The Lessons of Ryokan

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

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.

In the human quest for spiritual insight, there are creators and
collectors as well. One preserves what the other experiences by
encasing it in rituals and words. The result may be beautiful
artifacts, things to own and covet, perhaps even to kill and die
for. Ryokan knew that what we really seek lies entirely in the
moment when the kite rises and the child laughs.

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