Ryōkan Interpreted: the true Dharma eye

Collage "Crazy Moon"
Copyright©2021 Tomon Marr
(from the book)

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

Chapter title: Ryōkan and Dōgen

I remember that a long time ago, while staying at Entsūji monastery,
my late teacher upheld the true Dharma eye.
At that time, I experienced the pivotal point for transforming my self.
Therefore, I asked him to let me read the texts, and I intimately practiced following Dōgen’s teachings.
Further, I realized that I had been wastefully using my strength.
After that, I left my teacher and traveled far and wide to practice with other teachers.
What was my affinity with Eihei [Dōgen]?
Wherever I went, I respectfully practiced the teachings of the true Dharma eye.
More years than I can remember have passed away.
I forgot the function, returned to my home country and have been living the idle, lazy life.

— • —

In this second section [of a longer poem], Ryōkan remembers his experience of studying and practicing Dōgen’s teaching of the true Dharma eye treasury while he practiced at Entsūji monastery. His teacher Dainin Kokusen gave instructions on the true Dharma eye. Ryōkan says here only shōbōgen. It is not clear if this refers to the text Shōbōgenzō (with abbreviated because the number of Chinese characters is limited in a line of poetry), or if this refers to the eye that sees true Dharma. Even if shōbōgen in this poem does not refer to the text Shōbōgenzō, I believe Kokusen gave lectures on Dōgen’s writings including Shōbōgenzō. Either way, it is certain that through his teacher, Ryōkan studied Shōbōgenzō. He was inspired by Dōgen’s teaching and asked his teacher to allow him to read the texts by himself. At this time, Shōbōgenzō was not yet published in a woodblock version, which is why Ryōkan asked special permission from the abbot to read a rare and precious hand-copied manuscript.

Entsūji was founded by Tokuō Ryōkō (徳翁良高 1648–1709), one of the dharma heirs of Gesshū Sōko (月舟宗胡 1618–1696) and a dharma brother of Manzan Dōhaku (卍山道白 1636–1715). They pioneered the movement of “returning to Dōgen” in order to restore the uniqueness of the Sōtō School as distinct from the Rinzai School and the newly established Ōbaku School. Ryōkan’s master Kokusen (1723–1791) was one of Tokuō’s dharma grandsons and Entsūji must have owned Shōbōgenzō and other texts by Dōgen, as well as important texts of Zen and Buddhism in general.

By studying Shōbōgenzō, Ryōkan says that he experienced the pivotal point for transforming himself. Until then, he probably thought “Ryōkan” studied and practiced the dharma using his own power and effort to see the true reality of all beings, but he now found that all beings came to him and allowed him to practice. This is one of the most important points of Dōgen’s teaching in Genjōkōan.

Ryōkan practiced at Entsūji for 12 years from 1779 to 1791, from the time he was twenty-two until he was thirty-three years old. Shortly before his death in 1791, Kokusen gave a poem and a staff to Ryōkan. Commonly this is considered to mean Ryōkan received inka (the seal certifying completion of practice) or dharma transmission. Seemingly, he was therefore qualified to be the abbot of a Sōtō temple. And yet when Ryōkan passed away, he was simply called “Ryōkan Shusō (head monk)” on his mortuary tablet. In today’s Sōtō School system, after completing shusō practice, we receive dharma transmission sometime later, and only after copying the sanmotsu (three documents: shisho, kechimyaku, and daiji) and visiting Eiheiji and Sōjiji to do zuise (the ceremony of being abbot for a day). I think it was the same in Ryōkan’s time, but no one, including Ryōkan himself, ever mentioned that he received dharma transmission or copied the three documents or visited Eiheiji or Sōjiji for zuise. Probably, Kokusen passed away before giving transmission to Ryōkan and Ryōkan did not want to receive transmission from another teacher. Or possibly he had already decided not to be a Sōtō Zen temple priest and part of the government-controlled Buddhist system. In any event, Ryōkan left Entsūji around the time his teacher passed away and never returned. He traveled widely for several years until 1796 when he was thirty-nine. We don’t know much about where he visited or what he did during this period. But in this poem, Ryōkan says that wherever he went, he met and respectfully practiced shōbōgen (the true Dharma eye). Again, some people interpret this line as Ryōkan meaning he could read a hand-copied manuscript of Shōbōgenzō at many places, but I don’t agree with this interpretation. I think Ryōkan means that wherever he went he practiced with the essential spirit of Dōgen: “studying the self” and “dropping off body and mind.”

In the poem, Ryōkan remembers that in his youth, he studied and practiced following Shōbōgenzō and other teachings of Dōgen. However, after returning to Echigo when he was thirty-nine years old, he gave it up, and as he expressed it, “I have been living the idle, lazy life.” “Lazy life” is a translation of sorai (疎懶). So means “negligent” or “careless” and rai means “lazy,” “dull,” or “idle.” An example of the same kind of person is Hanshan (寒山, Kanzan). This “laziness” is not completely negative and Ryōkan’s lifestyle after returning to Echigo is a typical example of “Zen laziness.” Ryōkan loved Hanshan’s poems. One of Ryōkan’s famous poems is:

For my entire life, I have been too lazy to rise in the world.
I live freely, leaving everything to heaven’s truth.
In my bag, three measures of rice.
By the fireside, a bundle of firewood.
Who inquires after the trace of delusion and realization?
Why do I care for the dusts of fame and profit?
In the night rain, inside my grass-hut
I stretch my legs leisurely.

Ryōkan doesn’t care for social climbing but leaves everything to “heaven’s truth.” Heaven’s truth (天真, tenshin) means reality as-it-is before being processed by human thinking. Ryōkan’s poem might have been inspired by a poem by Hanshan:

All my life too lazy to work
favoring the light to the heavy.
Others take up a career,
I hold onto a sutra,
a scroll with nothing inside.
I open it wherever I go.
For every illness it has a cure
and heals with whatever works.
Once your mind contains no plan
wherever you are it is alert.[1]

When Ryōkan says, “I am too lazy to rise in the world,” this “world” includes the Buddhist temples as a part of the worldly social system. At some time of his life, as he wandered here and there, I think that Ryōkan found he could not live like Dōgen because, internally, his impractical personality could not work with others within an organization and, externally, because of the situation of the Sōtō School and its temples. He had to create his own lifestyle and practice as a bodhisattva inspired by Dōgen’s teaching, but without imitating Dōgen’s style as it was practiced at Sōtō Zen monasteries of the time.

However, there may be a difference between the Chinese “lazy” Zen monks and Ryōkan, for Ryōkan could not be completely lazy; he is not one hundred percent comfortable being a “lazy” Zen monk. Sometimes, he feels shame or even guilt for having left his family responsibilities and for having discontinued the diligent monastic practice that Dōgen carried out. His mind is ambivalent even though he knows he cannot change his way of life. To me, this is an attractive aspect of Ryōkan. Probably the Chinese Zen monks had the same kind of internal entanglements, but Zen literature as it comes down to us is hagiography created by later people about legendary monks whom they worshiped; it makes no mention of their internal dilemmas.

— • —

[1] Red Pine, trans., The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, (Port Townsend, Wash: Copper Canyon Press, 2000), p.209.

— • —

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.

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