Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sunday Poet: Ryokan

First days of spring -- the sky

First days of spring -- the sky
is bright blue, the sun huge and warm.
Everything's turning green.
Carrying my monk's bowl, I walk to the village
to beg for my daily meal.
The children spot me at the temple gate
and happily crowd around,
dragging to my arms till I stop.
I put my bowl on a white rock,
hang my bag on a branch.
First we braid grasses and play tug-of-war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air:
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
"Why are you acting like such a fool?"
I nod my head and don't answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what's in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!


The Lotus

First blooming in the Western Paradise,
The lotus has delighted us for ages.
Its white petals are covered with dew,
its jade green leaves spread out over the pond,
And its pure fragrance perfumes the wind.
Cool and majestic, it raises from the murky water.
The sun sets behind the mountains
But I remain in the darkness, too captivated to leave.


This world

This world
A fading
Mountain echo
Void and

A light snow
Three Thousand Realms
Within those realms
Light snow falls

As the snow
Engulfs my hut
At dusk
My heart, too
Is completely consumed


When all thoughts

When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd's purse.

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.


You do not need many things

My house is buried in the deepest recess of the forest
Every year, ivy vines grow longer than the year before.
Undisturbed by the affairs of the world I live at ease,
Woodmen’s singing rarely reaching me through the trees.
While the sun stays in the sky, I mend my torn clothes
And facing the moon, I read holy texts aloud to myself.
Let me drop a word of advice for believers of my faith.
To enjoy life’s immensity, you do not need many things.

Ryokan is one of the world's best-known and most-loved Buddhist poets. The poems above are all from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens. I also recommend One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, also translated by John Stevens.

Here is some biographical information from Poet Seers (note: Ryokan's birth is given as 1758, though the date in unclear):

Taigu Ryokan (1758-1831) (nicknamed Great Fool) lives on as one of Japan's best loved poets, the wise fool who wrote of his humble life with such directness. He is in a tradition of radical Zen poets or "great fools" including China's P'ang Yun (Layman P'ang, 740-811) and Han-shan (Cold Mountain, T'ang Dynasty), and Japan's poets of the Rinzai School: Ikkyu Sojun (Crazy Cloud, 1394-1481) and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769). Ryokan had no disciples, ran no temple, and in the eyes of the world was a penniless monk who spent his life in the snow country of Mt. Kugami. He admired most the Soto Zen teachings of Dogen Zenji and the unconventional life and poetry of Zen mountain poet Han-shan. He repeatedly refused to be honored or confined as a "professional" either as a Buddhist priest or a poet.

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 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.

When writing about Ryokan, some American critics think of Thoreau, who was contemporary with Ryokan, though younger, and shared the Zen poet's love of nature and distaste for the contrivances of civilized life. In reading Thoreau, however, I never sense the inner peace and tranquility that is the defining characteristic of Ryokan's poetry.

Ryokan wrote in many different styles -- classical Chinese, haiku, waka, folk songs, and others. He is perhaps best know for his waka (five lines of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables), though he felt free to adapt this structure to his own needs. Even with haiku, he often added a free-style element that makes his verse distinctly his own. Most of the poems focus on daily life -- begging for food, playing with children, walking in nature -- but there are many Buddhist poems similar in tone to those at the top of the post.

What makes even the Buddhist poems so powerful , and this is why I love Ryokan's work, is that even when relating Buddhist doctrine, the poet uses imagery to carry the meaning rather than pedantic statements such as those employed by many Indian Buddhist poets.

Because Ryokan never composed with the thought of publication, his poetry is uneven at times. Some pieces are brilliant, simple images that convey so much more than words can hold (especially in translation), while others are more mundane. Still, the body of work is impressive.

In many ways he was Japan's version to Emily Dickinson more than Thoreau. Like Dickinson, Ryokan was a hermit who has little interest in the games of civilized life. Like Dickinson, he had little interest in fame (though she did try to publish a few times at the behest of friends and family). And like Dickinson, he left an incredible body of work that often rises to the level of mystic vision -- a body of work that inspires as much as it educates. Dickinson's mysticism is not so different from Ryokan's -- it just has a different flavor.

Ryokan on the web:

A good biography and look at Ryokan's poetry: Hermitary
Biography and a few poems: Poet Seers
Biography and a few poems: Poetry Chaikhana
A few poems: Ryokan
An essay on Ryokan and some unformatted poems: The Literary Review

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Heather Reed Writes said...

Hi Mark, I'm so happy to have found your blog. The path here is an interesting one. I was searching for Ryokan after a session with a Zen Calligraphy artist (Alok Hus Kwang-han) today in a workshop. I took a class last year at TESC "Integral Psychology & The Arts & Crafts Movement." I look forward to reading so many things on your site. I believe I have added a link on my page - I hope so. I will visit often. Lovely place to be already. All best - Heather

Heather Reed Writes said...

I must correct myself - Alok Hsu Kwang-han. Take a look!