Ryokan Basho

Ryokan: great fool, Zen poet

Who says my poems are poems?
My poems are not poems.
After you know my poems are not poems,
Then we can begin to discuss poetry!

Although we focus on Ryokan’s poetry in this lesson, it is important to know that this 18th cent rut hermit-monk represents for the Japanese something special in the Japanese character. D.T. Suzuki went so far as to say that “When we know one Ryokan, we know hundreds of thousands of Ryokan in Japanese hearts.”

Ryokan also exemplifies the Zen Buddhist idea of attaining enlightenment and then returning to the world with “a serene face and gentle words.” In his life he was indeed Daigu, the “Great Fool” (the literary name he gave himself), one who had gone beyond the limitations of all artificial, man-made restraints.

What will remain as my legacy?
Flowers in the spring,
The hototogisu in summer,
And the crimson leaves of autumn.

Ryokan at Gogo-an

As with so many of the life stories of Zen masters, Ryokan’s childhood was marked by what seems to have been an inner, spiritual crisis.Once a fun-loving young man, he became withdrawn and finallydecided to become a Buddhist monk. Ryokan studied with Kokusen

at Entsct-ji for almost twelve years, studying Chinese poetry (waka), linked verse (renga) and calligraphy, becoming skilled in all of them.

Ryokan then looked for a hermitage and found an empty hut half way up Mount Kugami. He named it Gogo-an. Gogo is
half a sho, the amount of rice necessary to sustain a man for one day; an is
hermitage. It is here that the stories and anecdotes of Ryokan’s life originate.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after
so many things.

While his hut was deep in the mountains, Ryokan visited the neighboring villages to play with the children, drink saki with the farmers, or visit his friends. He slept when he wanted to, drank freely, and frequently joined the dancing parties held in summer. He acquired his simple needs by mendicancy, and if he had anything extra he gave it away. He never preached or exhorted, but his life radiated purity and joy; he was a living sermon.

He respected everyone and bowed whenever he met anyone who labored, especially farmers. If anyone asked him to play the board game go or recite some of his poems, he would always comply. He was continually smiling, and everyone he visited felt as if “spring had come on a dark winter’s day.”

First days of spring – blue sky, bright sun.
Everything is gradually becoming fresh and green.
Carrying my bowl, I walk slowly to the village.
The children, surprised to see me,
Joyfully crowd about, bringing
My begging trip to an end at the temple gate.
I place my bowl on top of a white rock and
Hang my sack from the branch of a tree.
Here we play with the wild grasses and throw a ball.
For a time, I play catch while the children sing;
Then it is my turn.
Playing like this, here and there, I have forgotten the time.
Passers-by point and laugh at me, asking,
“What is the reason for such foolishness?”
No answer I give, only a deep bow;
Even if I replied, they would not understand.
Look around! There is nothing but this.

His love for children and flowers
is proverbial among the Japanese. Often he spent the entire day
playing with the children or picking flowers, completely forgetting
his begging for that day.

Fresh morning snow in front of the shrine,
The trees! Are they white with peach blossoms
Or white with snow?
The children and I joyfully throw snowballs


Ryokan’s life reflects the tradition of radical Zen poets or “great
fools” including the Chinese Layman Pang and Hanshan  and the Japan’s poets Ikkyu and Hakuin). Ryokan had no disciples, ran no temple, and in the eyes of the world was a penniless monk who spent his life in the snow country of Mt. Kugami. He admired most the Soto Zen teachings of Dogen Zenji and the unconventional life and poetry of Zen mountain poet Hanshan. He repeatedly refused to be honored or confined as a “professional” either as a Buddhist priest or a poet.

Years of intense Soto Zen training had made Ryokan more open and kind, not austere or remote. Ryokan’s life at Gogo-an represents that highest stage of Zen spirituality; he “returned to the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands,” the state depicted in the last of the well-known Zen series of the ten ox-herding pictures and the culmination of all Buddhist practice.

Ryokan’s poetry

Ryokan’s Chinese poems are often compared to those of Hanshan, the eccentric hermit of Cold Mountain. Ryokan often read Hanshan’s poems, and the work of both men has a fresh, “country” feeling with little ornamentation. Like Hanshan Ryokan frequently ignored rules of literary composition. Far from being highly crafted and refined, Ryokan’s poems are spontaneous and direct; simple and pure on the surface, they encompass a profound inner feeling and spirit. His poems are very beautiful when chanted and are popular among devotees of poetry recitation.

Returning home after a day of begging;
Sage has covered my door.
Now a bunch of green leaves burns together with the firewood.
Silently I read the poems of Hanshan,
Accompanied by the autumn wind blowing a light rain that rustles through the reeds.
I stretch out both feet and lie down.
What is there to think about ? What is there to doubt?


Poetry and Zen

From Ryokan’s poetry we can observe Ryokan’s Zen. Two primary Zen elements in his poetry were no-mind and impermanence.

With no-mind, blossoms invite the butterfly;
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.
I do not “know” others,
Others do not “know” me.
Not-knowing each other we naturally follow the Way.

Ryokan’s no-mind is really synonymous with Zen — mind with no obstructions or inhibitions, mind that abides nowhere, mind free of contrivance. When Ryokan says he does not “know” others and others do not “know” he is advising us not to categorize or analyze ourselves or others. Over and over in his poems Ryokan implores:

Don’t cling! Don’t strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryokan’s poems also reflect the impermanent nature of everything — this world is a dream, passing away, like dew.

Long ago, I often drank saki at this house;
now only the earth
Covered with plum blossoms.

If you speak delusions, everything becomes a delusion;
If you speak the truth, everything becomes the truth.
Outside the truth there is no delusion,
But outside delusion there is no special truth.
Followers of Buddha’s Way!
Why do you so earnestly seek the truth in distant places ?
Look for delusion and truth in the bottom of your own hearts.


Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who lived a century before Ryokan, is primarily responsible for the evolution of the 17-syllable haiku from earlier forms of waka and renga poetry to a genre whose popularity continues today both in the East and the West.

Basho’s attention to the natural world and the inner world transformed this verse form from a frivolous social pastime into a major genre of Japanese poetry. As was true of earlier forms of poetry, haiku itself is not “Zen poetry”. Nevertheless, Zen has had an enormous influence on the writing of haiku, and in the hands of a poet like Basho it became a form that expressed the Way that we have been exploring in this course. Later Zen poets such as Ryokan took up this form of verse.

We will not pursue Basho’s life story in any detail. The details of Basho’s early life are in question, but it is thought that in his 20s he trained as a Buddhist monk and studied Japanese and Chinese classics and calligraphy. Although he did not remain a monk, he did continue Zen practice with his teacher Buchho while beginning his career as a poet. After many years in the city Basho moved to his basho-an, a hut made of plantain (basho) leaves and the source of his pseudonym.

Poet pilgrim

In the last ten years of his life Basho made several long walking journeys, reporting on them in a series of books and drawing from them more images to inspire his contemplative poetry. On these journeys, Basho wore the black robes of the Buddhist monk. At the beginning of one book Basho wrote:

Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have traveled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyokyo among the wails of the Autumn wind.

In this stage of his life when Basho became the poet pilgrim, his writings evince the unity of the journey and Zen practice. Narrow Road to the Interior is a long meditation on the ecstasy and the sorrow of each moment of awareness, The Knapsack Notebook an exploration of the fusion of pilgrimage and poetry, and Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones a record of Basho’s pilgrimage on the path of his spiritual and poetic master, Saigyo.

All along this road
not a single soul—only
autumn evening

This “road” is at once the road of poetry, the road of Zen practice, and the road of life itself. All of these are one for Basho. So it was through his lifelong development of the Way of Poetry. In the autumn of his life Basho concerned himself with this road without a single soul; not only do we travel this road alone, but even the status of our own self ultimately has no meaning when confronted with the lonely depths of an autumn evening.

People’s poet

Basho was a poet of the people’s poet. Unlike the poetry of the  aristocracy with its rarified language, Basho’s haiku focused on everyday experience using everyday language. It was direct, sharp and stimulating in its connection with the concrete reality of nature and existence.

What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and, returning to the world of our daily experience, to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.

The autumn full moon
All night long
I walked around the lake

First winter rain
The monkey also seems to wish for
A straw raincoat

Basho’s haiku and Zen

The relationship between Basho’s poetry and Zen is much discussed and open to interpretation. Certainly the structure of his haiku reflected the simplicity of his meditative life. There is a mystical quality in much of his verse and Basho’s poems often expressed universal themes through simple natural images, from the harvest moon to the fleas in his cottage. Basho brought to haiku “the Way of Elegance” (fuga-no-michi), deepened its Zen influence, and approached poetry itself as a way of life (kado, the way of poetry) in the belief that poetry could be a source of enlightenment.

Achieve enlightenment, then return to this world of ordinary humanity.

Do not follow in the footsteps of the old masters, but seek what they sought.

Basho’s poems don’t offer the anecdotes, the sermons, and Zen dialogues  “Zen poetry” so often included.

Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of all creation–mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity–and enjoy the falling blossoms and scattering leaves.

The direct sincerity of Basho’s writings, seen in his spare yet elegant style, functions as an attempt to go right to the heart of things, to see the relationship between core and surface. Finding one’s true nature in the realization of the intrinsic identity of all things is the aesthetic/religious experience of the traditional haiku poet, which he tries to transmit in a poem that approaches in its brevity the timelessness of the experience itself.

Zen is in the world Basho inhabited, including fellow humans, animals, plants, stones, utensils . . . Every form of existence—insentient and sentient—has its individual feelings similar to those of men.

All day in the gray sun
Hollyhocks following sun’s
Invisible road

Yield to the willow
All the loathing, all the desire
Of your heart

Though thin and weak
The chrysanthemum
Inevitably will bud

The title Narrow Road to the Interior reflects Basho’s connection to the heart of things. Beyond the narrow road Basho walked the title also suggests the path of Zen as a practice of experiencing the void of the self at the heart of all experience. And for Basho the journey itself was the destination.

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

The direct sincerity of Basho’s writings, seen in his spare yet elegant style, functions as an attempt to go right to the heart of things, to see the relationship between core and surface, to express things as they are.

What silence!
The voice of the cicada
Penetrates the rocks

And we see Basho’s Zen in his advice for writing poetry:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one–when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural–if the object and yourself are separate–then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit. Submerge yourself into the object until its intrinsic nature becomes apparent, stimulating poetic impulses.

Rather than claim Basho as a Zen poet, Robert Aitken suggests we read Basho’s haiku from the fundamental standpoint of Zen:

Operating superficially, the mind is random in its activity and stale in its insights and images. With practice and experience, however, it is recognized as the empty infinity of the universe and of the self. The person who has become empty infinity and has integrated this experience of emancipation into everyday life finds expression in words and actions that are identifiable in spirit and character. Here lies my conviction that Basho’s haiku are to be read from the fundamental standpoint of Zen. He wrote of dusty roads, bird songs, and cool breezes; of ideas, emotions, and recollections; of folklore, ancient poetry, and Japanese history–playing with these forms and their words in a way that resonates deepest experience.

Japanese Zen Poetry

Coming, going, the waterfowl
Leaves not a trace,
Nor does it need a guide.


I Hate Incense
A master’s handiwork cannot be measured
But still priests wag their tongues explaining the “Way” and babbling about “Zen.”
This old monk has never cared for false piety
And my nose wrinkles at the dark smell of incense before the Buddha.


Dew of the bramble,
sharp white.


In this world of dreams,
dozing off still more;
and again speaking
and dreaming of dreams.
Just let it be.


Invaluable is the Soto Way—
Why be discipline’s slave?
Snapping the golden chain.
Step boldly toward the sunset!


Through night after night
The moon is star-reflected,
Try to find where it has touched,
Point even to the shadow.


The moon’s the same old moon,
The flowers exactly as they were,
Yet I’ve become the thingness
Of all the things I see!


That man’s life is but a dream—
is what we now come to know.
It’s house abandoned,
the garden has become home to butterflies.


Past, present, future: unattainable,
Yet clear as the moteless sky.
Late at night the stool’s cold as iron,
But the moonlit window smells of plum.