THE ZEN POET Ryokan was born in 1758 in the remote and snowy province of Echigo, located in northern Honshu, bordering the Sea of Japan. His father was the village headman and a haiku poet of some note, and Ryokan received a thorough education in the classics of China and Japan. Shy and studious as a boy, Ryokan was the local Don Juan for a brief period in his youth. Following a spiritual crisis around the age of twenty, however, he renounced his patrimony and entered a Zen monastery.
In 1780 Ryokan became the disciple of Kokusen, the top Soto Zen roshi of the period, and accompanied that master to Entsu-ji in Tamashima. Ryokan trained diligently at that lovely little monastery until Kokusen's death in 1791. Even though he had received formal sanction as Kokusen's Dharma heir, Ryokan spurned all invitations to head up his own temple and embarked instead on a long pilgrimage, wandering all over Japan during the next decade.
In his early forties, Ryokan drifted back to his native place, and he remained there the rest of his days, living quietly in mountain hermitages. He supported himself by begging, sharing his food with birds and beasts, and spent his time doing Zen meditation, gazing at the moon, playing games with the local children and geisha, visiting friends, drinking rice wine with farmers, dancing at festivals, and composing poems brushed in exquisite calligraphy.
A friend wrote this about Ryakan:
When Ryokan visits it is as if spring had come on a dark winter's day. His character is pure and he is free of duplicity and guile. Ryokan resembles one of the immortals of ancient literature and religion. He radiates warmth and compassion. He never gets angry, and will not listen to criticism of others, Mere contact with him brings out the best in people.
Once a relative of Ryokan's asked him to speak to his delinquent son. Ryakan came to visit the family home but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He stayed the night and prepared to leave the following morning. As the wayward boy was helping tie Ryokan's straw sandals, he felt a warm drop of water on his shoulder. Glancing up, the boy saw Ryakan, with eyes full of tears, looking down at him. Ryokan departed silently, but the boy soon mended his ways.
The samurai lord of the local domain heard of Ryokan's reputation as a worthy Zen monk and wanted to construct a temple and install Ryokan as abbot. The lord went to visit the monk at Gogo-an, Ryokan's hermitage on Mount Kugami, but he was out gathering flowers, and the party waited patiently until Ryokan returned with a bowl full of fragrant blossoms. The lord made his request, but Ryokan remained silent. Then he brushed a haiku on a piece of paper and handed it to the lord:
The wind gives me Enough fallen leaves To make a fire,
The lord nodded in acknowledgment and returned to his castle,
Once, after the long winter confinement, Ryokan visited the village barber to have his shaggy head of hair shaved off The barber cut one side but then demanded a ransom to finish the job: a sample of Ryokan's calligraphy. Ryokan brushed the name of a Shinto god, a kind of calligraphy that served as a goodluck charm, Pleased that he had outwitted the monk, the barber had the calligraphy mounted and displayed it in his alcove,
A visitor remarked to the barber one day, "You know, there is a character missing from the god's name,"
Such an omission negates the calligraphy's effect as a talisman, and the barber confronted Ryokan. Ryokan scolded him good-naturedly for his greed: "You shortchanged me, so I short-changed you. That kind old lady down the road always gives me extra bean cake, so the calligraphy I gave her has an extra character in it!"
Old and infirm, Ryokan was finally obliged to leave his mountain hut and spent his final days at the home of one of his patrons in the village. Near the end of his life, he fell in love with the beautiful young nun Teishin, She was at Ryokan's side when he passed away on January 6, 1831, at age seventy_three.
Ryokan wrote thousands of poems and poem-letters, both Chinese and Japanese style, and scattered them about. These were treasured by the local folk and later lovingly studied and collected by scholars. The first edition of Ryokan's poems, titled Hachisn no rsnyn ("Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf") and compiled by Teishin, appeared in 1835. Expanded collections of Ryokan's work have continued to be published over the years, and he is likely Japan's most popular and beloved Zen poet. As mentioned in the tale above, Ryokan's delightful brushwork, totally unaffected and free-flowing, is also highly esteemed, and Ryokan is venerated as one of the greatest calligraphers of all time in East Asia.
The practice of Zen and the appreciation of Zen art is now universal, and Ryokan's life and spirit speak to lovers of poetry, religion, and beauty everywhere. The selection of poems presented here reflects the range and depth of Ryokan's Zen vision, He focused on "things deep inside the heart," and his poems cover the spectrum of human experience: joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, enlightenment and illusion, love and loneliness, man and nature. Like those of his counterpart Cold Mountain (Han-shan), the legendary Zen poet of T'ang China, Ryokan's poems reveal the full, rich texture of Zen,
Good friends and excellent teachers- Stick close to them!
Wealth and power are fleeting dreams
But wise words perfume the world for ages.