Zen Poetics of Ryokan

The following article (by Meng-hu) is reprinted from Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Summer 2006, vol. 4., no. 2 ( Reprinted with permission.

If the only measure of poetry were technique, then the haiku and waka of Ryokan (1758-1831) would not be models. But Ryokan scorned technique. His favorite predecessor was not a formal Japanese scholar-poet but Han-Shan, the Chinese hermit who inscribed his poems on rocks, walls and miscellaneous scraps, and boasted that his technical flaws ("wasp's waist" and "crane's knees") proved that he was neither a poet nor learned. Han-shan summed up ignorant reaction to his work:

When stupid people read my poems,
They don't understand and sneer.
When average people read my poems,
They reflect and say they are deep.
When gifted people read my poems,
They react with full-face grins.

Ryokan, too, disputed the academic version of what was proper poetry, lampooning the monk-poets of his day:

With gaudy words their lines are formed
And further adorned by novel and curious phrases.
Yet if they fail to express what is in their own minds
What is the use, no matter
How many poems they compose!

But he went further than Han-shan.

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!

If we are to learn from Ryokan, who is Japan's most famous and beloved poet, our premises about poetry must shift radically from technique to inspiration.

Zen philosophy

A Zen principle is squarely at work in Ryokan. It parallels Zen advice on meditation. For one does not wait to master the scriptures of Buddhism before starting to meditate, instead practicing right away in order to gain benefit as soon as possible. The benefit of meditation will transform and improve the self before any intellectual work will.

The same principle applies to poetry. Do not wait to master technique before grasping the essence of poetry and starting from there. What is this essence?

For Ryokan, poetry evidences life itself, but not as metaphor, memory, or contrived emotion. Poetry records the non-dual experience of life and consciousness. Ryokan's poetry transcends the distinctions between reflective mind and the objects of the mind’s awareness. As Ryokan says above of the monk-poets, poetry fails if it does not express what is in one's own mind. A poem must evidence the immediacy of thought and emotion, recorded in the fullness of spontaneity.

But a rough draft is not a finished poem. Sloppiness, lack of discipline or frivolousness is not spontaneity -- the spontaneity of the calligrapher's enso, the spontaneity of the archer. The key to Ryokan’s heartfelt poetry is Zen insight.

 As a master calligrapher, Ryokan extended and interwove the visual and disciplinary aspects of this art with his poetry. Ryokan pushes individual creativity to its philosophical limits while fully expressing emotion and feeling, what is "in the mind." Just as in calligraphy, where the experience of emptiness inspires the perfect enso, so, too, is the perfect poem inspired by perfect self-awareness.

For Ryokan, the key is non-dualism.

Illusion and enlightenment? Two sides of a coin.
Universals and particulars? No difference.
All day I read the wordless sutra;
All night not a thought of Zen practice ...

As a hermit and wanderer, Ryokan clung to little, for he saw no differences between himself and all that was around him. His heart was prepared to embrace a moral sensibility: his identification with the bodhisattva way.

When you encounter those who are wicked, unrighteous, foolish, dim-witted, deformed, vicious, chronically ill, lonely, unfortunate, or disabled, you should think: "How can I save them?" And even if there is nothing you can do, at least you must not indulge in feelings of arrogance, superiority, derision, scorn, or abhorrence, but should immediately manifest sympathy and compassion. If you fail to do so, you should feel ashamed and deeply reproach yourself: "How far I have strayed from the Way! How can I betray the old sages? I take these words as an admonition to myself."

This moral sensibility enables Ryokan to withdraw from institutions and social activities, and to disdain social convention and the expectations of others. Nor is Ryokan intent on teaching or admonishing anybody.

The water of the valley stream
Never shouts at the tainted world: "Purify yourself!"
But naturally, as it is,
Shows how it is done.

His mendicancy, eremitism, and poetry are apiece with his view that the world is governed by vanity and ignorance. Ryokan, who was trained as a Zen monk, was imminently able to interweave these threads. Here are some compelling examples:

If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say -- wealth and honor are nothing but dust,
As the evening rain falls, I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer.

The ridicule or praise of worldly people means nothing
This is an old truth; don't think it was discovered recently.
"I want this, I want that"
Is nothing but foolishness.
I'll tell you a secret:
All things are impermanent.

I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning,
Stop chasing after so many things.

Why do you so earnestly seek the truth in distant places?
Look for delusion and truth in the bottom of your own hearts.

Objects and images

Ryokan uses standard Japanese poetic evocations: the cry of autumn cicada, call of the hototogisu, the arrival of twilight over empty fields, the now-filled paths where no visitors will trod to his hut until spring. The poems present a catalog of everyday objects that reflect a realistic or naturalistic element. For the reader, each of the five senses is offered vivid objects, not mere metaphors. The mundane derives meaning from what has been reflected in Ryokan's mind. Here is a set of typical objects and their corresponding senses.


visual river shimmering like silk
trees white with peach blossoms
  fluttering sparrows
flickering fire in a hearth
glimpse of fireflies in the night
books of poetry scattered on the floor
aural monkey cries from a mountaintop
far-off pounding of rice
freezing rain at night
village dogs baying at the moon
  cry of the hototoguisu
frogs chanting in a pond
cry of a deer to its mate
olfactory dried leaves or wood chips burning slowly in a hearth
  fragrance of wild chrysanthemums or plum blossoms
scent of cedar and pine carried by the wind
an empty room filled with incense smoke
  a bowl fragrant from rice of a thousand offerings
taste pure water from a temple well or spring
freshly picked vegetables
basket of fresh mushrooms
seaweed of Nozomi
winter greens
weak tea and thin soup
warm sakè
taros in a pot with salty miso
tactile night air fresh and cool; a cool breeze at the window
old fingers mending a tattered robe
robe moist with dew
tossing a ball with village children
shivering cold in an unheated hut


To make a poem, Ryokan now takes the objects in his mind (as in the above table) and runs them through his philosophical insight. The two aspects are interwoven by the unique personality and skills of the poet. Ryokan's religious sentiments are evident but subtle. His emotional expressions are heartfelt and, however subjective, they point beyond sorrow or loneliness to insight and wisdom.

Thus the poet does not have to tell us, for example, that he is melancholic. He shows us, through the combination of images and insights that reveal the state of his mind.

Sometimes Ryokan is direct in his philosophizing, while the images provide context:

The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away, and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way.

At other times, even the stolid hermit's reflections are melancholic:

I sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves--
A lonely hut, a life of renunciation.
The past has faded, things are no longer remembered.
My sleeve is wet with tears.


If poetry is to breathe vitality, to offer an authentic and passionate voice that is nevertheless insightful and reflective, then Ryokan is a preeminent model. True poetry, like life itself, presents the entirety of what is in the mind and heart.

Charting his personal path, Ryokan's poems mingle with nature's path, so that we, the reader, will come to understand their non-duality.

The village has disappeared in the evening mist
And the path is hard to follow.
Walking through the pines,
I return to my lonely hut.