Posts Tagged ‘Ikkyu’

I was talking the other day about the difference between Hermit Zen versus Living Zen, I think I’ll call them. While the latter is about trying to better live our lives in this world, the former is more about escaping the world entirely. After all, one might say, if the world is such a grand scam of an illusion, the best thing one could do is to ignore it and not get caught up.

That’s all on my mind again, and I truly do understand the draw of Hermit Zen. The idea of chucking it all and going to live in the mountains can be very appealing. So much of the philosophical and mystical texts focus on the ‘unreality’ of our reality that it can get to seeming like there’s no point to any of it. So yeah, I do get where Hermit Zenners come from. Except for the fact that the world remains so very fun and beautiful that it’d be a real shame to waste it.

So I’m more of the approach of Ikkyu, our old wild-spirited zen poet friend. He saw the dangers of getting so wrapped up in the idea of enlightenment that you lose sight of the great, fun-filled life of enjoying enlightenment. See through the fleetingness of it all, yeah, but lifting those gloom-tinted glasses shows me not a graveyard of crumbling dust, but a garden of blooming beauty.

So here’s a poem by Ikkyu about a kind of study meditation I can enjoy…

A Fisherman

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

Ikkyu (1394-1481)

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Looking ahead to Sunday’s quote on my Zen Calendar, I saw a quote from Diogenes:

“We are more curious about the meaning of dreams than about things we see when we awake.”
– Diogenes

It struck me with the idea on how easy it can be to get caught up in, well, the “idea of ideas”, epsecially when trying to lead a meaningful life. It helps to be aware of what’s going on inside our heads and the deeper meanings of it all, but that’s all only practical when it is in context of the life we’re actually in.

Same goes for self-denial, needless restrictions, etc. etc. — cutting back and sitting still is an important way to let yourself process what you’ve taken in, but not when it gets to the point that you’re denying yourself the valuable experiences of life. The true meaning of life can only be experienced through truly living.

Our old friend Ikkyu the irreverent Zen monk agrees with me. Here’s his poem reflecting his take on the strict path of self-denial:

Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife.
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen — I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.

– Ikkyu

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Rubes surprised me again today with a pointer to something else that was on my mind, the whole question of of “what’s being enlightened like”:

Rubes 2/27/09

Rubes 2/27/09

This calls to mind our good friend Ikkyu, the iconoclastic Zen monk, who it’s said would go to brothels in black robes because he considered it a religious rite.  Yeah, he was a pretty wild guy.  But he also is considered to have been extremely in touch with what we call “enlightenment”.  So what’s the deal?

I think the deal is that “enlightenment” could be better phrased as “getting to see and understand the gears that make life tick”.  Rather than pursuing this understanding as something that will take you out of the world, many people see it as a way to better live in it.  The way I see it is best summed up in this Zen proverb:

This old rural monk is walking down the road to the stream, a big bundle of clothes slung over his back because it’s his turn to do the laundry.  A guy from the nearby village stops him to chat just a bit.  He’s mystified by the great spiritual work they do at the monastery, and asks him, “What is enlightenment like?”  The old monk slips the big bundle off his back and straightens up with a bit of a stretch and a deep, contented breath at the release of the burden.  The guy sighs too at the thought of it, and then excitedly asks, “Then how about after you’re enlightened? What’s life like then?”  The old monk just picks the laundry up, hoists it onto his back, and starts walking again toward the stream.

Hence the saying, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

To me that is totally the point of “enlightenment”. It’s not this otherwordly sense of disembodiedness from the toils and trials of everyday life, more like an understanding of what it’s all about for you, so the toils and trials aren’t quite so miserable.  Shines a light on the ordinary so you can better see the miraculous in it, and illuminating the miraculous so you can recognize how very everyday it is.   There’s even another saying for that:

“When an ordinary man attains knowledge, he is a sage; when a sage attains understanding, he is an ordinary man.”

Hopefully that makes “enlightenment” sound more like something you can actually reach for, and actually use in your life.  Sometimes it’s a lot easier to figure stuff out if you can get into some kind of hermitage or retreat and disconnect from all the hangups and static noise of daily life.  You know, step back so you can see it all better.  But once you get that understanding, the real work of ‘enlightenment’ is then getting right back into the business of living.

That’s the hard part, going back into situations that were stressful while carrying with you the strong resonance of inner serenity.  Hard as it is though, the world needs it. The books and sages don’t need your light. We do. I think that’s the whole point.

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Like any school of thought, Zen can become pretty dogmatic.  What was once a nice way for some people to try to reach their inner being can be turned into an overly rigid set of structures that help prevent generations of followers from ever learning to be their true, spontaneous selves.  And of course, this has been happening throughout the world for millenia.

Dogmatism breeds more than just stagnation, though.  It also breeds people like Ikkyu, an infamous Zen poet from Japanese history.  His life and work bucked against tradition, expressing joy and mischief as beautifully as possible.  Everywhere he turned, he saw an abundantly lovely world, and he seems to have tried to express that to whomever he could.  It turns out there’s even a cartoon out there about him, as children of course love his irreverence and how it triumphs over the stodgy teachers and shogun.

I think he’d have been great fun to meet.  Barring him actually showing up in person, though, I think he gives us a pretty good insight into what it’s like to be around him through his surviving poetry.  This one pretty well sums up, I think, what it’s like in his world:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma
And endlessly change complicated sutras.
before doing that, though, they should learn
how to read the love letters sent by the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon.

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