Soseki’s Gardens

Wisdom Publications has been publishing books on Buddhism for more than a quarter century. Many of the books in my library were put out by Wisdom. They recently contacted me, and I’m sure other bloggers too, about one of their new books, Dialogues in Dream The Life and Zen Teachings of Muso Soseki by Muso Soseki and Thomas Yuho Kirchner.

Before I get to the book, a little background on Soseki:

Although his name is barely known in the West, Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was a very important figure in Japanese Buddhism; . I blogged about Soseki in 2011. He was a monk in Rinzai Zen’s Five Mountain system of temples, and perhaps he was the most famous monk in Japan during his time. Emperor Go-Daigo conferred upon him the honorific title of “national Zen teacher” (Muso Kokushi). He was also a calligrapher and a poet, and best known today for his gardens.

Gardens are an integral part of Japanese culture. Garden design is strongly related to the philosophies of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism. The gardens of Buddhist temples are intended to create a spiritual ambiance and to provide a peaceful setting for meditation. Soseki maintained that creating gardens in itself was a way to practice Buddhism.

Hasui-Torii-web-2To the right you see a print by Hasui Torii (1833-1957) called “Moonlit Night at Miyajima” that is used for the cover of Dialogues in Dream (you can click on it to see full size). I have not read this book but I did look at a preview here, that included this passage from a piece called “The Buddha Law and Worldly Affairs”:

[Some people] use landscape gardens to ward off sleepiness and boredom as an aid in their practice of the Way. This is something truly noble and is not at all the same as the delight ordinary people take in gardens. However, since such people still make a distinction between gardens and the practice of the Way, they cannot be called true Way-followers.

Then there are those who regard mountains, rivers, grass, trees, tiles, and stones to be their own Original Nature. Their love for gardens may resemble worldly affection, but they employ that affection in their aspiration for the Way, using as part of their practice the changing scenery of the grasses and trees throughout the four seasons. One who can do this is truly an exemplar of how a follower of the Way should consider a garden.

Therefore it cannot be said that a love of gardens is necessarily a bad thing, or necessarily a good thing. In gardens themselves there is no gain or loss—such judgments occur only in the human mind.”

If we understand non-duality, and if we are truly engaged with Buddhist practice (meditation), then we know there is no real separation between practice and non-practice. Everything, even mundane everyday activities, is practice. This is what Soto Zen master Dogen meant in his “Instructions to the Tenzo (cook)” when he wrote, “When you prepare food, do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind.” The instructions are not just for the cook but for everyone. To an ordinary “human” mind, creating a garden is just creating a garden, but to a “practice mind” or “Buddha mind” it is, as Soseki is quoted elsewhere in the book as saying, “attempting through them [gardens] to refine [the] mind.”

There is much more in Dialogue in a Dream than this.  In Soseki’s writings he discussed many different aspects of Buddha-dharma.  From what I’ve read so far it appears that scholar Thomas Yuho Kirchner provides a compressive biography of Soseki and analysis of his dharma teachings, as well as complete translation of this work, Muchu Mondo, by Soseki, first published in 1344.

In another piece from Dialogue, Soseki succinctly explains why simply reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and listening to teacher’s dharma talks are not enough:

The reason that followers of the Way are discouraged from intellectual pursuits is to encourage them to relinquish their attachment to material good fortune and the defiled wisdom of the secular world, as well as to seek the Great Wisdom of their own inherent truth.”

Everywhere we go, we carry our inherent truth with us, and we can also carry our practice. Whether we are in a garden, walking down a street, shopping in a store, standing up or lying down, everywhere we go and everything we do provides us with an opportunity to practice and to see our own truth.


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



Lafcadio Hearn, born June 27, 1850, was an Irish-Greek author, translator, and teacher most famous for his writings about Japan.

Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu
Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu

He was born on Lefkada, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, and educated in Ireland, England, and France before immigrating to the United States in 1869. For a decade he lived in New Orleans, reporting on street life in the Vieux Carre and Creole and Cajun culture. In 1890 Hearn moved to Japan, where he took the name Koizumi Yakumo, became a citizen, married into a samurai family, held a chair in English literature at Tokyo University, and authored over a dozen books on Japanese life, literature and religion.

In 1897 he published Gleanings in Buddha-Fields Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East, a collection of sketches on Japanese Buddhism. In his introduction to The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (1977), Kenneth Rexroth wrote,

Hearn’s role in the spread of Buddhism to the West was a preparatory one. He was the first important American writer to live in Japan and to commit his imagination and considerable literary powers to what he found there. Like the “popular” expressions of Buddhist faith that were his favorite subject, Hearn popularized the Buddhist way of life for his Western readers.”

Hearn had lost faith in his native religion before he reached the age of 20. He did not convert to Buddhism, however, and as Rexroth mentions, “he remained skeptical about certain of Buddhism’s key doctrines — such as the relationship of karma and rebirth — but he passionately believed that Buddhism promoted a far better attitude toward daily life than did Christianity.” And he wrote about the Buddhism of the masses, popular Buddhism, not what he termed “Higher Buddhism,” although he probably felt more comfortable with this latter form of dharma, which he thought comparable in certain respects to the “evolutional ideas of our own time.”

In honor of the 164th anniversary of his birth, here is a excerpt from the chapter “Dust” in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields. In this lyrical selection, Hearn muses over death and emptiness:

Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things as having the nature of space,—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without substantiality.”—SADDHARIMA-PUNDARÎKA.

hearn1897I have wandered to the verge of the town; and the street I followed has roughened into a country road, and begins to curve away through rice-fields toward a hamlet at the foot of the hills. Between town and rice-fields a vague unoccupied stretch of land makes a favorite playground for children . . .

And they play at funerals,—burying corpses of butterflies and semi (cicadæ), and pretending to repeat Buddhist sutras over the grave . . .

Children in all countries play at death. Before the sense of personal identity comes, death cannot be seriously considered; and childhood thinks in this regard more correctly, perhaps, than self-conscious maturity. Of course, if these little ones were told, some bright morning, that a playfellow had gone away forever,—gone away to be reborn elsewhere,—there would be a very real though vague sense of loss, and much wiping of eyes with many-colored sleeves; but presently the loss would be forgotten and the playing resumed. The idea of ceasing to exist could not possibly enter a child-mind: the butterflies and birds, the flowers, the foliage, the sweet summer itself, only play at dying;—they seem to go, but they all come back again after the snow is gone. The real sorrow and fear of death arise in us only through slow accumulation of experience with doubt and pain; and these little boys and girls, being Japanese and Buddhists, will never, in any event, feel about death just as you or I do. They will find reason to fear it for somebody else’s sake, but not for their own, because they will learn that they have died millions of times already, and have forgotten the trouble of it, much as one forgets the pain of successive toothaches. In the strangely penetrant light of their creed, teaching the ghostliness of all substance, granite or gossamer,—just as those lately found X-rays make visible the ghostliness of flesh,—this their present world, with its bigger mountains and rivers and rice-fields, will not appear to them much more real than the mud landscapes which they made in childhood. And much more real it probably is not.

At which thought I am conscious of a sudden soft shock, a familiar shock, and know myself seized by the idea of Substance as Non-Reality.

This sense of the voidness of things comes only when the temperature of the air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a body. Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams.

To-day is one of those warm, hushed days when it is possible to think of things as they are,—when ocean, peak, and plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All is mirage,—my physical self, and the sunlit road, and the slow rippling of the grain under a sleepy wind, and the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the rice-fields, and the blue crumpling of the naked hills behind everything. I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted,—haunted by the prodigious luminous Spectre of the World.

There are men and women working in those fields. Colored moving shadows they are; and the earth under them—out of which they rose, and back to which they will go -is equally shadow. Only the Forces behind the shadow, that make and unmake, are real,—therefore viewless . . .

Read all of Gleaning in Buddha-Fields here.