The Poetry of Ryōkan: Zen and Nature

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.  

Ryōkan self-portrait and calligraphy
Ryōkan self-portrait and calligraphy: WikimediaCommons

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 the hillside of Mt Kagami.

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 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.
Ryokan statue
Ryōkan statute; Photo Credit-Enjoy Niigata

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 to 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.

Poetry of Zen cover

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:

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26 thoughts on “The Poetry of Ryōkan: Zen and Nature

Add yours

  1. Ryōkan’s poetry is mesmerizing. I was struck especially by this one:

    “No bird above these wild hills.
    Garden leaves fall one by one.
    Desolate autumn winds.
    A man alone in thin black robes”

    By now I’m sure you know of my love for melancholic verse, so this really resonates with me. I was unaware of Ryōkan and I’m so glad you introduced me to him. His life seems like the most perfect, authentic existence: blending with nature, becoming one with the forests and mountains and rivers and wildlife. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than that. Looks like another book or two for my wishlist, and some deep-diving into this poet’s life. Thanks, Mark, as always for bring to light such amazing and significant poets of nature. This stuff is like mana for my soul. Well done, good sir! 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I am glad that you enjoyed reading about Ryokan. I feel like I need to do a deep dive into his life as I think there is a lot here. I find it interesting that he spent years studying Zen, and then when he reached the place where he would take over a monastery, he decided to becoming a wandering monk. There was also mention that he refused to be called a poet. Maybe he knew that any labels, or positions of authority, would becoming limiting and create attachment to an ego driven self. This would go against the way of the natural world. But, I could also be projecting here! I hope all is well! Talk soon,

  2. Thank you! I shall remember him fondly when I walk in my torn but mended sweatpants with the deer for my companions.

    As I go once deeper into self imposed lockdown to avoid the raging pandemic here, I am so glad I have my beautiful trails to walk and contemplate.

    1. I agree that the woods and the trails are such a sanctuary during these times, and o spend time with that natural world, in a space of peace and non-judgement, is so needed. Enjoy the trails this holiday season!

  3. Thank you for sharing poems by Ryokan, as I had not heard of him or read his poems before. Beautiful that he saw himself as part of the landscape, instead of above it to use nature for his needs. A balance of richness with the naturalness around him.

  4. I love this exploration of Ryokan. It leads me on to explore Soto Zen which would suit me now that I am older. Thanks, Mark, for another wonderful post.

    1. Hi Ashley, There is so much to learn about with Zen. Have you done any work with koans before?
      Glad that you enjoyed the post and happy researching!

      1. Haha! I’m not much good with puzzles! Although one comes to mind as I write. For a long time in the past, I used to shoot a bow and arrow (no live targets) and was also involved with making bows and arrows and other things, including bowstrings. One day a friend asked me: how long is a piece of string? My shooting that day was very poor as I struggled with the riddle! Answers on a postcard to……..🤣.

      2. Hi Ashley, I think I am going to need to ponder that for a bit. I am not sure I get it. But that is the challenge with riddles, isn’t it!

  5. I recently listened to Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan
    (translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi). I loved how one he was with nature, and how simple and beautiful his poems were. He also had a great wit! Thank you for the lovely post! Hope to read him more.

    1. Hi Aaysid, I am glad to hear you enjoyed Sky Above, Great Wind. I am also interested in reading more from Ryokan. Thanks for the comment and talk soon,

  6. rebellious Zen monk hear hear – reminds me of the Alice Walker story where she/her main character is attending a sesshin or some such, and , out in the garden at break time and when the bell goes – just walks out…. Am I right in thinking Basho walked out first, geined his credentials later?

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