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


Empty Your Boat

Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE)

In yesterday’s post, I quoted German philosopher Karl Jaspers as saying, “the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it.” That reminded me of a passage in Chuang Tzu, the writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

In the “Mountain Tree” chapter, I-liao, an officer of Shih-nan, tells the Marquis of Lu, “If a man is crossing a body of water in a boat, and an empty boat comes along and crashes into him, even though he is a hot-tempered man, he will not get angry. If there should be someone in the other boat, however, he will shout out to him to haul out of the way. If his shout is not heard, he will shout again; and that is not heard, he will shout out a third time and follow up with a lot of curses. In the beginning, he was not angry, but now he is; before, he thought the boat was empty, but now he sees a person in it. As he makes his way in this world, if a man can empty himself of himself, who can harm him?”

Thomas Merton, in his translation/interpretation of the same passage, put it this way:

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you . . .

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Merton (1965). The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions.

We stand on a shore facing the river of the world, the sea of suffering. There is a boat. But it is not empty. It is filled with living beings that we have rescued. Our goal is to cross over the sea of suffering in this boat filled with others. We want to reach the other shore of Nirvana, the shore of happiness and bliss, where everyone will be enlightened and free.

There’s only one problem: we cannot see this other shore. We can journey on and on but we will never find it. We will see nothing but mirages, islands of illusion. We may think that as we journey along we will go through different stages, various phases, and that we will attain certain attainments, but these are only dreams in our mind.

We are already standing on the shore of Nirvana. We think it is a shore that borders the sea of suffering but that is only because we do not see clearly and we cannot distinguish what is truly before our eyes. Our mind is not yet free. We see attainments but there are no attainments, only change. There is nothing to attain and everything to change. The goal was never to attain anything or go anywhere, but simply to change ourselves where we are, and to rescue other living beings.

In order to accommodate passengers, we have to empty our boat. To liberate others we have to liberate ourselves, empty ourselves of ourselves. That is changing things where you are.

Ryokan was a Zen priest during the Edo era. He lived from 1758 to 1831. In Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

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 . . . he had boundless love for all living beings and all of nature . . . Ryokan lived by begging and was untempted by worldly things . . . He was completely indifferent to public criticism . . . To him there was neither beauty nor ugliness, good or evil, truth or falsehood, delusion or enlightenment, for he looked on everything without discrimination . . . Ryokan had only the bare necessities, for he had gone beyond all temptations of fame and fortune . . . Though Ryokan was a priest, he never preached or explained sutras. When he talked with friends or played with children, his pleasant smile impressed them with his goodness. This in itself was the true power of his Zen . . .

Like the idealized Taoist sage, Ryokan led by example. He taught by not teaching. His life was his teaching and the way he lived his daily life was his attainment. But he did not start out like that. He had to change himself, empty his boat, and once empty, it was then filled with all the people who returned his love, who were touched by his goodness, the people who were rescued, changed, by his presence in their lives.

To liberate someone or to rescue another, sounds like some grand act, but it’s not. It’s actually a very simple thing. A smile is a rescue. A kind word is liberation. If you can see this, then you know that when you empty yourself you also open yourself up to new possibilities.

Karl Jaspers saw existence as a state of being teeming with hope and potential. Each moment is potentially a moment of awakening. There is no attainment because there is no place you can go nor any other person you can be in order to attain. It’s all right here, before your eyes, in the present moment . . . in each potential moment. It is emptying your boat and uncovering your true self and your true mission. It’s change.

To understand is one thing. To realize, another. I think it is very difficult to grasp these simple truths deeply. We may understand intellectually, but it is hard to know them in the depths of our being. Harder than ascending to the stage of stream-enterer or becoming a once-returner, a non-returner, or an arahant. More difficult than fathoming the most profound koan, for this is the ultimate koan and we access its meaning and attain whatever there is to attain, not through attainment but through the way we live this koan called life.

Enlightenment comes when we have purged ourselves of striving and contention, for then we understand enlightenment is nothing more than real change that comes from within, intuitively, without conscious  aspiration toward something external. It does, however, require conscious effort and it’s not about being indifferent about the external world in any literal sense. A duck is not indifferent about water, but the duck does not get wet.

Emptying the boat of ourselves and then filling it with others – this is the action that sparks change. Knowing there is no journey to another shore only the inward journey to ourselves – this is the comprehension that reveals the nirvana shining all around us.

Self-portrait & caligraphy by Ryokan

I’m a fool, it’s a fact,
Living with the trees and plants as I do.
Don’t ask me about illusion and nirvana,
For here is an old man who just likes to smile to himself
As he crosses over streams on scrawny legs,
And when he carries around his bag in the springtime.
Such is my life,
And the world has no claims on me.