Great Fool

After I included Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem (“What happens to a dream deferred?”) in my August 19th post, “Hands UP, Don’t Shoot,” I realized it had been many months since I had posted any poetry on the blog.  It’s not good to go too long without poetry, and a recent comment on The Endless Further’s Facebook page put me in mind of Ryokan (1758-1831), one of Japan’s most famous poets and calligraphers.

In 1790, when Ryokan was 32, his master, Tainin Kokusen (1723-1791), abbot of Entsuji, a large Sôtô Zen monastic center, wrote him a poem:

Ryokan! How nice to be like a fool
for then one’s Way is grand beyond measure
Free and easy, letting things takes their course –
who can fathom it?
I therefore entrust to you this staff of wild wisteria
Whenever you lean it against the wall
Let it bring the peace of a noonday nap.

The poem is presented in Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan : Poems, Letters, and Other Writings By Ryokan. In Ryuichi Abe’s essay, “The Poetics of Mendicancy,” he notes that “Kokusen praises Ryokan’s carefree spirit, which can easily be mistaken for that of a fool. Almost all subsequent biographies introduce Ryokan with this name: ‘Great Fool’.”

Evidently, he had Ryokan, a good sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously. He wasn’t too proud to refer to himself as Taigu or “Great Fool.”

Ryokan spent most of his life as a wandering mendicant and then as a hermit.  He was a Zen priest, poet and calligrapher, and lover – at age 68 he had a love affair with a young woman 40 years his junior.

In a biographical sketch of Ryokan found in Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Put simply, Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut. So that a thief could take his bedding from him, he rolled over, pretending to be asleep. If he had rice he joyfully gave some to birds or wild animals. He placed lice inside his robes, and left a leg outside his mosquito net so that the mosquitoes could drink his blood. He had boundless love of all living beings and all of nature.”

Ryokan’s residence at Gogo-an.

Many stories grew up around Ryokan, and it’s doubtful all these tales are true, but there may be some substance to the robbery story because he composed a poem about it:

At least those robbers
left one thing behind –
the moon in my window.

Ryokan entered the Sôtô order at 18 when he became Kokusen’s disciple. Kokusen was a famous Zen master at the time.  After Kokusen died, Ryokan left Entsuji temple, wanting to find a purer spiritual life. He wandered for many years and in 1804 finally settled at Gogo-an, a cottage on Mount Kugami where he became a recluse.

He was sometimes called “Temari-Shonin” (“The Priest who Plays with a Temari ball”) because he often played with a Temari ball (Japanese cotton-wound ball) together with children in the mountain village. Ryokyan loved children, he loved the serenity of nature, and, as mentioned above, he loved a woman. That in itself is not particularly exceptional, of course, but with Ryokan we must take into consideration his “profession” as well as the age difference between himself and his lover.

Around 1826 he began a relationship with a beautiful 28-year-old woman named Teishin. She had been born the daughter of a samurai in the domain of Nagaoka in Echigo province. She married a doctor when she was 17, and five years later after his death she became a Buddhist nun.

The story goes that Ryokan became sick and could no longer continue living as a hermit and moved into the home of one of his patrons. Teishin was traveling through the same town and heard that Ryokan was infirm and staying in a small house nearby, and went to care for him.  She was not only beautiful but also literary. Ryokan fell for her right away, and evidently, the feeling was mutual. When his health improved, they would meet in the foothills.  I’m not sure if it is known whether or not their love was ever consummated physically, but the two did exchange a series of tender poems.

In 1835, Teishin’s Hachisu no tsuyu (“Dew on the Lotus”), a collection of Ryokan’s haiku and waka poems were published for the first time. In 2004, this collection was translated by John Stevens, and from that translation, here is a short selection from the poems Ryokan and Teishin exchanged:

“Ry?kan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)
“Ryokan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)


Playing temari [a ball] with the village children
You enjoy walking Buddha’s path
How fruitful and inexhaustible it is!


Won’t you bounce the ball?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
Ten is the goal,
You must repeat again!


Was it really you I saw,
Or is this joy
I still feel
Only a dream?


In this dreamworld we doze
And talk of dreams
Dream, dream on,
As much as you wish.

Teishin was at Ryokan’s when he died. it’s said that before he expired, he composed this final poem:

Showing their backs
Then their fronts
The autumn leaves scatter in the wind


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.