David Peirce's Reviews > Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Sky Above, Great Wind by Ryokan
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Jun 18, 13

Read in June, 2013

This book is a small collection of the reclusive, Japanese Zen monk Ryokan’s poetry. (Ryokan lived in the early 19th century. I won't go into his biography.) It is not just a compendium, however. The introduction to the book presents a biography of Ryokan. In the context of this linear look at his life, his poetry and calligraphy are also introduced. Ryokan studied and practiced Japanese poetry forms and calligraphy throughout his adult life. He became a master of both and developed his own voice in which he was free to alter accepted forms in both to serve his artistry and expression.

With the introduction as a biographical and artistic backdrop, the poems then beautifully illustrate his life’s story. They capture his devotion to the Soto Zen of Dogen, his lonely life in a small hut on the side of a mountain, his interaction with the villagers, his poverty, his frustration with the shallowness of Buddhist monastic life, his appreciation of nature, and his joy in playing with children, and his Zen practice.

Kazuaki Tanahashi, who compiled this collection, wrote in the Introduction of Ryokan, “Because he did not strive to become free, he was always free from attainment—even from attainment of freedom.”

It might be best to let just a few of Ryokan’s poems provide some glimpses of the color of this collection.

On his lonely life in poverty:

Geese and ducks
have flown away,
abandoning me.
How happy I am
that tofu has no wings!

My lodging is
bamboo poles
and a straw mat screen.
Kindly throw down
a cup of cheap sake.

His empathy for parents after a smallpox outbreak claimed many children’s lives:

If I die
of this unbearable grief,
I may run into my child
on the way
to another world.

On Zen itself:

How could we discuss
this and that
without knowing
the whole world is reflected
in a single pearl?

Falling blossoms.
Blossoms in bloom
are also falling blossoms.

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

Reflecting over seventy years,
I am tired of judging right from wrong.
Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow.
A stick of incense under the rickety window.

And perhaps my favorite, one that I return to again and again:

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.

It's a lovely collection that beautifully portrays the mind and art of one of Zen's most important figures.
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06/18/2013 marked as: read

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