Sunday, December 12, 2010

Zen Master Ryōkan

Yin/YangYin/Yang, Hong Kong, 2010

Zen Master Ryōkan is a wildly popular character in Japan, but, I think, less well-known in my neck of the woods. I first came across him in a somewhat animated Net discussion, where someone quoted his note-to-self about how (not) to comport yourself in conversation. It seemed so fresh, wise, and to the point that it stuck with me.
Some things I find disturbing:
People who talk too much
People who talk too fast
Boisterous speech
People who talk to themselves
Gratuitous remarks
Flowery speech
People who never learn
People who are two-faced
People who start to speak before others have finished
Inappropriate remarks
Lecturing others about losing their tempers
Lecturing others when you lose your temper
People who make a fuss over nothing
Exposing things people wish to conceal
Playing the fool
Answering people without understanding what they've told you
Words spoken in passing
Fight stories
Political scuttlebutt
People who swindle children
People who make children worldly-wise
People who like to use words they don't understand
Miracle stories
Bewailing things that can't be helped
If something trivial is said, just ignore it
It's not easy to be a good listener

Ryōkan-san was an eccentric. He left his rich and powerful samurai family to study Zen, then left the Zen temple to live in a hut by a mountainside, subsisting on alms given by the neighboring villagers and his many correspondents. He played ball with village children, gathered flowers, composed poetry, and brushed calligraphy—and endured the hard winters and rude conditions of a simple life in rural Japan.

He was a great innocent; apparently utterly oblivious to duplicity or even social convention, picking his nose at the dinner table, then stuffing the booger back in his nose when noticing the shocked expressions of his companions; one who delighted in the moment like a child, forgetting his few belongings at a house he visits, getting sidetracked by some pretty flowers in a field.
I was on my way to beg
But passing by a spring field
I spent the whole day
Picking violets
Yet this village idiot was deeply and broadly read in Buddhist literature and Chinese and Japanese poetry, and was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most skilled poets and calligraphers of his time. People from all corners of Japan sought him out for samples of his work. When he refused such requests, they would ask to have the refusal in writing, which he duly provided, and which have been carefully preserved as treasured samples of the Master's calligraphy.
Even though you sent a messenger here in the snow, the fact is that lately I'm unable to do any calligraphy. All my brushes are worn out. And even if I had a brush, I wouldn't be able to lift it. No matter who comes asking, my reply will be exactly the same.
That's all.
While Ryōkan had no formal students, he did instruct some people in Zen practice, sometimes through correspondence or collaborative poetry. He also wrote a few short essays on Buddhism, and what was wrong with the way it was practiced in Japan of his time. Had he wanted to, I have no doubt that Ryōkan could have out-sophisticated anyone, in social graces or intellectual one-upmanship, or in the Dharma battles that were common currency among Zen monks at the time (and, I understand, still are.) He chose not to. That cannot have been an easy choice. I'm sure those lists he composed reflect the his struggles with his own character much more than frustrations with other people. They ring of bitter experience.

Zen Master Ryōkan left no Dharma heirs and took no formal students; the closest anyone came to that was the nun Teishin, who became his closest friend towards the end of his life. His life was his teaching, and as such at least as inspiring as, say, the profound and intricate method committed to writing by Vasubandhu over a thousand years earlier. Ryōkan is the exact opposite of the ideal of the hardass Zen master who sits in zazen until his legs fall off from gangrene and cuts off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep. Ryōkan-san slept when he was sleepy, ate when he was hungry, complained when he was ill, played when he was playful, gathered violets when he happened upon a field of them, and was exactly what he was, in every moment.
The breath going out, the breath coming in
Over and then over again
Know that this is itself the proof
That this world never ends
There's a deep truth in that. Only Ryōkan-san could be Ryōkan-san, and it would be as silly to try to emulate him as it would have been for Ryōkan-san to try to emulate Hakuin or Dōgen or Bodhidharma. Being who you are is harder than you think, and a conundrum for us Zen students—how do you learn to be you from someone who isn't you, instead of wasting your time trying to learn to be someone who you're not?

Being yourself. What could be simpler? Then how is it that most of us never manage it?
It's not that I don't care
To mingle with others
Only that I'm better
At amusing myself

Recommended reading

Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan—Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, translated by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, University of Hawai'i Press, 1996


  1. Thanks for that delightful posting!

  2. I liked this one very much.

    Perhaps no one teaches you to be you, they just teach you how not to be them.

  3. What a wonderful tribute to Ryokan.

  4. That was a good time. I love Ryokan. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the thanks, folks. This one was a bit of an experiment, I'm happy you enjoyed it.