Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ryokan's Irony?

Done begging in a rundown village,
I make my way home past green boulders.
Late sun hides behind western peaks;
pale moonlight shines on the stream before me.
I wash my feet, climb up on a rock,
light incense, sit in meditation.
After all, I wear a monk's robe--
how could I spend the years doing nothing? 

                                                -- Ryokan --

  That last sentence makes me look again at the seven lines preceding it, and I have to wonder about them.  Is he being ironic here?  What, if anything, does this say about a monk's way of living?  Or, about Ryokan?


  1. Doing nothing in such a beautiful, distracting, demanding world requires much effort. Try it sometime. Is that his message?

  2. Tim,

    Are you suggesting that he's saying that it's easier to do something than to do nothing?

    1. I think so. But I'm not sure which is preferred.

    2. Tim,

      "which is preferred" I'm not sure what you mean here.

      Whatever it is, it seems to be tied in somehow with wearing a monk's robe.

    3. Fred, I see your point about the robe. That's a choice. Life is not. He chooses what her prefers? Yes?

    4. Tim,

      Things happen--accept it. Yes, that's part of it, I think. Or, not my will but Thy will be done?

  3. among all the zen/haiku poets i've read, Ryokan is the one i would most identify with, if i were to do that... he lived by himself in a little mountain hut and went begging thru the local villages for whatever he could get... he loved children and was very popular with them, making up games and playing with them whenever he could... his haiku are very good, although not quite in the same vein as Basho's...

    The night is fresh and cool-
    Staff in hand, i walk through the gate.
    Wisteria and ivy grow together along the winding
    mountain path;
    Birds sing quietly in their nests and a monkey
    howls nearby.
    As i reach a high peak a village appears in the distance.
    The old pines are full of poems;
    I bend down for a drink of pure spring water.
    There is a gentle breeze, and the round moon hangs overhead.
    Standing by a deserted building, i pretend to be a crane softly floating among the clouds.

    Zen master Ryokan!
    Like a fool, like a dunce,
    Body and mind completely dropped off!
    (This poem has only three lines. "Body and mind completely dropped off" refers to Dogen's enlightenment experience. When Dogen was practicing in China, the monk next to him fell asleep. Dogen's master, Tendo Nyojo(T'ien-tung Ju-ching, 1163-1228), said in a loud voice, "Zazen is to drop off body and mind! Why are you sleeping?" When he heard this, Dogen was inlightened. The expression"drop(or cast)off body and mind" occurs frequently in Soto Zen literature.

    -One Robe, One Bowl, The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, trans. John Stevens, p. 32-33

    tx for posting on this, Fred...

    1. MUdpuddle,

      Thanks for posting the poem.

      "The old pines are full of poems;"

      Now that resonates.

      My favorite hermit poet is Han Shan (Cold Mountain)

  4. This is interesting.

    maybe the last line is not so ironic as it is a genuine question about doing nothing.

    1. Brian,

      I wonder what the monk's robe would have to do with it.

  5. Is he bemoaning the repetitiveness of his life? The boredom of passivity?

    Or is he saying doing nothing is one way to enlightenment?

    Or is he saying both?

    1. Shadow Flutter,

      I don't know how to answer your questions.

      The first six things are very simple actions: mostly about coming back from the village. There's nothing significant there, or so it would appear.

      The last two lines, though--are the puzzler to me. He seems to be saying that since he wears the monk's robe, he couldn't spend the years doing nothing. It appears as though the first six lines are his proof that he does do something.

    2. Interesting. I see that last line as "how could I have spent these years doing nothing?"

      I suppose what he means is that these are the kinds of things that fill the days of monks lives, and if that gives him peace, then fine. But the lines are stated so matter of factly, that I can't help feeling the dullness of endless repetition. Certainly seeing the reflection of the moon in a stream when the sun is behind mountains but has not yet set should ignite feelings of wonder. I don't feel that wonder. Regret is an oft used theme of poets, and Ryokan, I believe, was a hermit. I can't help wondering if those last two lines aren't expressions of regret.

    3. Shadow Flutter,

      I think the sense of the poem turns on how one interprets those last two lines. There's a Zen saying that says the enlightenment is just chopping wood and carrying water, or something like that.

      Or, those last two lines may be expressions of regret, as you suggest.

  6. Yes, the chopping wood and carrying water. I understand the concept behind it, but a lifetime of this sounds boring. There's only so many ways to carry water or chop wood or to think about wood and water. After that it's repetition. It's one thing to, say, go to a retreat and do such things and think about such things, and quite another to devote your life to it. Perhaps that's an east/west divide or a capitalist/non-capitalist divide or some other cultural divide, or maybe it's just me. Anyhow, while I envy the opportunity to investigate such a way of life, I do not envy a lifetime devoted to it. So, maybe I'm projecting onto the Ryokan.

    1. Shadow Flutter,

      Yes, projection is always a risk, especially when different life styles are discussed. That may be why I am puzzled by the last two lines.

      Adding to the problem is the simple fact that this is a translation. Perhaps that's the source of the puzzle.