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    The Way of the Holy Fool

    At the crossroads this year, after
    begging all day
    I lingered at the village temple.
    Children gather round me and
    whisper,
    ‘The crazy monk has come back
    to play.’
    –Taigu Ryokan

    Taigu Ryokan lives on as one of Japan’s best-loved poets, the
    wise fool who wrote of his humble life with directness. Born in
    1758, he is part of a tradition of radical Zen poets, or ‘great
    fools,’ that includes China’s Han-shan and P’ang Yun (Layman P’ang)
    and Japan’s Ikkyu Sojun and Hakuin Ekaku.

    The eldest of seven children, Ryokan grew up near Mount Kugami
    in the town of Izumozaki, a community for artists and writers. His
    father, a scholar of Japanese literature and a renowned haiku poet,
    was the town’s ineffectual mayor. His mother was a quiet woman who
    eventually had to deal with her husband’s abandoning his position
    and his family and then drowning himself in the river Katsura.

    In his youth, Ryokan trained under a Confucian scholar and began
    to study Chinese literature in the original. At 16, he had already
    flirted with a life of gambling and women, then surprised everyone
    by taking up the study of Soto Zen at the nearby Koshoji temple.
    (Soto and Rinzai comprise the two main schools of Japanese Zen
    Buddhism.) He shaved his head and took his robes and vows. At 21,
    he moved to the Entsuji temple in Bitchu, but eventually became
    disillusioned and outraged at the corrupt practices of vain and
    greedy temple priests and left to make his mountain hermitage.

    Ryokan had no disciples and ran no temple; in the eyes of the
    world he was a penniless monk who spent his life in the snow
    country of Mount Kugami. He admired most of the teachings of Dogen,
    the 13th century monk who first brought Soto Zen to Japan. He was
    also drawn to the unconventional life and poetry of the Zen
    mountain poet Han-shan, who lived in China sometime during the
    T’ang Dynasty (618 to 907). He repeatedly refused to be honored or
    confined as a ‘professional,’ either as a Buddhist priest or as a
    poet. He wrote:

    Who says my poems are poems?
    These poems are not poems.
    When you can understand this,
    then we can begin to speak of poetry.

    Ryokan never published a collection of verse while he was alive.
    His practice consisted of sitting in zazen meditation,
    walking in the woods, playing with children, making his daily
    begging rounds, reading and writing poetry, doing calligraphy, and
    on occasion drinking wine with friends.

    Ryokan later dubbed himself Taigu, or ‘Great Fool,’ but
    this title had a special meaning. A Zen master who taught the young
    Ryokan described him this way: ‘Ryokan looks like a fool, but his
    way of life is an entirely emancipated one. He lives on playing, so
    to say, with his destiny, liberating himself from every kind of
    fetter.’ He went on to describe his disciple’s simple life: ‘In the
    morning he wanders out of his hut and goes God knows where and in
    the evening loiters around somewhere. For fame he cares nothing.
    Men’s cunning ways he puts out of the question.’ His freewheeling
    spirit had much in common with the American writer Henry David
    Thoreau’s. Ryokan’s life was an affirmation of alternate values and
    a rebuke to the hypocrisy and rigid values found in Japanese Zen
    monasteries and in society at large.

    His ‘foolishness’ belongs in a Taoist-Buddhist context as an
    inversion of social norms. Ryokan declares the Way of the Fool in
    his poem ‘No Mind’:

    With no mind, flowers lure the
    butterfly;
    With no mind, the butterfly visits
    the blossoms.
    Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly
    comes;
    When the butterfly comes, the
    flowers bloom
    .

    ‘No mind,’ or mushin, means not to cling or to strive,
    and when it is joined with mujo, or acceptance of life’s
    impermanence, we have the greatness of the fool.

    To achieve this original or beginner’s mind, Ryokan sought the
    company of children, kept his humble begging rounds, accepted his
    everyday life, and recorded it all in his authentic poems. Dropping
    whatever he was doing, he would turn to join the children’s games
    of tag and blindman’s buff, hide-and-seek, and ‘grass fights.’ He
    was once caught playing marbles with a geisha and is said never to
    have refused a game of Go. He relished playing dead for the
    children, who would bury him in leaves, and he would spend the day
    picking flowers with them, forgetting his begging rounds.

    The stories of Ryokan’s playfulness are legendary. Here’s one,
    preserved after his death in 1831 in Ryokan’s family archive:

    ‘Ryokan was playing hide-and-seek, and when it came his turn to
    hide, he looked around for a spot where the children wouldn’t find
    him. Noticing a tall haystack, he crawled inside, concealing
    himself completely in the hay. No matter how hard they searched,
    the children couldn’t find him. Soon they grew tired of playing,
    the sun began to set, and when they saw the smoke rising from the
    dinner fires, they deserted Ryokan and returned to their homes.
    Unaware of this, Ryokan imagined the children were still searching
    for him. Thinking, ‘Here they come to look for me! Now they’re
    going to find me,’ he waited and waited. He waited all night and
    was still waiting when dawn arrived. In farmhouses, in the morning
    the kitchen hearth is lit by burning bundles of hay, and when the
    farmer’s daughter came to fetch some of these, she was startled to
    find Ryokan hiding in the haystack. ‘Ryokan! What in the world are
    you doing here?’ she cried. ‘Shh!’ Ryokan warned her, ‘The children
    will find me.’ ‘

    His tendency to misplace things–his walking stick, his begging
    bowl, books, even his underwear–was well known. Among the stories
    of his chronic forgetfulness is one of a visit by the famous
    scholar Kameda Bosai. When Bosai found Ryokan sitting zazen
    on the porch of his hut, he waited–several hours–for the monk to
    finish, and then Bosai and Ryokan happily talked poetry,
    philosophy, and writing until evening, when Ryokan rose to fetch
    them some sake from town.

    Again Bosai waited several hours, then grew concerned and began
    to walk toward the village. When he found his host a hundred yards
    away, sitting under a pine tree, he exclaimed, ‘Ryokan! Where have
    you been? I’ve been waiting for hours and was afraid something had
    happened to you.’ Ryokan looked up. ‘Bosai, you have just come in
    time. Look, isn’t the moon splendid tonight?’ When Bosai asked
    about the sake, Ryokan replied, ‘Oh, yes, the sake. I
    forgot all about it,’ and headed off to town. To be distracted by
    life’s moments is indeed a Zen virtue, though it is often a trial
    for friends.

    Ryokan often wrote in the Kanshi form–poems composed in
    classical Chinese. Taken together, his Kanshi poems are best
    seen as an undated journal, a record of a humble life spent living
    in the moment without thoughts of fame and power. In recording his
    experience of play, begging, observing people and nature, and
    accepting life’s bounty, Ryokan becomes the self-deprecating great
    fool in order to mentor us in an authentic life of simplicity,
    trust, humility, and finding the true way in everyday life.

    Larry Smith is a professor of English
    and humanities at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He is
    currently working with Mei Hui of Taiwan on a translation of poems
    by Ryokan entitled
    Kanshi Poems by Ryokan. From the
    spiritual journal
    Parabola(Fall 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr
    (4 issues.) From Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.

    Published on Jan 1, 2002

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