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

Recently I had to drive to Portland to get a special rear bumper put on my Toyota pickup. I figured that I would get a poetry book to read since I was told that I would have to wait at least three hours to have the old bumper taken off and the new one installed. Considering how many partially read poetry books I have laying around my den, I decided I would buy the Kindle version of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.

It turned out installing the bumper took nearly 6 hours, not three, so I managed to finish the book in one sitting. It was hard to ignore the irony in waiting to have a $4, 000 bumper installed while reader Ryokan’s poetry extolling the virtues of the simple life. It is indeed a strange world when camping out in a small pickup with a small camper can be considered “living the simple life.” After a lifetime of backpacking, I’m amazed at how spacious my camper seems. But every time I pull into a KOA campground and hook up to water and electricity next to a huge motor home I’m reminded that everything is relative.

Despite owning far too many things, including poetry books, I still identify with the spirit of Ryokan’s Zen poetry. This is the second book of his poetry I’ve purchased, but it has been so long between works that I really can’t compare them, though I’m sure that Tanahashi’s collection contained several new insights and a larger selection of Ryokan’s poems.

In the introduction Tanahashi contrasts Ryokan with the two other great figures in Zen Buddhism in Japan:

Unlike Dogen and Hakuin, Ryokan did not engage in the training of monks in monasteries. Instead, he practiced alone in extreme austerity without producing any dharma heir. He dropped out of society as well as the Zen community and could therefore be seen as a failure as a Zen teacher. Having no possessions may not have been the most effective way to attain freedom. It was nevertheless Ryokan’s way of life. Creative thinking and mystical encounters often unfold in silent solitude. The more intricately engaged in society we are, the more we may need to be in retreat. Humility is the highest means to selflessness, clarity, and compassion. Through his utterly modest and unaffected life, Ryokan unfolds a vast realm of serenity that can inspire us all.

Poems like

I don’t regard my life
as insufficient.
Inside the brushwood gate
there is a moon;
there are flowers.

while advocating the simple life seem to suggest that Ryokan also knew that many people saw his way of life as a failure.

Part of Ryokan’s appeal to me is precisely that he left his practicing community and practiced the dharma alone:

I don’t tell the murky world
to turn pure.
I purify myself
and check my reflection
in the water of the valley brook.

Withdrawing from the practicing community, he walked alone through mountains and villages, ringing a belled staff and chanting a verse of a sutra at each house. He treated everyone with respect and loving-kindness. Whether people offered him food, ignored him, or harshly drove him away, he was determined to remain true to his path as a monk.

Never a great follower, I’ve discovered many of my own truths while hiking or camping in Washington and Oregon’s wilderness, far away from the classroom and the books that I’ve devoted much of my life to.

Tanahashi’s commentary is often as concise as the poems themselves, but it adds another dimension to Ryokan’s poems.

One of Ryokan’s death poems summarizes his lifelong loneliness, openness, and reconciliation with transiency:

Showing its back
and showing its front,
a falling maple leaf.

Though I’m not quite sure how the poem conveys “his lifelong loneliness, Tanahashi’s comment made me think more longer about the poem than I otherwise might have.

Many of Ryokan’s poems don’t need any commentary at all.

See and realize
that this world
is not permanent.
Neither late nor early flowers
will remain.

My recent travels have clearly shown that Fall is nearly upon us. I’ll be out enjoying our recent sunshine because Fall and Winter rains can’t be far behind.

One thought on “ Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

  1. You know, there are worse things that could happen than a long bumper repair, if this post is any indication.

    Thanks for sharing.

    I believe we are not here to “change the world.” The world is here so that we may learn to change ourselves. Which is, I think, compatible with the “murky world” verse.

    All we have are moments to live, and each other. None of us gets out of here alive.

    What are we fighting about?

    Anyway, nice post. Enjoy the truck. Steinbeck called his Rocinante.

What do you think?