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Introducing the irreverent, unconventional Ryokan

by Kris Kosaka

SKY ABOVE, GREAT WIND: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Shambhala, 2012, 224 pp., $17.95 (paperback)

It is fitting that the first poem in this book features Ryokan’s nod to the most famous of Japanese poets:

New Pond.

No sound of a frog

jumping in.

A study of Japanese haiku usually begins with the unrivaled master Matsuo Basho, but as Ryokan’s cheeky thoughtfulness reveals, there’s much more to haiku than Basho.

The slim book houses four volumes: a biography, detailing the life of Ryokan; a collection of his work, chronologically spanning his early wandering period to the end of his life; popular anecdotes of his quirky wisdom; and a brief explanation of Ryokan’s poetic forms. Author Kazuaki Tanahashi’s scholarship admirably crafts a complete portrait of one of Japan’s most beloved haiku masters, a poet who has achieved almost archetypal reverence as the wise fool. Revealing Ryokan beyond the surface, a realistic image of an irreverent spirit struggling to understand the contradictions of his own heart within the first stirrings of modernity in Japan emerges.

Born into a prestigious family in 1758, Ryokan’s father was the “hereditary village headman under the Shogun’s government’s ruling system,” serving also as a local Shinto priest. Along with this responsibility came a life of wealth and leisure for his family, and Ryokan was made a village headman-in-training at 16. Yet Ryokan abruptly escaped this comfortable life, becoming a novice at a Zen temple in a neighboring village.

Tanahashi carefully documents known facts, yet also blends in existing anecdotal evidence to create a fully realized human, caught between the spiritual and material world of his time.

After this biographical framing, Tanahashi next allows Ryokan’s poetry itself to build a deeper understanding of the poet and his work. Ryokan captivates the essence of modern man with his deceptively simple verse. After listening to an elder giving a dharma lecture, Ryokan composes:

Your talk is like chopping cheap dog meat

and selling it as a slice of sheep.

I am as stinky as you are.

May the pleasure of your company

not go away.

A monk consistently thought of as a “fool”, more comfortable with children than adults, Ryokan often points out his, and mankind’s, incongruities:

A thief took the han and futon

from the thatch-roofed room.

Who could blame him?

His later work documents a touching love story between himself and a visiting nun, and fully realizes a portrait of a man caught between the here and now and eternity.

The book provides translations of popular Ryokan anecdotes and stories that show a raunchy familiarity with bodily functions, as Ryokan pulls lice from his clothes or snot from his nose. Other stories uncover a man of unorthodox wisdom who, unconcerned with the superficial, considers both the beauty and the mundane in human nature. Ryokan’s poetic forms — waka, haiku and kanshi — are thoroughly explained, complementing the earlier part on his calligraphy style.

“Sky Above, Great Wind” takes the reader beyond Basho, toward a new appreciation of Japan’s most famous art form, by introducing the unconventional, irreverent master Ryokan.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.