A statue of Ryōkan.
Niigata Prefecture, Japan
Ryōkan Taigu (良寛大愚?) (1758–1831) was a quiet and eccentric Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. Ryōkan is remembered for his poetry and calligraphy, which present the essence of Zen life.
Ryōkan was born as Eizō Yamamoto (山本栄蔵 Yamamoto Eizō?) in the village of Izumozaki in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture) in Japan to the village headman. He renounced the world at an early age to train at nearby Sōtō Zen temple Kōshō-ji, refusing to meet with or accept charity from his family. Once the Zen master Kokusen visited the temple, and Ryōkan was deeply impressed with his demeanor. He solicited permission to become Kokusen's disciple. Kokusen accepted, and the two returned to Entsū-ji monastery in Tamashima (now Okayama Prefecture).
It was at Entsū-ji that Ryōkan attained satori and was presented with an Inka by Kokusen. Kokusen died the following year, and Ryōkan left Entsū-ji to embark on a long pilgrimage. He lived much of the rest of his life as a hermit, and did not return to monastic life. His decision to leave Entsū-ji may have been influenced by Gentō Sokuchū, the abbot of the temple. At the time, Gentō was aggressively reforming the Sōtō school to remove perceived 'foreign' elements, including kōan. The scholar Michel Mohr suggests Ryōkan may have been in disagreement with Gentō's efforts.
He was originally ordained as Ryōkan Taigu. Ryō means "good", kan means "broad", and Taigu means "great fool"; Ryōkan Taigu would thus translate as "broad-hearted generous fool", referring to qualities that Ryōkan's work and life embodies.
Life as a hermit
Ryōkan spent much of his time writing poetry, calligraphy, and communing with nature. His poetry is often very simple and inspired by nature. He loved children, and sometimes forgot to beg for food because he was playing with the children of the nearby village. Ryōkan refused to accept any position as a priest or even as a "poet", which shows his great humility. In the tradition of Zen his quotes and poems show he had a good sense of humour and didn't take himself too seriously.
However, even though he lived his simple and pure life, he also displayed characteristics that under normal circumstances would be out of line for a normal monk.
In 1826 Ryōkan became ill and was unable to continue living as a hermit. He moved into the house of one of his patrons, Kimura Motouemon and was cared for by a young nun called Teishin. "The [first] visit left them both exhilarated, and led to a close relationship that brightened Ryōkan's final years". The two of them exchanged a series of haiku. The poems they exchanged are both lively and tender. Ryōkan died from his illness on the 6th day of the new year 1831. "Teishin records that Ryōkan, seated in meditation posture, died 'just as if he were falling asleep'".
Stories of Ryōkan
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It is common practice for a monk to abstain from eating meat. Once a young monk sat to dinner with Ryōkan and watched him eat fish. When asked why, Ryōkan replied, “I eat fish when it’s offered, but I also let the fleas and flies feast on me [when sleeping at night]. Neither bothers me at all.”
It is said Ryōkan only slept with most of his body inside of a mosquito net so that he would not hurt the bugs outside.
Ryōkan was fond of rice wine and would sometimes drink it to excess. "I send one of the children to buy some country wine/ And after I'm drunk, toss off a few lines of calligraphy."
Ryōkan attended the midsummer Bon Festivals. Because he was a monk, he would normally be unable to attend, but sneaked in disguised as a woman.
Ryōkan hated waste, and so any food that he was offered that he did not eat, he put into a little pot. Over time, the food rotted and became filled with maggots and other bugs. When warned against eating it, all Ryōkan said was, “No, no, it’s all right. I let the maggots escape before I eat it and it tastes just fine!”
One evening a thief visited Ryōkan's hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon." This story may be an interpretation of an account mentioned by Ryōkan in a haiku:
- The thief left it behind:
- the moon
- at my window.
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Media related to Ryoukan at Wikimedia Commons
- One Robe, One Bowl; The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (ISBN 0834801264), 1977, translated and introduced by John Stevens. Weatherhill, Inc.
- Three Zen Masters: Ikkyū, Hakuin, Ryōkan (Kodansha Biographies) (ISBN 4770016514), 1993, by John Stevens.
- The Zen Fool: Ryōkan (ISBN 0804821283), 2000, translated, with an introduction, by Misao Kodama and Hikosaku Yanagashima.
- Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings (ISBN 0-8248-1777-X), 1996, by Ryuichi Abe (with Peter Haskel).
- Ryokan: Selected Tanka and Haiku, translated from the Japanese by Sanford Goldstein, Shigeo Mizoguchi and Fujisato Kitajima (Kokodo, 2000)
- Ryokan's Calligraphy, by Kiichi Kato; translated by Sanford Goldstein and Fujisato Kitajima (Kokodo, 1997)
- Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S. (2000), The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, Oxford University Press, p. 245, ISBN 0-19-511748-4
- Hoffmann, Yoel (translator). Japanese Death Poems. Tuttle, 1986. ISBN 0-8048-3179-3 p268
- Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen master Ryōkan: poems, letters, and other writings. University of Hawaii Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8248-1777-X p19
- Abe and Haskel, 1996, p19
- Abe and Haskell, 1996, p109
- Written after a thief robbed his hut, as translated in Mitchell, Stephen, editor. The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry. Harper Perennial, 1993. ISBN 978-0060920531 p162