Ryokan, Zen Poet, Great Fool, No-Monk

Ryokan is one of the most remarkable spiritual figures of any tradition and of any time. He, along with Han-shan, about whom I have written here many times, along with Chuang Tzu (who these days is more often written as Zhuangzi), are my three “best friends” in the world of historical spiritual seekers. (I have a number of others but these three are closely related, not in time, but in spirit.) I flee to these guys when I get tired of overly self-styled spiritual seekers and of the various disputes and verbose arguments of intellectual interpreters of the spiritual path. Speaking of which, here is something from Zhuangzi that will serve as an introduction to our reflection on Ryokan:
“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey understanding. When the reality is grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to meet.”

(A variant of a Merton translation of Chuang Tzu.)


Ryokan is this man who has “forgotten words.” And we can “meet him” because he is not so far from us in time–1758-1831, these are the years of his life in Japan. This is remarkably close for a spiritual giant–most of these figures like the Desert Fathers and Santideva and Milarepa, etc., seem lost in the mists of time. But Ryokan is no further back than the beginnings of our country. He was born in a port and fishing village in Japan, and his father was the headman in the Shogun administration of the village. His childhood name was Eizo. Ryokan could have followed his father into this leadership role, but after studying Chinese and Japanese literature and calligraphy he ran away and joined a Zen monastery of the Soto School. There he was a diligent monk for over ten years. At age 33 he left with the blessings of his teacher and became a wanderer and beggar. At about age 39 he settled down as a hermit in a thatched-roof hut about 12 miles from his home village. These are some of the bland facts of this remarkable life, but let us get to know him a bit better.  

One of Ryokan’s contemporaries said this about him:

“Ryokan stayed with us for a couple of days. A peaceful atmosphere filled our house, and everyone became harmonious. The atmosphere remained for some days even after he left. As soon as I started talking with him, I realized that my heart had become pure. He did not explain Zen or other Buddhist scriptures, nor did he encourage wholesome actions. He would burn firewood in the kitchen or sit in meditation in our living room. He did not talk about literature or ethics. He was indescribably relaxed. He taught others only by his presence.” (trans. by K. Tanahasi)

In today’s terms Ryokan was a societal dropout. Mostly he lived as a hermit and a beggar. One biographical note summarizes his life: He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was sought out by people of all walks of life for the teaching to be experienced in just being around him. His poetry and art were wildly popular even in his lifetime. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa.


The “man who forgot words” was a master of the haiku form, a poetry that emphasizes the silence around the words rather than the multiplicity of words. He was also a master artist-calligrapher with a very distinctive style, due mostly to his unique and irrepressible spirit, but also because he was so poor he didn’t usually have materials: his distinctive thin line was due to the fact that he often used twigs rather than the brushes he couldn’t afford. He was said to practice his brushwork with his fingers in the air when he didn’t have any paper.

Ryokan was not his family name. When he was ordained he took the name Taigu Ryokan (sometimes spelled as Daigu). “Taigu” means “Great Fool” and this was a very acute designation. He loved playing the fool. He preferred playing games with children rather than sitting in some dignified “spiritual role.” He poked fun at all pretensions but mostly he poked fun at himself, at this image of a “spiritual man,” “a monk,” etc. This is a very real trap for all spiritual seekers, this thing of trying to appear as a “spiritual seeker” to others and gaining their approbation. The “fool thing” in Ryokan’s case was not artificial or put-on but came from deep within his own realization and gently and tenderly cut off that ego-self drive for identity. Story:

At a tea ceremony–a very solemn ritual: “Ryokan picked snot out of his nose and indiscreetly tried to set it on the right side of his seat. The guest on his right pulled his sleeve and cautioned him not to do that. Ryokan then tried to set it on his left, and the guest on the left side pulled his sleeve. Having no place to put his snot, he put it back into his nose.” (trans. by K. Tanahashi)

Then there are these poems:

Early spring

The landscape is tinged with the first

fresh hints of green

Now I take my wooden begging bowl

And wander carefree through town

The moment the children see me

They scamper off gleefully to bring their friends

They’re waiting for me at the temple gate

Tugging from all sides so I can barely walk

I leave my bowl on a white rock

Hang my pilgrim’s bag on a pine tree branch

First we duel with blades of grass

Then we play ball

While I bounce the ball, they sing the song

Then I sing the song and they bounce the ball

Caught up in the excitement of the game

We forget completely about the time

Passersby turn and question me:

“Why are you carrying on like this?”

I just shake my head without answering

Even if I were able to say something

how could I explain?

Do you really want to know the meaning of it all?

This is it! This is it!

(Isn’t there something about “Letting the children come to me” in the Gospels!!)


At the crossroads this year, after

begging all day

I lingered at the village temple.

Children gather round me and


‘The crazy monk has come back

to play.’


Too lazy to be ambitious,

I let the world take care of itself.

Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;

a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.

Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?

Listening to the night rain on my roof,

I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.


Today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads

I wander by the side of hachiman shrine

talking with some children.

last year, a foolish monk;

this year, no change!  


But Ryokan was not naïve either. He saw very clearly the problems of the Buddhism in the Japan of his day, the competition and narrowness of various groups, their sectarian closed-mindedness, etc. As Ezra Pound once put it: “A man with a sensitive nose living in a sewer is bound to complain.” And Ryokan did complain:

From a long poem called “Discourse”:

The ancestral way becomes fainter day by day.

Teachers can’t see past the name of their school;

They are glued to each other,

Unwilling to change.

If the purpose of the dharma were to establish schools,

Sages would have done so long ago.

Now that people have declared their schools,

Whom on earth should I join?

(trans. by Kazuaki Tanahashi)


Ryokan had a deep spiritual practice but it was hidden by an also deep simplicity, so it was very easy to miss seeing the Reality he embodied:

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;

Every year the green ivy grows longer.

No news of the affairs of men,

Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.

The sun shines and I mend my robe;

When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.

I have nothing to report to my friends.

If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after

so many things.


And then there is this subtle jewel:

Like the little stream

Making its way

Through the mossy crevices

I, too, quietly

Turn clear and transparent. 


It is also very interesting to compare Ryokan with our friends the Desert Fathers of primitive Christian monasticism. Surely some differences are very apparent; but also there are some very engaging common elements. I won’t get into all that, but I do want to point out these Ryokan stories that seem almost lifted right out of the Desert Father literature. First,

“One night a thief broke into Five Scoop Hut on Mount Kugami. Finding nothing else to steal, the thief tried to pull out the mat Ryokan was sleeping on. Ryokan turned over and let the thief take the mat.” (trans. by K. Tanahashi)

Then there’s this story which appears in several versions:

“ One evening a thief visited Ryōkan’s hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. ‘You have come a long way to visit me,’ he told the prowler, ‘and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’ The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. ‘Poor fellow,’ he mused, ‘I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”’”


Then there is also this very human and very tender aspect to Ryokan’s life. At the age of 69 he falls in love with a young Buddhist nun, Teishin, who was about 28. She also was a poet and they exchanged some very moving love poems. They saw each other only a few times over the next few years but the intensity of the love poems shows not only a depth of feeling but also a true communion. When Ryokan was dying she rushed to his side and held him in her arms as he died. It was Teishin who saved many of Ryokan’s poems and calligraphy that we have today.


Now comes one of Ryokan’s most subtle and most profound poems:

Who calls my poems poems?

My poems are not poems.

Only when you know my poems are not poems

can we together speak about poems.


There is much you could say about this poem which I will avoid at this point. Suffice it to say that there is a lot more here than just a statement about Ryokan’s poetry. And I do want to point out there is an important message in this for all those who are so overly concerned about “monastic identity” and in appearing “contemplative.” More about this at some other time.


And we shall conclude without comment with another of his truly profound poems–it is almost a koan in itself:

Forty years ago when I was wandering,

I struggled to paint a tiger, but it didn’t even look

​like a cat!

Reflecting back, as I release my grip on the cliff’s edge,

I am still Eizo of my young days.