Ryokan – the passage of wind in a vast sky

sky above, great wind (Genju 2013)

Reflection on leaving the household

I came to the mountain
to avoid hearing
the sound of waves.
Lonesome now in another way –
wind in the the pine forest.

Ryokan, from Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, Kazuaki Tanahashi

Ryokan is likely my favourite in the imposing genre of Zen Master poets. Kaz Tanahashi offers a delightful exploration of his life and, more delectably, his art. This is a companion book to carry with you and dip into as the moment arises.

There is the simple in Ryokan’s words, a feature that likely gave rise, along with his own demeanor, to the sobriquet of “The Zen Fool.” And perhaps that is fitting because to surrender all manner of contact, comfort, and conventionality would require adopting or cultivating a simple-mindedness about what matters. Like the Divine Fool Nasreddin before him, Ryokan challenges me to re-perceive my life through his subtle teachings.

Falling blossoms.
Blossoms in bloom are also 
falling blossoms.

That preferential mind, holding onto one phase of the continuous flow through life and death. I notice this in every shift from health to illness, that desire for the ease of movement, of the quickness of thought. And he too reveals his own clinging:

Dancing the bon dance,
with a hand towel
I hide my age.

Simplicity of body, speech, and mind reflects a deep self-knowing, an awareness of how we fit in this fleeting world. It’s the honoring of that fit which causes me trouble.

It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
playing alone.

And then in counterpoint, so human, Ryokan reassures me as he writes,

Were there someone
in the world
who feels as I feel,
we would talk all night
in this grass hut.

 Being in world, connecting, becoming open, vulnerable. And all the time, seeking solitude, re-connecting with what matters.

skyabove, great wind (Genju 2013)

If someone asks
about the mind of this monk,
say it is no more than
a passage of wind
in the vast sky.

{Edit: It is with great spacious humour that I admit having mixed up the script for “sky” and “great.” One continuous mistake! These calligraphies are hopefully corrected in the right-minded direction.}

cease seeking

Without desire everything is sufficient.
With seeking myriad things are impoverished
Plain vegetable can soothe hunger.
A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.
Alone I hike with a deer.
Cheerfully I sing with village children.
The stream under the cliff cleanses my ears.
The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.


With each meditation, each moment of engagement with what is, I am becoming more aware of the sensations of desiring.  This occurs to me in a strand of thoughts: when I am content, contact is luxurious.   I take my time getting to know shape, feel, scent, music, colours, and flavour. Plain vegetables suffice in their richness.

When I’m ravenous for contact, there is an urgency that pushes through the sensations, desiring only that the ache of craving be soothed.  The connection is impoverished by theft.

Just this one breath…

just this one breath… is sized perfectly for my heart

Thank you for still practising,


sic transit gloria, she wrote back

More Ryokan.

The moon appears in every season, it is true,
But surely it’s best in fall.
In autumn, the mountains loom and water runs clear.
A brilliant disk floats across the infinite sky,
And there is no sense of light and darkness,
For everything is permeated with its presence.
The boundless sky above, the autumn chill on my face.
I take my precious staff and wander about the hills.
Not a speck of the world’s dust anywhere,
Just the brilliant beams of moonlight.
I hope others, too, are gazing on this moon tonight,
And that it’s illuminating all kinds of people.

zmm main hall

zmm main hall

After reading of Roshi Daido Loori’s retirement, I sent a note to my teacher.  “Don’t get any ideas!” I typed.

“Sic transit gloria,” she wrote back.

Separation anxiety.

Zen Mountain Monastery was my first encounter with hard-nosed Zen.  I fell in love with the rituals – and Daido Loori is all about finding the sacred in the rituals.  When I heard him define liturgy as the language of a community, I knew I had found a precious jewel in his teachings.  My friends call it obsessive-compulsive features of my nature.  So be it.




Everyday rituals connect me to others.  The cup of tea, the favourite songs, the email signoff, the restaurant where we celebrate birthdays, the sweater I always wear when I’m in writing mode – all intricate containers of our commitment to each other.

How is there practice without commitment?

How does that commitment manifest without an embodiment of what is felt internally?

This is the gift of our teachers:  to always be present to us with through the ritual of practice .


<images from Zen Mountain Monastery>

Thank you for practicing,


2 wooden bowls

This treasure was discovered in a bamboo thicket —
I washe
d the bowl in a spring and then mended it.
At night,
it serves me soup or rice.
Cracked, worn, weather-beaten, and misshapen

But still of noble stock.

Our friend Ryokan (Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen poems of Ryokan translated by John Stevens) is the master of voluntary simplicity which the Simple Living Network describes as “living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.”  It is guided by five values, the first of which is material simplicity.  Although it may seem like an advocacy of living in mud huts and eating twigs, it’s really not.  Voluntary simplicity is about seeing that what we have is enough and living in a way that greatly reduces the drain on our resources.

Fall Produce 2

I look around this room and wonder about my choices.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my TV (but really, three in a house with two people?), the computers (ok, we do need two for two working professionals), the cameras (OK, I’ll admit selfishness – I don’t share well), and books (non-negotiable but in my defense many are over 40 years old).  At the same time, the sofa set was the first new sofa we bought in 25 years.  Most of our cars have been 10-15 years old by the time they left for the great trade-in grounds.  The other furniture in the house are legacies of two sets of parents and thrift stores 30 years ago.  Our big exciting splurge last year was a new more efficient wood stove.  And the rocking chair in front of it was my very first furniture purchase in 1974 (and no, it doesn’t need to be fixed; the kitchen table keeps it from falling over).

We recycle, compost, shop carefully, and monitor our vehicle use.  And still, I fall into that rooster-mind of craving.  For months after the last sesshin, I found myself coveting a set of oryoki bowls of my own.  How appropriate that the definition on the Shambhala site of oryoki is “just enough”!  After much rationalizing, I forego the packaged sets on line ($100+fuel costs to get them here) and buy three bamboo bowls and spatula ($40) from a local store, supplementing them with chopsticks from the sangha collection and napkins from the linen closet.  Noble enough stock.

Practice too is like that.  There is a desire for an external rightness: right time, the right mat, the right cushion, the right room, the right atmosphere, the right community.  Ultimately, I think we wish we had the right life so that practice is a natural flow of one perfect moment into another.  And we miss that we already own all of it.

Where you meditate has everything to do with how useful your meditation will be.  But by where, I don’t necessarily mean in which room of the house, or whether you live in a quiet spot or not.  I simply mean that you should meditate inside the life you have.  If you are an accountant, meditate inside an accountant’s life.  If you are a policeman, meditate inside of that.  Wherever you want to illuminate your life, meditate precisely in that spot.  (The Wooden Bowl by Clark Strand)


scattered books

Ryokan was born in 1758 in the province of Echigo near the Sea of Japan.  He became a monk in the Soto Zen lineage and despite having the opportunity to rise to heights, wandered off on a lifetime pilgrimage.  He lived in a mountain hermitage resisting the requests to be abbot or anyone special until he died at the age of 73.  In his lifetime he wrote thousands of poems and created many brushwork paintings.


i sat facing you for hours but you didn’t speak;

then i finally understood the unspoken meaning.

removed from their covers, books lay scattered about;

outside the bamboo screen, rain beats against the plum tree.

Ryokan’s poetry tends to catch me off guard.  I pick up Dewdrops on a lotus leaf expecting he will let me drift like a crumpled leaf in a lazy brook.  Or flipping through the pages, there’s a hope that the old monk will grant illumination to my hidden question like the hexagrams of the I-Ching.

One of these days, he may just do what I ask!


by not-knowing


initial thought by genju

The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;

The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.

The flower opens, the butterfly comes;

The butterfly comes, the flower opens.

I don’t know others,

Others don’t know me.

By not-knowing we follow nature’s course


(Dewdrops on a lotus leaf: Zen poems of Ryokan

transl by John Stevens)