by Rev. Nonin Chowaney
Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center

The Soto Zen Buddhist hermit-monk / poet Ryokan (1758?-1831) is a beloved figure in Japan. In John Stevens’ introduction to his translations of Ryokan poems – One Robe, One Bowl – Stevens writes:

"Ryokan represents something very special in the Japanese character...all who wish truly to understand Japan should study the life and poetry of this eighteenth-century hermit-monk. From a religious standpoint also, Ryokan is exceptional, exemplifying as he does the Zen Buddhist idea of attaining enlightenment and then returning to the world with "a serene face and gentle words." In his life he was indeed Daigu, the ‘Great Fool’ (the literary name he gave himself), one who had gone beyond the limitations of all artificial man-made restraints."

In this article, I intend to look at some of Ryokan’s poems and see why he is regarded so highly, but first, a bit of biography.

Ryokan was born around 1758 in Echizen Prefecture, in the heart of Japan’s snow country. His father was the village headman, and Ryokan was supposed to succeed him in this position when he turned eighteen. However, Ryokan felt that he wasn’t suited for this position, and he decided to become a Buddhist monk. He shaved his head and had trained at the local Zen temple for four years when the famous Zen Master Kokusen came to lecture. Ryokan was deeply impressed with him and decided to return with Kokusen to his temple, Entsui-ji in Okayama Prefecture, and become his disciple.

Ryokan practiced with Kokusen for twelve years, until the Master died. Then, he went on a pilgrimage, and after almost five years, he decided to return to his home area. He found an empty hut halfway up Mount Kugami and began living there, supporting himself by begging in the villages below.

Ryokan lived the hermit’s life from the age of forty to his death thirty-four years later in 1831. He became a masterful poet whose work has been translated into many languages and a master calligrapher whose work is now considered priceless.

Here’s one of my favorite Ryokan poems:


If someone asks
My abode
I reply:
"The east edge of
The Milky Way."

Like a drifting cloud,
Bound by nothing:
I just let go
Giving myself up
To the whim of the wind

Translated by John Stevens

What an expansive view of one’s environment! I’ve always admired, and sometimes envied those who could be at home anywhere, and in this poem Ryokan presents himself as one of those people. Like a drifting cloud, he has no preconceived notion of where he’s supposed to be or go. Because he has no preconceived notion, his mind does not limit him, and he can be or go anywhere, with equanimity. This is complete liberation, freedom from all restraint. Wherever life takes him, he will go. How wonderful! Ryokan’s poem reminds me of the following koan:

A monk asked the master Sengcan: "Master, show me the way to liberation."
Sengcan replied: "Who binds you?"
The monk replied: "No one binds me."
Sengcan said: "Then why do you seek liberation?"

Here’s another poem by Ryokan along the same lines. This is one of his most famous ones:


The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way.

Translated by John Stevens

This poem is bit more subtle than it first appears. As I read it this morning, I thought of how the mind is fundamentally clear, like the sky, and when thoughts leave, like clouds moving away, the mind is clear again, like the sky when it’s free of clouds.

When Ryokan speaks of purity, I think that he’s speaking of the heart (or the mind, for the character for both is the same one) that’s open and free of the defilements arising from greed, hatred, and delusion, the three poisons in Buddhism. When the heart is free of these, the mental state of nirvana, or perfect peace, arises.

How do we abandon this fleeting world? Well, first, we awaken to the fact that it is fleeting, that nothing lasts from moment to moment. If we cling to impermanent things – and all things are impermanent – we will suffer. The end to suffering is through non-clinging. Also, there is no self, so Ryokan is saying to abandon the notion we have of ourselves as fixed and permanent entities, and live your life guided by the moon and flowers, which will guide you along the Way, the Buddha’s Way, the way of the awakened person. The moon and the flowers come and go, unobstructed and impermanent, like us.

Ryokan truly loved the life he chose for himself, and the following poem illustrates that:


Truly, I love this life of seclusion.
Carrying my staff, I walk toward a friend’s cottage.
The trees in his garden, soaked by the evening rain,
Reflect the cool, clear autumnal sky.
The owner’s dog comes to greet me;
Chrysanthemums bloom along the fence.
These people have the same spirit as the ancients;
An earthen wall marks their separation from the world.
In the house volumes of poetry are piled on the floor.
Abandoning worldliness, I often come to this tranquil place –
The spirit here is the spirit of Zen.

Translated by John Stevens

"Abandoning the world" is a phrase encountered frequently in Zen poetry and in Zen sutras and other texts. What does it mean? How can we abandon the world? We can’t step out of it; where would we go? Ryokan says near the end of the poem to abandon worldliness, and to me, this is key to living the Buddha Way.

Most people consider fame, status, wealth, power, security, comfort, and sensual pleasure to be the most important things in life. A person’s worth in the eyes of the world is determined by how successful he or she is in these areas. This is especially true in American culture. Monks are not thought of very highly in Omaha, or in any other part of America. In the words of the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, "In a materialistic culture which is fundamentally irreligious, the monk is incomprehensible because he ‘produces nothing.’ His life appears to be completely useless." And not only monks are looked at in this way. Anyone who does not strive for what most people consider most important in life is regarded as an "underachiever" and lives on the fringes of mainstream American Society.

"Abandoning worldliness" means transforming our basic attitudes toward life. It means to turn away from what most people hold dear and turn towards what the Buddhas, the awakened ones, hold dear. It means to refocus yourself and your aim in life. The example of Shakyamuni Buddha is one we all need to remember. He was a prince, and he had as much, or more, wealth, social status, fame, and power as anyone did in his culture, but he finally realized that these things could not bring him peace and contentment, so he renounced them.

Ryokan did the same thing. He was in line to succeed his father as village headman, a position that would have secured him a comfortable life, but he gave it up and became a monk.

However, "abandoning worldliness" does not necessarily mean becoming a monk; it means "turning away and turning towards." Both the monk and the lay person must make this turn. The great Tibetan Master, Tson Ka Pa, put it this way: "When there is not the slightest ambition, even for a split second, for even the greatest successes in the world, the mind of renunciation has arisen." Renunciation is a state of mind, the mind of "no worldly ambition," which means no ambition for success in the areas of fame, status, wealth, power, etc. We seek success in the way we live, in what kind of person we are, and in following the Sixteen Bodhisattava Precepts.

As we’ve seen, Ryokan loved the life he had chosen, but it was not always sweetness and light. Sometimes, we who live busy lives in the city romanticize the hermit’s life and wish that we could go to the mountains and live it. Here’s a poem that illustrates the other side of Ryokan’s lifestyle:


Light sleep, the bane of old age:
Dozing off, evening dreams, waking again.
The fire in the hearth flickers; all night a steady rain
Pours off the banana tree.
Now is the time I wish to share my feelings –
But there is no one.

Translated by John Stevens

Ryokan’s life was not free of hardship. In the above poem, he can’t sleep; it’s raining; the fire’s going out, and he’s alone. He needs to talk to someone, but there’s no one; his loneliness is palpable.

The next series of poems further explore this theme.

The Long Winter Night: Three Poems

The long winter night! The long winter night seems endless;
When will it be day?
No flame in the lamp nor charcoal in the fireplace;
Lying in bed, listening to the sound of freezing rain.

To an old man, dreams come easy;
I let my thoughts drift.
The room is empty and both the sak
é and the oil are used up –
The long winter night

When I was a boy studying in an empty hall,
Over and over I had to fill the lamp with oil.
Even now, that task is disagreeable –
The long winter night.

Translated by John Stevens

Ryokan’s loneliness and sadness now verges on despair. Just getting through the night seems a monumental task, especially as he gets older and older. Eventually, his health began to worsen, and his friends felt that he had to leave his mountain hermitage. He moved to a small hut near a shrine down the mountain, and when he was sixty-nine and in poor health, he went to live with one of his disciples in the city of Shimazaki.

Ryokan frequently wrote about different aspects of Zen Buddhist practice. Here’s one of those poems:


Talk is always easy
Practice always hard
It’s no wonder people try to make up for
their lack of hard practice with easy talk
But the harder they try, the worse things get
The more they talk, the more wrong they go
It’s like pouring on oil to put out a fire
Just foolishness and nothing else

Translated by Abé and Haskel

Zen Buddhist practice is about doing the work, not about talking about it, but that doesn’t stop people from doing so. I’m active on a Zen Buddhist internet forum, and a large number of people "try to make up for their lack of hard practice with easy talk." In fact many of them don’t practice at all, but yet they try to come across as experts! Sometimes, I think of the above poem and want to post it when one of these people is pontificating, but I restrain myself.

In Zen, we say that reading and talking about Zen Buddhism is like going to a restaurant and eating the menu. A person can receive no sustenance in this way. You can’t awaken to your own true nature by reading or talking about other people’s experiences. In Soto Zen Buddhism, we need to sit zazen regularly, practice under the guidance of a teacher, and connect with and practice with a group. There’s no way around this.

Here’s another of Ryokan’s poems, another of his most famous ones:

Playing with the Children

Early spring
The landscape is tinged with the first
fresh hints of green
Now I take my wooden begging bowl
And wander carefree through town
The moment the children see me
They scamper off gleefully to bring their friends
They’re waiting for me at the temple gate
Tugging from all sides so I can barely walk
I leave my bowl on a white rock
Hang my pilgrim’s bag on a pine tree branch
First we duel with blades of grass
Then we play ball
While I bounce the ball, they sing the song
Then I sing the song and they bounce the ball
Caught up in the excitement of the game
We forget completely about the time
Passersby turn and question me:
"Why are you carrying on like this?"
I just shake my head without answering
Even if I were able to say something
how could I explain?
Do you really want to know the meaning of it all?
This is it! This is it!

Translated by Abé and Haskel

This poem presents a picture of the Ryokan that the Japanese love so much: a playful, childlike person willing to interact with whoever crosses his path, especially children, whom he loved and who loved him. It also presents a picture of what’s most important for a Zen Buddhist practitioner: "This is it! This is it!"

"Just this," a famous Zen phrase, means that this moment is all we have and to live fully and completely, we need to engage fully in the issue at hand, with whatever is in front of us. In the above poem, Ryokan manifests this fully.

The following poem is another of my favorites. I used to keep a copy of it taped to the wall above my desk, so I would see it whenever I got the urge to slack off in practice.


The sun sets, and all living things cease to stir
I, too, close my brushwood gate
A few crickets begin to chirp
The color of grasses and trees has faded
Burning stick after stick of incense
I meditate through the long autumn night
When my body gets cold, I put on more clothes
Practice hard, fellow students of Zen!
Time is gone before you realize

Translated by Abé and Haskel

Ryokan died on January 6, 1831. He left behind a wonderfully varied collection of poetry and some masterful calligraphy. The two translations of Ryokan’s poetry into English that I like the most are John Stevens’ One Robe, One Bowl and Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, and Ryuichi Abé and Peter Haskel’s Great Fool, Zen Master Ryokan.

I’ll leave you with the following poem, one of Ryokan’s last:

Life is like a dewdrop,
Empty and fleeting;
My years are gone
And now, quivering and frail,
I must fade away.

© Copyright Nonin Chowaney, 2011
Reprinted from Prarie Wind, Vol. 19, no. 2

Nonin Sensei is the Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center and a disciple of Dainin Katagiri Roshi.

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