Late last night, listening to the autumn rain,
recalling my youth —
Was it only a dream? Was I really young once?
As a young man in Japan, Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831) trained as a Zen monk, poet, and calligrapher. After his teacher’s death he began a five-year pilgrimage as an unsui (“like clouds and water”) to study with various Zen masters. Following his father’s suicide a few years later, he returned to his native village, found an empty hermitage (a simple hut) halfway up a mountain, and lived there in relative seclusion for the remaining 34 years of his life. At one point he took the literary name Daigu, “great fool.”
Ryōkan left behind a thousand poems, written in different styles of classical Chinese, haiku, waka, and as folk songs. He frequently came down from the mountain to play with the village children, drink saké with the farmers, or visit his friends. He slept when he wanted to, drank freely, and often joined local dancing parties. He begged for his food and gave away what was extra. “He never preached, but his life radiated purity and joy; he was a living sermon” (p.12). I’m not surprised to discover an affinity with this great fool.
source: Stevens, J. (1988) (trans). One robe, one bowl: the Zen poetry of Ryōkan. New York: Weatherhill. image: Ryōkan by Kawai Gyokudo (1873-1957).