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Ikkyu: Zen eccentric

Crazy Cloud

Perhaps the most celebrated of the iconoclastic throwbacks to authentic Zen—masters who maintained some authenticity in their practice in the midst of the political convolutions of fourteenth-century Japan and the organizational shenanigans of the official Rinzai Zen sect—was the legendary Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481).

Ikkyu, a breath of fresh air in the stifling, hypocritical world of an institutionalized Zen, seems almost a reincarnation of the early Chan masters of the Tang.

Few Zen masters have been as deeply or fondly assimilated into Japanese culture as Ikkyu. During his own lifetime, he endeared himself to his compatriots by his compassionate response to suffering, his blunt rejection of grandiosity and hypocrisy, his zany humor, and his unmonkish delight in the pleasures of the body, notably sex. After his death, his fame grew as new stories were attached to his name or old ones enlarged. Modern Japanese know him as a sort of cultural icon . . . Literati admire his poems, calligraphy, and ink paintings, while schoolchildren sing songs attributed to him, repeat his wordplays, and consume spurious tales of his wise sayings and curious doings.

Beginning as classicist in the finest Kyoto tradition, Ikkyu had gone on to become spiritual recluse in the mountains under a harsh meditation master. After a long and arduous struggle for awakening, the caw of a crow triggered his awakening.

For twenty years I was in turmoil
Seething an angry, but now my time has come!
The crow laughs, an arhat emerge from the filth,
And in the sunlight a jade beauty sings!

His life grew progressively more unconventional with time, as he took to the road as a wandering monk—"Crazy Cloud"—in the traditional Tang mode.