartfelt expression in the arts over artificiality and professionalism: “I hate calligraphers’ calligraphy and poets’ poems.”
Ryokan was from a prominent family. His father was a village headman, haiku poet, and Shinto priest. Ryokan was able to read many books in his youth. He was unable to succeed his father as village headman. He escaped and became a Zen monk. One legend has it that he was distressed by seeing a criminal decapitated. Another suggested that he failed miserably in resolving a dispute and was seen as unfit for the position. Ryokan trained at the monastery under Zen master Kokusen who encouraged meditation, labor, and poverty. After his training he traveled as a beggar and pilgrim. He felt that most practitioners did not display the genuine spirit of dharma practice.
From age 39 to age 59 Ryokan lived in a hut behind a small Shingon (esoteric/tantric) school temple on the slope of a mountain. He was known to study Dogen’s famed Treasury of the True Dharma Eye and wrote poems about it. Dogen’s books were apparently forgotten for 400 years until a resurgence led by Ryokan’s teacher Kokusen – though Ryokan may not have been aware of it.
Anecdotes from Ryokan’s life show his carefree attitude that could be annoying, awkward, or hilarious.
Renouncing the world, renouncing the body, I have become a person of leisure.
Keeping company with the moon and blossoms, I spend my remaining life.
So clear – rain, clouds, and spirit.
I am awake, as are all things in the world.
In cultivating relaxation and contentment without goal or striving he has this to say:
As long as I don’t aim,
I won’t miss.
With the catalpa bow,
I shoot an arrow
toward the open sky.
At age 59 Ryokan moved further down the mountain closer to the village as he was getting too old to walk long through high snow to beg for food and was thus getting malnourished. He moved into a two-room hut at a forested Shinto shrine. He lived here for ten years and also inadvertently became the shrinekeeper and somewhat of a Shinto priest in order to be able to stay there. During this time period Shinto and Buddhism were more integrated. They would become more separated during the next century.
At age 69 Ryokan became too frail to collect firewood, water, and walk far to beg. He was invited by a patron to move into his house in the plain by the village. He accepted but insisted on staying in the firewood shed. Here he lived the last five years of his life. Here he was first visited by a young nun, Teishin, and exchanged poems with her. The author describes his relationship with her as a kind of love affair, though Platonic. He was more than 40 years older than her. She became his student. She wrote a memoir of Ryokan and a collection of his poetry called Dew on the Lotus. Their back-and-forth poems are contemplative and affectionate. Teishin visited him much and came to help tend him as he died. As is customary Ryokan wrote death poems. Here is one:
Showing its back
and showing its front,
a falling maple leaf.
The author gives Ryokan’s poems separated into periods of his life: wandering period (age 33-39), mature period (age 39-59), later period (age 59-69), and final period (age 69-74).
From the wandering period:
Past has passed away.
Future has not arrived.
Present does not remain.
Nothing is reliable; everything must change.
You hold on to letters and names in vain,
forcing yourself to believe in them.
Stop chasing new knowledge.
Leave old views behind.
Study the essential
and then see through it.
When there is nothing left to see through,
then you will know your mistaken views.
Here is another from the mature period exemplifying the life of a care-free hermit:
Rags upon rags,
tatter is my life.
I pluck my food on a country path.
My hut is buried in a tangle of weeds.
Looking at the moon, I hum all night;
deluded by blossoms, I forget to return.
Since leaving the monastery,
what a fool I have become!
Here is one from the later period at the Shinto shrine apparently by a bamboo grove:
A thief took the han and futon from the thatched-roof room.
Who could blame him?
All night I sit alone under the quiet window –
rain sprinkles sparsely on the bamboo grove
This one is neat. A realization song perhaps:
On a quiet evening in my thatched-roof hut,
alone I play a lute with no string.
Its melody enters wind and cloud,
mingles deeply with the flowing stream,
fills out the dark valley,
blows through the vast forest, then disappears.
Other than those who hear emptiness,
who will capture this rare sound?
Ryokan was called upon to conduct a funeral for children killed in a smallpox epidemic. Many coffins were brought for cremation. He mentioned the horrible Imo, the Japanese god of smallpox and disease. He offered this poem:
the heavenly sky.
A child’s image
is all that remains.
After chanting the Lotus Sutra for them that evening he offered this aspiration:
all fallen children
to the Buddha’s
After imagining for a while that he is someone who has lost a child he writes:
Seeing other people’s
I stand in the garden,
Here is a poem from the final period at the woodshed hut on a snowy night:
Reflecting over seventy years,
I am tired of judging right from wrong.
Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow.
A stick of incense under the rickety window.
Here is one I can relate to as I love to take a handful of ripe aronia berries on a hot summer day and pop them into my mouth, suck out the juice, and spit out the astringent skins:
I sneak into your garden
to eat aronia berries
(Please keep yourself hidden
until I go away!)
Ryokan suffered with diarrhea through much of his old age:
If I say it
yet my diarrhea stomach
hard to bear.
The following two seem to be death poems:
What legacy shall I
Flowers in spring.
Cuckoos in summer.
Maple leaves in autumn.
I will jump
onto a lotus leaf.
Let people call me
There is a section on anecdotes, some of which are rather funny:
“In the middle of summer, Ryokan announced: “I will air the entire Buddhist canon in the Five Scoop Hut. Please come and see.”
“The villagers went to the hut, but there were no books of the canon; only Ryokan, lying naked. On his drum-like belly was written the phrase “Entire canon.” The villagers were dumbfounded.”
Apparently, many tried to coerce Ryokan to write some calligraphy for them but he was not always eager to comply. Here is one story:
“Ryokan went begging at a house around
The man of the house was witty and thought of a trick to get Ryokan’s
calligraphy. When he served the midday meal, he set a brush and paper at the
side of the meal tray and said, “Rev. Ryokan. People say your calligraphy is
getting worse and worse. What a shame! You need to practice some.” Sone Village
Ryokan listened to him without words. After the meal, he took up the brush and wrote: “Medicine is bitter. Sugar is sweet.”
Here is an example of Ryokan blessing farmers with his magic:
“Ryokan had great respect for farming. In the seasons of plowing and harvesting, he reflected on the farmers’ labor to turn one grain of rice into many. He would draw paintings of farmers at work and then post them in his hut, offering incense and flowers. One of his waka poems says:
rice seedlings are transplanted
In my hut
I paint farmers and
bow with offerings.
There is a section explaining the poetic forms and scripts used by Ryokan. The three poetic genres are the familiar haiku (mainly initiated a century or so earlier by the famed Zen master Basho), waka, and kanshi. Haiku is 17 syllables in three lines: 5-7-5. Waka is an ancient Japanese form which includes short poems called tanka and longer ones called choka. Choka is a repetition of five and seven syllable pairs. Kanshi is a Chinese-style poem written in ideographs but which is read in Japanese pronunciation. The ideographs have formal, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts. Ryokan’s complete collection of poems contains 107 haiku, 1350 waka, and 483 kanshi.
“Japanese poetry has three levels of expression: the poem itself, the script of the syllables, and the aesthetics of the calligraphy, including column breaks.”
The author goes into detail about these forms and offers many examples and critiques of Ryokan’s calligraphy. He shows the complexity of Japanese poetry where ideographs and phonetics are mixed in various ways offering further psychological nuance. He guesses that this feature may be unique to Japanese language.
Such a delight to read Ryokan’s musings!