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ryōkan, the poet

July 20, 2017

Ryokan was a Soto Zen Buddhist monk from the late 17th century who lived in relative seclusion. In the buddhist tradition, monks are not required to stay in a monastery or temple. They are free to leave and wander as they please. Aside from his current reputation as a great poet, he was known for being quite the rebel! He drank alcohol (partaking at all is still considered unwholesome), lived partly in seclusion, abandoned some traditions (like not eating fish or meat), and even had a reputation for sneaking into festivals of nearby villages (festivals are typically off-limits for monks). Later in his life, he was unable to live alone and moved into a house where he was cared for by a "nun" or female monk named Teishin.

 

His travels and experiences lent nicely to his simple, but poignant verses, and were an example to later poets for their touching subjects and connective nature. He focused on the human element, capturing emotions in the fewest words, and the beauty of nature.

 

He was an unorthodox in another way, in that his relationship with Teishin has been called "close" but not long term or official. By breaking the traditional lifestyle of a monk, I have a certain affinity for his depiction of truth that comes across in his poetry and their shared haiku conversation. His work, along with Teishin's responses in verse to his poems, was compiled in an anthem called "Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf". Below in no particular order are the poems that have stood out to me, over many re-reads of his work.

 

The poem that my husband and I chose for our wedding ceremony

 

Here with you
I could remain
For countless days and years
Silent as the bright moon
We watched together

 

 

A fabulous poem about drinking and housewarming! 

 

For warming a house, 

Freshly constructed,

Freshly constructed,

Cups of joyful wine

I keep drinking till I’m full,

Countless cups of joyful wine.

 

 

A poem that scoffs at other poets who have their noses in the air.

 

Who says my poems are poems?
My poems are not poems.
When you know that my poems are not poems,
Then we can speak of poetry.

 

Teishin and Ryokan's final exchange in verse

 

The moon, I'm sure
Is shining brightly
High above the mountains
But gloomy clouds
Shroud the peak in darkness
--Teishin

 

You must rise above
The gloomy clouds
Covering the mountaintop
Otherwise, how will you
Ever see the brightness?
--Ryokan

 

The raw feeling of winds and winter snows 

 

Blending with the wind,
Snow falls;
Blending with the snow,
The wind blows.
By the hearth
I stretch out my legs,
Idling my time away
Confined in this hut.
Counting the days,
I find that February, too,
Has come and gone
Like a dream.

 

 

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