Howdy, Stranger!

It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!

Examples: Monday, today, last week, Mar 26, 3/26/04
Welcome home! Please contact if you have any difficulty logging in or using the site. New registrations must be manually approved which may take several days. Can't log in? Try clearing your browser's cookies.

Ryokan, the art of living

JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matterNetherlands Veteran
edited October 2023 in Arts & Writings

I came across this essay in Dutch and thought you might enjoy, here is a translation

“One of the most important playwrights of the last decade of the twentieth century, the Austrian Werner Schwab, puts the following words in the mouth of Greet, a muddy woman of the people, in his play The Presidentes: “Now you have to surrender to life, Erna, so that life can enjoy you.” And Erna, ‘an old age pensioner with house apron and orthopaedic shoes', sighs: “Yes, of course, but that is so easy to say. In reality it is difficult to pick up a life's enjoyment, when saving has marked you in the flesh and in the blood. But once in life such a person must also achieve happiness, who always has to brush away the dirt of the other people.”

The art of living is problematic for the sparing, calculating and from apparent certainties living individual. The woman from Greet’s people knows what she requires: surrender. A total waste of every trick we have taught ourselves to stand up to the fickle reality as an independent individual. The art of living is a gift, not in the sense of a special quality, but in the sense of a gift, which I can only receive if I am willing to give, open my hand, let go. The art of life requires that I let myself go, to let life invent itself from this movement, which is not a movement but the creative zero of my existence.

Exemplary of the art of life are the art and life of the Japanese calligrapher, poet and Zen priest Ryokan Taigu. He was born in 1758 as the eldest son of the village chief Inan, who was also a merchant, shintopriester and a poet of haiku. Inan had hoped that his firstborn would succeed him as village chief, but in the footsteps of Shakyamuni Buddha, the boy left the house at the age of eighteen. After first seated at a local Soto-zen temple, Ryokan went to study under the master Kokusen, who was in charge of Entsu-ji at Tamashima. Kokusen was a straight-by-sea zenman, who qualified his zen style as 'stacking stones and wearing dre.' For about twelve years, Ryokan stayed with his teacher Kokusen, from whom he also received transmission.

After Kokusen's death, Ryokan left Entsu-ji for a five-year wandering. His mother had already died during his stay in the Zen temple and in 1795 his father committed suicide in Kyoto. Ryokan provided his funeral ceremony. At the age of forty, he returned to his native region of Echigo, the cold and remote snowland in the far north of Japan. There he established his 'one-person community-of-monks' in a meagre hermitage in the densely overgrown forest on Mount Kugami. The hut bore the name Gogo-an, which means 'five cups', which refers to the amount of rice that the previous resident, an abbot of the Shingon sect, was allowed to receive each day. We can't say that Ryokan saved it in the flesh and in the blood. He lived exclusively from what was given to him during his daily begging trips. He gave away what he loved. Ryokan dealt with people from all walks of life: landlords, beggars, merchants, fishermen, farmers, with whom he drank 'the hot water of transcendent wisdom' (sake) and prostitutes, with whom he played at marbles. But above all he also played with the children from the village. Ryokan's life at Gogo-an was a life of self-forgetfulness in the moment: “Tomorrow? The day after tomorrow? Who knows? We are drunk on today!” Our muddy Greet couldn't have said it better!

Around his sixtieth birthday, Ryokan moved to a cabin at the foot of Mount Kugami. Because his health deteriorated, he was forced to move again eight years later. He was given a hut on the Kimura family estate, where he felt like a caged bird. At this place, at the age of seventy, Ryokan finally met the travel companion he asked for so often in his poems. It was the beautiful, twenty-nine year old nun Teishin. Almost immediately they fell in love with each other. As often as they could, they were together and wrote poems, talked about literature and religion or walked through the fields and surrounding villages. 'Two people, one heart,' Ryokan wrote. In the early morning of January six, 1831, Ryokan died at the age of seventy-three in the company of his beloved. He wrote about their relationship:

In this dream world
We nap
And speak of dreams –
Dream, dream on
As much as you want.

One of the few things Ryokan didn't like were 'poems of a poet and calligraphy of a calligrapher'. Ryokan practised calligraphy all his life. Every morning he brushed sheets full and even during his begging rounds he drew characters with his finger in the air or with his foot in the sand. Already during his life, his calligraphy was highly valued. Ryokan made his clean writing for people in his area and anyone who provided him with some food, tobacco or sake could count on a work of art. When a shopkeeper once asked him to put something simple on paper that everyone could read, Ryokan wrote the characters I Ro Ha (A B C) and then One Two Three. These two pieces of calligraphy are now considered among the greatest works of art in this genre in Japan.

Ryokan's calligraphy exudes clarity, softness, a subdued yet unhindered power and simplicity. Sometimes the characters in his work seem almost childish due to the straight writing and the accurate use of the thin line, as can be seen in the entsu-ji poem. But in his poem Autumn Leaves we see the characters like swirling leaves falling down the paper. Yet here too the modesty, the softness and the accuracy of the brushstrokes are prominent again. In Ryokan's calligraphic work, the characters almost seem to write themselves. Effortlessness is one of the main characteristics of his clean writing and its greatest power; a product of his sublime brush mastery and his freedom of mind.

The same effortlessness, simplicity, modesty and clarity that we encounter in Ryokan's calligraphic work can also be found in his poems. He practised many different styles of poetry, such as classical Chinese, haiku, waka and folk songs. Yet he did not always adhere to the stylistic rules. All in all, he wrote about fourteen hundred poems. 'Under his literary legacy, we also come across lists of things that the forgetful Ryokan mainly had to remember in order, according to him, ''not to get into trouble'':'

Don't sleep too much;
Don't eat too much;
Don't take too long afternoon nap;
Don't exhaust yourself;
Don't neglect yourself;
Be silent when you have nothing to say;
Hide nothing in your heart;
Drink sake always warm;
Shave your head;
Cut your nails;
Rinse your mouth and use a toothpick;
Take a bath;
Keep your voice clear.

He also wrote a memo to himself in waka- form:

Waiting for a visitor, I drank four or five
Bowls of this excellent sake.
Already completely drunk, I had forgotten who was to come.
Be a little more careful next time!

Just as Ryokan's characters seem to form themselves, so his poems seem to write themselves. Ryokan's art was an expression of his daily life. And his daily life was art, a highly personal, unhindered expression of what can never be expressed:

A cold night – I'm alone in my room
Which is only filled with incense smell.
Outside a bamboo forest with a hundred trees;
On the bed a few ties of poetry.
Along the top of the window the moon shines,
The whole neighbourhood is quiet except for the insects.
In all this is boundless emotion,
But when I approach it, not a single word.

As a Soto Zen monk, Ryokan practised shikan-taza. This is a meditation practice in which everyday life is expressed in full presence. But shikan-taza is not bound by a formal attitude. In Ryokan's life, his daily worries, his art and his zen practice are indistinguishable. Every action, every thought, every perception, every emotion and every line of poetry is the practice and realisation of shikan-taza:

My life may seem melancholic,
But travelling through this world
I entrusted myself to Heaven.
In my begging cup three sho rice;
At the fireplace a bundle of firewood.
If anyone asks me about the characteristic of enlightenment or illusion,
I don't know what to say – opulens and honour are just dust.
When the evening rain falls, I sit in my cabin
And stretch both my legs in response.

Ryokan's Zen practice is indeed about the distinction between illusion and enlightenment. “Look around you! There is nothing but this,” he calls out to us at the end of one of his poems. And this 'nothing but this' Ryokan expresses crystal clear and accurately in his poetry, so that you get the impression that his poems derive directly from and give voice to his Zen practice:

A lonely winter day, clear, then cloudy.
I want to go outside, but don't do it; I tarry.
Unexpectedly comes an old friend who asks me
To drink with him.
I'm delighted now, I grab a brush, ink and a lot of paper.

Ryokan is not exclusively focussed on his daily activities: begging, zazen, picking flowers, listening to the birds, taking night walks, nap in the afternoon, reading and writing poetry, playing with the children, or drinking sake with the farmers. His empathy with his suffering fellow man also occupies an important place in his work:

Travelling to a distant region
Accompanied by the nightingale
And of thoughts about the sadness in this world.


Thinking of the people in this flowing world
Deep in the night –
My sleeve is soaked in tears.



  • JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter Netherlands Veteran

    The art of living is not least the art of dealing with pain. Pain is the most constant factor in our existence, Shakyamuni Buddha has said. The art of dealing with pain also requires surrender. She asks us to enter the pain and live the pain. In shikan-taza, the self-forgotten practice of our existence, we realise our lives as pain when the pain occurs. The art of living is the art of making the pain sound in our lives effortlessly and without fear. This can be in the form of a scream. But she can also subtly get her voice in between the lines of a poem, as is often the case with Ryokan:

    Counting days is like cutting
    With your fingers-
    Even May evaporates like a dream.

    Ryokan's deep and unconditional love for all that lives is expressed not only in the endearment, gentleness and freedom with which he allows life to take shape and shine in poetry, but also in the pain of transience. Becoming an old man himself, Ryokan writes this poem:

    I sit still and listen to the falling leaves –
    A lonely hut, a withdrawn life.
    The past has faded, I can't remember things.
    My sleeve is wet with tears.

    Perhaps Ryokan's intense love of life and his profound realisation of the transience of that life is the reason he wanted to live his life alone. For his great predecessor and the founder of Soto-Zen in Japan, Dogen Zenji, the homeless, nowhere-dwelling monastic existence was the only answer to the transience that is our life at its deepest. This does not indicate a fear of transience, but a courageous and unconditional acceptance of the transience in our lives and of the unlimited freedom that this transience is. Everything passes. That is, there is fundamentally nothing that binds us. Be that as it may, Ryokan loved his life as it was. And that was certainly not a life in which he shyed away from people and love:

    It's not like that
    I never get among the people
    Of the world go on –
    But i am having fun
    Rather alone.

    Ryokan knew the dark side of his choice all too well. He fully accepted the consequence of his lifestyle and expressed it in numerous poems, with razor-sharp precision and without any sentimentality or self-pity:

    The fireplace is cold and covered with thick ash.
    Again, the only light is extinguished.
    Loneliness and not yet halfway through the night.
    Silence – just the voice of a distant mountain stream.

    For Ryokan is the night of loneliness, the loneliness of all living beings. Like everything that pretends to be, she is a unique and valuable expression of the unsable and elusive existence. And she is just as worthy of being unconditionally lived, fully tasted and expressed in clarity:

    Continuous rainfall – in my hermitage
    Flickers a single light, while dreams return.
    Outside the sound of falling drops.
    A crow sits on the wall in darkness.
    The fireplace is cold, no firewood awaits my contold guests.
    I reach for a collection of poetry.
    This night, in solitude, deep emotion.
    How do I explain him the next day?

    Loneliness in Ryokan is not just about being physically alone. She also stands for the realisation that we must live this all-encompassing life alone, suffer the all-encompassing pain alone, and die the all-encompassing death alone. In this loneliness, in this lonely act, we are deeply united with all that lives. In Japanese aesthetics, her is called sabi, the absolute or eternal loneliness. Sabi is not the depressed feeling of being left behind by everyone, nor a self-righteousness, she denotes a completely self-being and a self-sufficient-being. The pine tree and I are intimately connected in one act of existence and in one act of dying. Listen to Ryokan in the following poem expresses the absolute loneliness, temporality and absolute unhinderedness in a single breath:

    I'm alone under a lonely pine tree;
    Time passes quickly.
    Above me the sky, endless –
    Who can i ask to go the road with me?

    Ryokan's art of life consists of a deep intimacy with all that lives. His sensitive mind resonates effortlessly with every voice that arises and every sound that resounds. For Ryokan, life itself was art, a transparent beauty that permeates everything, even the most erratic and harrowing expressions of life. Ryokan did not write poetry, he created space to let poetic reality write itself out. American composer John Cage once said, 'I have nothing to say, but say it anyway, and that's poetry.' That is poetry, as a tree is poetry, and a rock and a man and an animal. They are poetic for no other reason than to be there. That they are there, the way they are. And what else can we add to that? Listen to how Ryokans are filled with poetic reality makes him write this reality in his Poem of Early Autumn:

    After a night of rain, water covers the village path.
    Fresh is the thick grass at my hut this morning.
    In the window are distant mountains, the colour of blue-green jade.
    Outside, a river flows like a shimmering side.
    Under a rock at my hut, I was my sensitive ear
    With pure spring water.
    Crickets recite their autumn verse in the trees.
    I had prepared my robe and stick for a walk,
    But the silent beauty keeps me here.

    The poetic reality can also appear to us in a banal form:

    Thirsty I filled myself with sake;
    Lying under the cherry blossoms –
    Wonderful dreams!

    The secret of the art of living is surrender, so that life can enjoy us, to put it in Greet's words. Ryokan's daily life, his calligraphy and his poetry express a self-forgetfulness, allowing reality to effortlessly manipulate the brush and fulfil body-and-spirit with its fresh poetry. 'But it is difficult to pick up a life's enjoyment in this world,' we can object with Erna, the sparing, troubled, frightened person. Self-forgotten, poetic life requires trust and trust is actually the last word of Ryokan's poetry:

    Got home after a day of begging
    I find my door covered with sage.
    Now a bundle of green leaves burns with the undergrowth.
    Silently I read Kanzan's poems, accompanied
    Because of the autumn wind, which makes the light rain rustling through the reeds.
    I stretch both my legs and lie down.
    What is there to think about? What is there to doubt?

    With everything we create comes the moment when we let ourselves go in the act of creation, when we give up control and we no longer know what we are doing. This is the moment when we forget ourselves and are blind and effortlessly able to rise above ourselves. The artist with all his preferences and doubts is not present at that moment. Only the act – writing, painting, making music, dancing, but also, eating, drinking, walking, sitting, thinking, making love – only the act itself, the free functioning of the ultimate reality takes place there. In that case, Buddhism speaks of the Dharma: the Dharma works. And what the Dharma is, no painter, no musician, no dancer, no poet, no human can ever say. The Dharma works and we take advantage of it at any moment. 'To find the Dharma,' Ryokan writes, 'wander to East and West, come and go and entrust yourself to the waves.'

    This trust in what is completely elusive and uncontrollable, but what works miraculously, can only be an unconditional trust, a trust to which I set no limits. Even when things don't go, when everything seems to be disappointing, when we feel discouraged, tired and thrown back on ourselves, even then the Dharma functions and we are asked, in spite of ourselves, to go this long way through the deep night:

    No luck today at my begging rounds;
    I dragged myself from village to village.
    At sunset kilometres of mountains between me and my hut.
    The wind is jerking my fragile body
    And so desolate seems my little monk's bowl.
    Yet this is my chosen Way that leads me
    By disappointment and pain, cold and hunger.

    The art of living is the art of being able to live every moment of our lives freely, brightly and in its richest shades of colour and sound. The art of living is this life, however poor, dark and ruthless it sometimes seems to us, to be expressed in every step we take, every word we speak and every brushstroke we add to this world. The art of living is an expression of gratitude for what is given to us, but also of the willingness to return this gift at any moment. Ryokan Taigu, the Great Idiot (Jap. tai-gu), with his fearless art of living, gave an invitation to each of us to open our hand in the middle of our everyday existence and 'take up a life pleasure'. We don't have to look much. The poetic life writes in everything that occurs his poem:

    Stubborn and stupid – when will I find tranquillity?
    Poor and lonely this existence.
    Twilight: I'm returning from the village
    And wear an empty monk's bowl again.”

Sign In or Register to comment.