Above Heaven big winds -Ryōkan, Poem in Four Characters
Ryōkan (1758-1831) was Zen master who lived in northwestern Japan. He is known for being a rebellious monk, a poet, and a calligrapher.
After obtaining priesthood in the Soto Zen tradition, Ryōkan became a wandering monk sustaining himself with little more than his begging bowl. Much of his poetry references his life as a monk and demonstrates his deep connection to the natural world.
A good example of this nature connection can be found in the following poem that was written after he settled in a small cottage on hillside of Mt Kugami.
At an overgrown cottage I found the restful life of a recluse. I have since lived alone, turning to songbirds for music, And for my friends I have white clouds rising in the sky. Beneath a massive rock, a spring swells in a fair stream, Its clear water washes the dust from my black garments. Near the ridges, tall pines and oaks rise towards heaven; Their branches and leaves give me warmth in cold weather. With nothing to worry me, not a care to disturb my peace, I live happily from day to day, until the day dawns no more for me.
Ryōkan was fluid in both Chinese and Japanese. The following poem, which was written in Chinese, provides us with another example of his connection to the natural world.
I never longed for the wilder side of life. Rivers and mountains were my friends. Clouds consumed my shadow where I roamed, And birds pass high about my resting place. Straw sandals in snowy villages, A walking stick in spring. I sought a timeless truth: the flower’s glory Is just another form of dust.
In this next poem, Ryōkan speaks as if he is not separate from the natural world, but a part of it.
No bird above these wild hills. Garden leaves fall one by one. Desolate autumn winds. A man alone in thin black robes
The lines of this poem seem to talk about a person who has minimized the barriers between himself and the nature. Like he is embraced by the autumn winds as he stands on the hill.
But besides finding his place amongst the hills and the leaves, Ryōkan also found sustenance and companionship in nature.
Nothing satisfies some appetites, But wild plants ease my hunger. Free of untoward desires, All things bring me pleasure Tattered robes warm frozen bones. I wander with deer for companions. I sing to myself like a crazy man And children sing along.
Ryōkan was known for enjoying the simple things in life, like playing ball with the children of the local villages. And in this poem he adds a little bit of humor as he calls himself a “crazy man.”
As he got older, Ryōkan loosened his grip on this aesthetic lifestyle and began enjoying the company of others. In the following poem, he seems to be inviting the villagers to join him in a celebration of the natural world.
If it takes your fancy, Come and witness at my home, In the plum bushes, Spring warblers hopping giddily: Spraying blossoms everywhere.
Ryōkan maintained his deep connection nature throughout his life, and even spoke of its importance when he was pondering the end of his life.
What might I leave you As my lasting legacy- Flowers in springtime, The cuckoo signing all summer, The yellow leaves of autumn.
Ryōkan’s poetry demonstrated a knowledge of nature that was deeply influenced by his Zen practices. The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) explains, “Soto Zen Buddhism is distinguished by its focus on the down-to-earth practice of ‘everyday zen.’ It encourages awareness of the workings of one’s own mind as a means of living mindfully in all areas of daily life – at home, at work and in the community.” SZBA also says that “Soto Zen is for those who want to practice Zen in everything they do. In coming face to face with their life in all its aspects, they come to know themselves and find their relationship to all other things.” Ryōkan’s writing embodied these practices.
As a reader of Ryōkan’s work, I feel like his poetry conveys a sense of peace and contentment that is brought on by years of Zen practice and study. It is like each verse is crafted in a way that it draws me closer to the natural world.
I was first introduced to Ryōkan’s work in Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton’s The Poetry of Zen. This book contains poetry from Ryōkan along with many other poets including Han Shan, Li Po, Matsuo Basho, and Kobayashi Issa.
Another book that might be of interest is Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryōkan. I have just started this one on audio and I am enjoying it so far.
Other sources used in this article:
- Surendra; A life of Zen: Ryōkan, the great fool: OSHO News
- Soto Zen Buddhist Association: Introduction Soto Zen
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