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 1831 in Ryokan’s family archive:
'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.
Larry Smith is a professor of English and humanities at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He is currently working with Mei Hui of Taiwan on a translation of poems by Ryokan entitled Kanshi Poems by Ryokan. From the spiritual journal Parabola(Fall 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr (4 issues.) From Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.