Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Language: English

Pages: 224

ISBN: 1590309820

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. 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. 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. There are hilarious stories about how people tried to trick him into doing art for them, and about how he frustrated their attempts. As an old man, he fell in love with a young Zen nun who also became his student. His affection for her colors the mature poems of his late period. This collection contains more than 140 of Ryokan’s poems, with selections of his art, and of the very funny anecdotes about him.

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A phonetic letter, or kana, can be classified as a standard script called hiragana or an ideographic phonetic called man’yo gana. A standard kana has one letter for one syllable. Man’yo gana, which was created in ancient times when the Ten Thousand Leaves Anthology (Man’yo Shu) was compiled, uses an ideograph to represent a sound, disregarding the meaning of the ideograph. In this script, several ideographs can represent the same sound. (The standard kana evolved from man’yo gana, so sometimes a

by Ryokan.” Finally, in figure 13 is an example of Ryokan’s kanshi, or Chinese-style poetry. The writing can be converted to a horizontal format and then a seven-ideographs-per-line format: Figure 13.“What is my fate . . .” In Chinese it reads: wu yu bi yan you he yuan yi hui shu liao you yi hui bu zhi ci shi wen a shei da xiong diao yu ren tian shi The lack of rhyme is common for Ryokan’s work but quite unusual for Chinese-style poems in general. Below is the

brushwork “look good.” As you will see in other samples, Ryokan was a skilled calligrapher. In this piece, on the other hand, he went far beyond skills, revealing himself completely off guard. We see vast freedom in his childlike brushstrokes, which demonstrate that Ryokan was a child when he was with children. A peasant farmer once said to Ryokan, “Your writings are difficult to read. Can you write something even I can read?” Ryokan wrote “One, two, three,” and said, “I hope you can read

brushwork “look good.” As you will see in other samples, Ryokan was a skilled calligrapher. In this piece, on the other hand, he went far beyond skills, revealing himself completely off guard. We see vast freedom in his childlike brushstrokes, which demonstrate that Ryokan was a child when he was with children. A peasant farmer once said to Ryokan, “Your writings are difficult to read. Can you write something even I can read?” Ryokan wrote “One, two, three,” and said, “I hope you can read

cook from a Zen monastery said, “To study words you must know the origin of words. To endeavor in practice you must know the origin of practice.” Dogen asked, “What are words?” The cook said, “One, two, three, four, five.” Dogen asked further, “What is practice?” The cook said, “Nothing in the entire universe is hidden.” As a dharma descendant of Zen master Dogen, Ryokan might have learned about this dialogue. Figure 3. “One, two, three.” When the ideographic writing system was created in

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