The Way of the Holy Fool

What a monk can teach us about living, laughing, and child's play

| January/February 2002

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
to play.'
—Taigu Ryokan

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.

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