Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?

Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk

What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 


  1. "I let my nature flow where it will" is the key to me. I wish I could have lived my life that way. Instead I have been carried away by other different currents. Such is life for the unenlightened me.

    1. RT: you're just as enlightened as anyone else: it's all there, you just have to let it out... and it's not a time/age thingie; anybody can do it at any time...

  2. i like Ryokan; i've a collection of his poetry somewhere... most Zen masters would say there's no ultimate enlightenment, that in fact there's no enlightenment at all: all there is, is hewing wood and carrying water... just doing what you do every day without fretting... or: in the 12th c., a monk asked Joshu, "does a dog have Buddha nature?"... Joshu said "mu"; meaning "nothing", but implying everything.. (i have a lurking feeling i've cited this story before; if so, forgive me...)

    1. Mudpuddle,

      No enlightenment at all? Sounds contradictory--considering the monasteries, the robes, the rituals, the long sessions of meditation, the long years of study, the wrestling with koans. If there is no enlightenment, then what is the point of all this? Merely passing time?

    2. as i've been informed, and experienced, "realization" is probably a more accurate term than "enlightenment"... and it's not easy to become aware of detachment and "mu".... a story of the local Zen master: a student began complaining of the daily round of activities, cleaning, meditating, gardening, and wanted to know what it was all about and why all these seemingly meaningless chores... the master (we'll call him Dogen) said, "Dogen isn't here right now..." i liked it...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Are there several flavors of Zen? It seems as though I'm hearing different and contradictory things about Zen.

      The ending of the story is quite ambiguous, which I suppose is deliberate.

    4. yes Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen used to be the main ones; there are others now: reorganization to confuse things seems to have gotten to zen, lately... some of them don't believe in enlightenment; some do; Google "types of zen" and you'll get more information than you probably want or need...

    5. Mudpuddle,

      OK, thanks for the warning.

  3. R.T.,

    Sounds like the perfect segue to Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

  4. I think this is the first Ryokan that I have read.

    I really like this verse. I understand rejecting conventional wisdom, be it "wisdom" concerning the material or the spiritual.

    1. Brian,

      I find him an interesting poet to dip into when the spirit moves me.