August 22, 2007

Ikkyu's poems


First, I’d like to introduce Ikkyu, my favorite poet, using some information found at wikipedia. Then I will present some of his poems and comment on them.

Ikkyu was born in 1394 in a small suburb of Kyoto. He was the illegitimate son of Emperor Go-Komatsu. His mother was forced to flee to Saga, Japan, where Ikkyu was raised by servants. At age five Ikkyu was separated from his mother and enrolled as a monk at the Rinzai Zen temple, Ankokuji. He was given the name Shuken, and learned about Chinese poetry, art and literature. In 1420 Ikkyu was meditating in a boat on Lake Biwa when the sound of a crow sparked his understanding of the truth. His teacher confirmed this and granted Ikkyu dharma transmission. *

Ikkyu could sometimes be a troublemaker. Known to drink in excess, he would often upset others with provoking remarks. After the death of his teacher, he was unable to tolerate the pretentious head of the temple, and left the place to live many years as a wandering monk. Around this time, he established a relationship with a blind singer Mori who became the love of his later life.

Ikkyu lived his Buddhist life outside of formal religious institutions. However, a war had reduced Daitokuji to ashes, and Ikkyu was elected abbot late in life, a role he reluctantly took on. In 1481, Ikkyu died at the age of eighty-eight.

I think Ikkyu was interested in a real life, not a life of holy people. Maybe I would never begin to study and practice Zen if it wasn’t for Ikkyu’s punk, unorthodox Zen poetry. Before I really started to practice Buddhism, I was afraid that I would be mislead by some religious fanatics. But when I read that “stone Buddha deserves birdshit” among other things, paradoxically written by a Buddhist teacher, I decided to find out what Buddhism really is about. Thanks to Ikkyu’s sincere, penetrating, disturbing verses, I had already been hooked anyway. So I am very grateful to Ikkyu’s efforts as a monk, lover, teacher and poet.

* Ikkyu was a monk in Rinzai tradition, where some breakthrough experience seems to be the most important thing, but Ikkyu himself was critical of such exaggeration – he burned his “enlightenment confirmation paper” to stress that there is something more important than papers and memories – our real life in the present moment.

only a kind deadly sincere man
can show you the way here in the other world

Ikkyu stresses the importance of an authentic teacher in Buddhism. We could explain the poem like this: If you are really interested in Buddhism, in the real world that most people don’t know, if you are interested in “the other shore”, which is the truth here and now completely experienced by a human being, then you need someone who is familiar with the truth and who will lovingly and carefully let you know whenever you lose your way in silly ideas about what the truth is. Only such a person can guide you on your way to a realistic, complete life.

I am in it everywhere
what a miracle trees lakes clouds even dust

I am in “it” everywhere. Ikkyu talks about the truth that is everywhere, yet most people look for it in very exotic places or very special experiences. Ikkyu enjoys living in the truth and marvels at trees, lakes and clouds, which are all examples of the truth, of something that master Dogen called “the non-emotional that preaches the Dharma”. What’s more, Ikkyu realizes that even something so ordinary as dust is also “the non-emotional that preaches the Dharma”, in other words, even dust teaches us what the truth is.

I’d love to give you something
but what would help?

Ikkyu expresses his caring about other human beings, but when it comes to Buddhism, what can we give to others? Teaching Buddhism is tricky. It is like selling water to a person who lives next to a well. Although we are in the midst of the truth, we are searching for it. We desperately want to find something special, we want to attain enlightenment. Ikkyu is standing in front of us, knowing that we don’t need anything, except maybe one thing – directions to the truth. Although we are basically there, without sincere practice of zazen and an honest teacher, we will hardly ever understand what treasure we have already got.

nobody told the flowers to come up nobody
will ask them to leave when spring’s gone

People tend to replace reality with words. This is a table. This is not a table. We like to talk, talk and talk. And some people would like to replace Buddhism with words. But the most amazing things in the universe happen without having to be explained or described by words. The most intimate experience of a human being, life here and now, is beyond words. That is why we don’t talk when we practice zazen and that is why Buddha only turned a flower in his hand instead of talking on Vulture Peak and that is why Mahakasyapa only smiled.

that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets
I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind

Stone Buddha is nothing but a symbol. Some people confuse Buddhism with idolatry.
Although there is no need to put down Buddha statues like Taliban did in Afghanistan, which was an act of hatred and discrimination and fear, Ikkyu expresses his concern about true, living Buddhism that some people want to wrap up in golden paper and put into a museum. Buddha statues are ok and when they are standing outdoors, they deal with birdshit. True Buddhism is more than statues and idolatry. It is waving our arms playfully finding Buddha’s teaching right here in this simple moment when we are enjoying ourselves.

hear the cruel no-answer until blood drips down
beat your head against the wall of it

Some people believe everything, including reality, can be explained, so they look for answers in books. As soon as they read all interesting books on Buddhism, they believe they know all about Buddhism. Although everything can be explained about Buddhism, there is something that has to be experienced. Explanation is not enough. That is why a teacher’s experience cannot replace the student’s experience. Although a teacher may answer all the student’s question, there is still something remaining that we feel has not been answered. It is not something mysterious or secret. The truth is something very clear. It is actually the clearest thing we can ever encounter. But this clearest thing cannot be replaced by words. The truth of Buddhism lies in life itself, our experience here and now itself. If you want to hear the ultimate answer expressed in words, you will have to bang your head against the wall for ages and still will never get the answer. Ikkyu is not disappointed. But he also warns himself and others that ultimate knowing is not knowing something intellectually. It is acting in the present and experiencing things as they are.

even before trees rocks I was nothing
when I’m dead nowhere I’ll be nothing

Like Dogen, Ikkyu does not believe in reincarnation. To him, life before this one is nothing and life after his death is nothing at all, too. To him, only things happening now are real.

all the bad things I do will go up in smoke
and so will I

Buddhist life consists of many mistakes. There is some desire, some anger, and although hardly anyone will consider it a mistake, sadness is part of a Buddhist’ life, too. That is all true life. Buddhists cannot escape their own innate imperfectness and so make a lot of mistakes. But Ikkyu is aware of the vast space that digests all bad things and purifies itself all the time. The universe itself is neither good nor bad. Living a Buddhist life we naturally try to live appropriately and in harmony with the society. But sometimes we simply fail. Sometimes we are criticized by others. Anyway, everything changes and one day we will have to die. One day, maybe in millions of years from now, all the mistakes we made will not matter any more.

if there’s nowhere to rest at the end
how can I get lost on the way?

Ikkyu does not believe in an ultimate goal in Buddhism - something we are trying to attain and once we get there, we can rest forever and nothing will bother us any more. He does not believe in a kind of enlightenment that is the end of a Buddhist’s efforts. He believes in the truth that is encountered in this moment. If there is no goal or somewhere to go, how could we get lost? Ultimately, we cannot lose the realm of the truth. But while we are right where we should be, we may believe that we are somewhere else. A teacher can help us see where we really are.

fuck flattery success money
all I do is lie back suck my thumb

People make a lot of fuss about sex, success, money and power. They are often completely lost in the fantastic world of sex, success and money. Instead of drinking tea, they drink money. Instead of seeing trees, they see numbers. Instead of walking, they think they are great or special. They are happy when somebody tells them: Congratulations! Ikkyu prefers doing something simple and true, being himself, naked and present completely: lying back and sucking his thumb.

so many words about it
the only language is you don’t open your lips

There are tons of books about Buddhism. Some of them are great and it is very helpful to study them. Shobogenzo by master Dogen is such a great book. It explains the whole of Buddhism. But studying and understanding is only 50%. Sitting down and practicing zazen without talking is the only way how to experience fully – with both body and mind - what Buddhism is.

If you want to read other poems by Ikkyu, maybe the nicest book - and the one I fell in love with when I began to think about becoming a Buddhist - is Crow with no Mouth - a collection translated by Stephen Berg, who did a fantastic job, I think. The poems above are just from that book.

5 comments: said...

Dear Roman:
I've come to your blog through the link on Dogen Sangha Blog.
I really enjoy your writing, your perspective.
I'm surprised that there aren't many comments here--your views are very open, engaging and invite discussion.
Please keep your articles coming....
I kept putting a platter of seeds out for the birds and it took them two months to find it! (The squirrels found it right away and took out all the sunflower seeds!)
I hope all is going well in the work situation.

roman said...


i used to have comments here so i don't feel so lonely (kidding) but the reason the comments disappeared lately is probably because I took a long pause over half a year not posting anything so obviously, people got tired of checking my nothing happening blog

otherwise i am in very lively, working, active contact with my teacher Mike Luetchford and get all kinds of feedback from him but still, comments from blog readers are nice encouragement from time to time - thank you very much

and i am very lucky that Nishijima roshi linked my blog to his blog
so you can imagine that makes a difference I probably don't even deserve

esperar4scwChris said...

I really appreciate your comments. I am new to having this perspective and was the person next to the well, unable to realize.


erothfusz-c said...

Dear Roman.
I found your website searching for informatieon about Ikkyu.

The translation of the " Nothing" to which Ikkyu says to be returning is rather subtle. You can read about this in het work of D.T. Suzuki. I found " The doctrin of the Buddha" by George Grimm also most enlightening about this theme. (Nu pun intended)
Seems the " nothing" of the sutras is by no means an empty void. And neither is your true self. It has nothing to do with the reincarnation of your " soul" , but with the nature of your essence.

Thank you for your open discussion on the web.
Kind regards,

Ed Rothfusz, The Netherlands

Anonymous said...

Ikkyu cannot be your favorite poet. He is mine.