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Ikkyu
Japanese Poet, Priest - (1394-1481)
Ikkyu is a tremendously important figure in the evolution of world thinking. He understood the beauty of both high and low culture, and he gently celebrated the ironies of life in a series of poems and drawings as he practiced Zen Buddhism in 14th centry Japan.

This is my current favorite Ikkyu poem:

Natural, reckless, correct skill;
Yesterday's clarity is today's stupidity
The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change
One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.

(number 291 in Sonja Arntzen)

At a cash register as a teenager I picked up a copy of Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu a small, slender pocket-sized paperback translated by John Stevens, published by Shambala books (1995 - sadly no longer in print). I was probably incented to buy it because of the sex poems. There's something nicely saucy about sex poems that last five or six hundred years. Ikkyu wrote graphically, straightfowardly, about a woman's vagina as a beautiful, alluring, important place, "the birthplace of all the ten thousand buddhas" and his own penis and the joys that could be found playing in his loincloth.

A Woman's Sex:
It has the original mouth but remains wordless;
It is surrounded by a magnificent mound of hair.
Sentient beings can get completely lost in it
But it is also the birthplace of all the Buddhas of the ten thousand worlds.

A Man's Root:
Eight inches strong, it is my favourite thing;
If I'm alone at night, I embrace it fully -
A beautiful woman hasn't touched it for ages.
Within my fundoshi there is an entire universe!

(A fundoshi is a type of loose-fitting underwear once worn by Japanese men.)

Then as I grew older I read some of the other poems included there. A monk decries incense in the temple - the trapping of spiritual searching without the hard practice. A monk celebrating all pleasures, drinking, whoring, and finding wisdom in the work of a fishmonger.

Admirably worldly and wise, humble and well-travelled. An admirable entertaining fellow this Ikkyu seemed to be.

Ikkyu is a fabled character in Japan. There are stories of him outwitting some kings and priests as a child. These tales were made into an animated TV show. So often, when I tell Japanese folks I like Ikkyu, they think I like him because of some cute cartoons. Having never seen enough of the cartoons to say for sure, I reply that instead I like his poems.

When I first arrived in Japan I went to a book store and bought a thick, expensive tome of Ikkyu's works. It turned out to be nothing but a brick yet, something so serious and dense seeming that Japanese people need a dictionary to pick through it. Ikkyu wrote in classical Chinese, and his poems are thick with references to mountains, heroes, gods, royalty, meals, implements - all the trappings of life in traditional storied China.

In April 2002 realized this entire frame of reference informed the poems I read of his after I found a marvellous book in the Foreign Correspondents' Club Library, last checked out in 1987: Ikkyuu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan Translation, Translation and Introduction by Sonja Arntzen.

odd rock numbers I had that book with me when I visited Kyoto in June that year; I was able to visit his temple at Daitoku-ji, and see the buildings and rock garden he inhabited during his brief sojurn to the soiled city.

There's not much about Ikkyu online, a few translations, some sex poems, some fables. I bought a copy of the Sonja Arntzen book; it was quite expensive!

One zen priestess writes glowingly about him:

One of the characters I want to introduce you to is a wonderful character in the Zen tradition, called Ikkyu, who is one of my longstanding and favourite Zen masters and who appeals, I guess, to the wild woman in me. He was born in 1394 and was an illegitimate son of the emperor Go-komatsu. He was known by some as the emperor of renegades, a wild wandering monk and teacher, sometimes called Crazy Cloud. He was a lover, a poet, and he could write very tenderly about the beauty of women. He relentlessly attacked the hypocrisy of the then corrupt Zen establishment, and even had women as his students. I think he was one of the first Zen masters to have women as students; that was considered quite radical. It was in the brothels and geisha houses that he developed the Red Thread Zen, a notion he borrowed from the old Chinese master Kido and extended to deep and subtle levels of realisation.

From Red Thread Zen: The Tao of Love, Passion, and Sex by Subhana Barzaghi.

Links (June 2002)

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