Ryōkan Interpreted: Conflict and harmony on the path

Monotype with collage
“The Path”
Copyright©2021 Tomon Marr
(from the book)

[An extract from Okumura Roshi’s new book: Ryōkan Interpreted.]

Chapter title: Strolling without a Care

A spring wind brought gentle rain,
Soaking the grass roof during the night.
Sleeping below in peace,
How does the dweller know
The happenings of the floating world?
At daylight, as blue mountains appear,
Spring birds begin their song on the branches of trees.
I, too, leave my hermitage to wander
With no particular place to go.
A stream supplies water to the distant village,
Radiant flowers shine on the green mountains.
Who is that old man leading the ox?
Whose son carries the hoe?
The four seasons revolve without cease,
In each season, each person does his own work.
Ah! What do I do?
I simply stand for a long time at the gate
Of my hometown.

— • —

Within Ryōkan there were always two points of view that were sometimes in conflict and sometimes in harmony. This is a source of his poetry. In order to understand his poems, we need to understand his internal viewpoints that were at odds with one another. This is why I have talked about Chuang Tzu and Ryōkan’s life [earlier in the book].

The above is one poem by Ryōkan that I really like that illustrates what was happening deep in his mind.

This is a poem about a spring day. The original Chinese here for spring wind” is tōfu (東風), which literally means east wind; but in Chinese poetry this expression refers to the spring wind. In the winter the wind always comes from the north, especially in the area where Ryōkan lived, and it’s very cold, so when the wind blows from the east, people are happy because spring is arriving. In Echigo this is the time, after a long, cold, and gloomy winter, when people become active and start working in the fields. During the winter Ryōkan could not go out to do begging (takuhatsu). Now it’s getting warm, flowers are starting to bloom, people are starting to work, and Ryōkan is leaving his hermitage to walk down to the village to do begging. Following is the poem, broken out by sections:

A spring wind brought gentle rain,
Soaking the grass roof during the night.
Sleeping below in peace,
How does the dweller know
The happenings of the floating world?

There may have been a fireplace in his room, but during the night the fire would go out and it would become really cold so he didn’t sleep well during winter. But now, in the springtime, it is warmer, and he sleeps well. He does not need to think of “the floating world.”

“The floating world” means this world in which we live that is always changing and where there

is nothing to rely on. This is a very well-known expression in Japanese, ukiyo. Probably you know the Japanese wood block printings called ukiyo-e, a term that means a painting of the floating world. Even though, on one hand, it is the source of sadness, fear and anxiety, Japanese people have a sense that they enjoy these changes and the floating impermanence of the world. Because Ryōkan is

a good for nothing person, he has no job and he doesn’t need to care about success and failure, or whether he is up or down in the floating world. That is what he’s writing about here in this poem. This does not mean, however, that he was indifferent to people’s suffering.

At daylight, as blue mountains appear,
Spring birds begin their song on the branches of trees.
I, too, leave my hermitage to wander
With no particular place to go.

Although the words Ryōkan uses are not the same as the words that appear in Chuang Tzu, the meaning is the same. Even though he’s walking along for begging, he has no appointments and no schedule, so he can start walking whenever he is ready. There’s no one who expects him, so there’s no care about where he should go or by what time he must be somewhere. His walking is really strolling without a care.

A stream supplies water to the distant village,
Radiant flowers shine on the green mountains.
Who is that old man leading the ox?
Whose son carries the hoe?

Ryōkan is walking in the very beautiful scenery of the spacious rice fields of Echigo. He sees some farmers already working in the field. I’m pretty sure he knew everyone there, but because he saw those people working in the fields from a distance, he could not tell exactly who that person was. This means that he was a kind of observer or outsider in relationship to the people working hard in the field. Children also helped their parents farm, and each year children look different, getting bigger and bigger, so even though he probably knew who the boy was, because boys change, he wonders from which family this one comes. Ryōkan was watching and observing the people working.

Farmers do the same thing every year and in ancient times farmers’ work was very hard. They had to do many things every day and began to work from very early in the morning before sunrise and continued to work until sunset. But Ryōkan had no such work. He was walking without a care so when he wrote this part of the poem, I think he had mixed feelings. On one side, he had a sense of guilt. He had escaped from his family business and was spending his life just begging to get some food and if he has time, writing poems, and sleeping when he feels the need. He is living a good-for-nothing life but these people are living a busy life with a lot of hard work. He feels separate from them and yet he cannot be completely free from his connection to these hard-working people. He was not like Han Shan (Cold Mountain), the Chinese hermit. Cold Mountain also wrote many beautiful poems, but although Ryōkan loved Cold Mountain’s poems, he couldn’t be like him, for Cold Mountain was truly a hermit and never cared about people in the world. Ryōkan was much closer to people in his world. Therefore, he struggles within himself as he describes those people working so hard.

The four seasons revolve without cease,
In each season, each person does his own work.

This means the four seasons go around in the same way each year, and following the change of seasons, people’s lives repeat the same process. In the spring, they start to work in the fields, during summer they work hard taking care of the rice and the vegetables, in the fall they harvest, and during winter they work inside the house. People worked all year round following the change of the seasons and each person had something to do. Farmers worked on farming and craftsmen followed their craft and merchants managed their business. This is the teaching of Confucianism. In each occupation each person has to work diligently. Ryōkan was outside of that cycle, and yet not completely free from the idea that everyone has their own occupation within a community and must do their best, and make an effort to keep the community in good shape. So next he asks himself a question:

Ah! What do I do?
I simply stand for a long time at the gate
Of my hometown.

He had left home and leads his life the way Chuang Tzu described, seeing the world from up high. In terms of Buddhism and Zen practice this is to be free from discrimination, accepting everything without discriminating. To be beyond discrimination is a kind of enlightenment, and yet he still has a concern for people in the world, which is a very good quality in this poem. He was not really like that big bird; he understands and has sympathy with the small birds. He knows that he is a small bird like other people and yet the difference is that he’s useless. He enjoyed this and yet had a sense of guilt. His life was simple but his psychology was not so simple.

This poem of Ryōkan’s attracted me because I feel the same kind of contradiction. When I left home and became a Buddhist priest, I had the same sense of guilt. I was also the oldest son, and within Japanese culture I had a responsibility to take care of my parents even though my family didn’t have a family business. My family had been merchants in Osaka for six generations, but because of the fires at the end of World War II my family lost everything. In a certain way, I appreciated this because it released me from my family responsibilities. If my family hadn’t lost their wealth, I might have been the person who had to take care of it. But because my family lost everything, my father said to me when I was a teenager, “You are free, you have nothing to inherit.” I trusted and accepted what my father said. But for my father, for me to become a Buddhist monk was a lot more than he expected. My parents were not happy at all when I became a monk and I had a sense of guilt that I had given up my responsibility toward my family. I really resonate with what Ryōkan felt.

In the last lines of the poem, Ryōkan answers his own question about what to do by simply standing at the gate of his home town. “My hometown” means his family’s district; he was now living there again, so even though he had left home he couldn’t leave the place. He is still not free from the world in which he was born, and yet he cannot live as a normal member of that world. I think this is a difficulty for him even though he has a certain confidence in the way he lives.

In Chuang Tzu’s story, when the cicada and the little dove laughed at the big bird, I feel that the big bird, Chuang Tzu himself, looked down and laughed at those small living beings. Ryōkan does not think he is a greater being than the farmers. I think this is the difference between Chuang Tzu’s philosophy and the bodhisattva practice of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Ryōkan was a bodhisattva, not Taoism’s Perfect Man.

— • —

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More Ryōkan


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Just published! The Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758–1831) is known throughout the world for his deep and delightful lyric verses, evoking the beauty of nature and the precious and transitory nature of everyday life. In his new book, the internationally-known Zen Buddhist commentator and author Shohaku Okumura newly translates poems by Ryōkan and provides commentary on Ryōkan’s life and works, for the enjoyment of lovers of poetry and for Buddhist practitioners alike. This handsome volume commences with an essay by Tonen O’Connor, Resident Priest of Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, and is enhanced with the inclusion of photography of Roykan’s beloved “Snow Country” by Hoko Karnegis, Vice Abbot of Sanshin Zen Community. Tomon Marr, a disciple of O’Connor, has graced the cover and chapter headings with contemporary works of mixed media in response to Ryōkan.

1 thought on “Ryōkan Interpreted: Conflict and harmony on the path

  1. Suzi

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight on Ryokan’s writing. Very poignant and sensitive. I had not read this poem before. His last line about standing a long time at the gate of one’s hometown brings both sadness and empathy, as many of us know all too well how that feels.

    Reply

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