The Lessons of Ryokan

| March / April 2005

Speak not concerning designs of the gods and buddhas.' So advised the Zen monk Ryokan (1758-1813), revered in Japan for his poems about life's simple pleasures. 'If Ryokan's point had been more deeply understood by his contemporaries,' writes William R. LaFleur, they might have stopped what later became a 'religion-backed Japanese nationalism' that led the country to ruin in World War II.

'Our situation today is not unlike that of Ryokan,' adds LaFleur, a scholar of Japanese religion at the University of Pennsylvania. 'Voices claiming to have god-given mandates, god-given lands or shrines, god-given glimpses into the future, even god-given commands to kill or make war are never far away.'

Writing in Criterion (Autumn 2003), a magazine from the University of Chicago Divinity School, LaFleur suggests there are 'valid ethical and religious reasons for refraining from speaking with the voice of prophecy and claiming to know the future or the will of the gods.' What we ought to fear is not God, he suggests, but our runaway technological powers.

To protect ourselves, we should forge a new global system of ethics from the wisdom scattered throughout the religious traditions. We'll need such a code to address issues like human cloning that will soon challenge our basic values, if not our survival. Echoing the German Jewish thinker Han Jonas, LaFleur says that we need to believe that our children will have a future. As part of what Jonas called our 'unconditional duty' to exist, we must protect the earth for those who will inherit it.

To that end, the studied simplicity of Ryokan's life holds a lesson for the modern world. As John Stevens writes in his book Zen Masters (Kodansha, 1999), Ryokan grew up in affluence but gave it up to wander the country-side with a single bowl, relying on others for his food. He liked to play marbles on the street with the women from a nearby brothel, and always carried cloth balls in his sleeve, ready for a game of catch with the local children. Many of his poems were about his young friends. Adults often took him to be guileless, even a fool. They never believed him that 'contentment is the true wealth.'

Ryokan's gorgeous calligraphy was highly valued, and local collectors were always trying to trick him into producing a bit of his 'delightfully irregular' brushwork. As Stevens recounts, one of them succeeded by getting a group of kids to ask the monk to write something on a new kite to help it fly. After pausing, he wrote the simple characters for Heaven-Up-Great-Wind. The piece remains a treasure, Stevens says, a masterpiece whose spontaneous beauty is impossible to describe.

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